The Solar Decathlon competition for 2017 will be held in October in Denver Colorado. In this international competition student teams are challenged to design, build and operate solar powered, energy efficient, sustainable and attractive houses. We interviewed the Swiss team that will participate in the competition.

How would you describe the Swiss design for the Solar Decathlon in one sentence?

Thanks to our NeighborHub experience, you can reach a whole neighbourhood and learn in a community spirit about sustainable ways of life.

Which schools and universities participate in the team?

The Swiss Team is made up by students from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), the School of Engineering and Architecture of Fribourg (HEIA-FR), the Geneva University of Art and Design (HEAD) and the University of Fribourg (UNIFR).

How did you organize the design process with such a large number of participants and specialities?

Team members were organized in seven working groups, named work packages, with a student manager for each group: Architecture, Engineering, Project Communication, Branding Communication, Partnership Development, Prototype Realization, Management. The work package Management had to ensure the general team coordination, information exchanges, budget tracking and work in close relation with the Solar Decathlon’s organisers. Everyone was aware of the challenge of being such a big team and gave his/her best.

The Solar Decathlon consists of 10 contests: architecture, health and comfort, market potential, appliances, engineering, home life, communications, water, innovation and energy. Which are the three aspects where your design scores exceptionally well?

We worked hard to perform well in the Communication and Architecture contests. Indeed, the NeighborHub has to adapt to a multitude of activities: a Repair space, urban gardening, eco-responsible cooking classes… More than a solar-powered house designed for a family, the project seeks to promote community spirit by offering a neighbourhood house where citizens can learn how to share more and use fewer resources. To sum up, our challenge was to build a house that would become our best communication tool, raise awareness and have an impact far beyond its surface.

About the Energy Contest, we took a bet : the NeighborHub has 29 solar panels that are all installed on its façades only, With this choice, the team demonstrates that it has now become feasible to rely entirely on wall-mounted solar panels. The building produces more than enough energy, even considering the risk of shade in urban environments. We believe that our strategy of concentrating power production on the façades makes us stands out starkly from our competitors.

The closed water cycle is one of the NeighborHub’s strong suits in the competition. We believe our “Every raindrop counts” strategy will help us win the Water Contest. The water used in the NeighborHub can be separated out into various types like for waste recycling. The rainwater collected on the roof is used for some domestic appliances. The waste waste water from these appliances, as well as from showers and sinks, gets used as grey water, which is treated using an on-site phyto-purification process: the water is filtered and purified using a reed bed with different layers of gravel. There is no “black water” from conventional toilets in the NeighborHub, as the building is instead equipped with dry toilets.

What have been the challenges in building the design?

There are several points that have strongly influenced our choice:

US security rules: the PV solar panels had to be UL certified; the integration of residential sprinklers (which are not used for residential building); the operating temperatures (of the fridge for instance that has to stay far colder than in Switzerland); the emergency exits that have to be different than in Switzerland, etc.

The transportation: the module’s dimensions had to enter in containers and the transportation’s extreme conditions, especially when crossing the Atlantic Ocean (humidity, temperatures, violent and perpetual movements, rust…), had a strong impact on the design. The competition rules have influenced the dimensions of the house (height, heated space or not heated space…)

All these challenges have pushed us to go further.

The built design has to be transportable because of the location of the Solar Decathlon in the USA. Did this requirement conflict with your other design goals?

Not really because it was integrated as a key point from the beginning of the design development. We integrated directly the notion of modular construction in order to have a transportable and quickly-assembled house.

Where are the biggest differences between the performance of your design and the current Swiss building requirements?

The fundamental difference is the concept of the NeighborHub itself. Current Swiss building requirements go in the direction of consuming less energy and producing renewable energy on-site. However, our NeighborHub goes further by presenting tools and alternatives about seven driving themes: energy of course but also water management, waste management, mobility food, materials and biodiversity.

What will the design be used for after its return to Switzerland?

The NeighborHub will return to Fribourg at the place where it has been built. It will contribute to the development of this new innovation square in the middle of Fribourg city. The NeighborHub will act there as either an initiator of changes or a space that brings people together to experiment sustainable solutions.

What do you consider the biggest inspiration that the team members get from participating in a project like this?

The team spirit: the collaboration, communication, discussions, development together towards the same objective. Each team member is important and helps reaching our common goal. This team spirit is like a proof for us that together we can build a better future.

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Photo’s: courtesy of Alain Herzog Swiss living challenge

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Science & Technology Today wishes all teams good luck in this exciting competition.