Students Build a Futuristic Solar-Powered Home

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Dry toilets with worms that treat waste. Capability to breed and eat fish. Wall panels that warm water. These are among innovative attributes of a prototype home designed by Switzerland students that helped them win the 2017 U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon.
 
The Swiss Team—comprised of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, School of Engineering and Architecture of Fribourg, Geneva University of Art and Design, and the University of Fribourg—took first place overall in the decathlon by designing, building, and operating a prototype house that best blended smart energy production with innovation, market potential, and energy and water efficiency.
 
Eleven collegiate teams across the globe competed in 10 contests from Oct. 5-15 in Denver, Colorado, exhibiting their designs that took almost two years of preparation to professional juries and the general public. They performed everyday tasks including cooking, laundry and washing dishes, which tested the energy efficiency of each house. Teams consisted of students from difference academic disciplines—including engineering, architecture, interior design, business, marketing and communications—to design, build, furnish and decorate the houses, as well as to raise funds.
 
Each contest is worth 100 points for a grand total of 1,000 points. Awarded 873 total points, the Swiss Team won first place in six out of the 10 competitions (architecture, health & comfort, engineering, home life, water and energy). It earned a perfect score of 100 points in the architecture, water and engineering contests, and won $300,000 for taking first place overall.
 
Samuel Cotture, student manager of the Swiss team project for the U.S. Solar Decathlon, says homeowners realistically can use the design elements of NeighborHub to reduce their energy and water use, and save money.
 
“The different features in our house aims to raise awareness about more sustainable low-tech and high-tech solutions,” Cotture says. “The house encourages ‘learning by doing’ and is a showcase for users and companies on how to better consume and reduce energy and water use.”
 
Idea to Design
Swiss Team’s project, NeighborHub, is more than a house. NeighborHub will serve as a shared space to demonstrate innovative sustainability strategies and collaborate on renewable energy, water management, waste management, as well as mobility, food, and material choices, and biodiversity. Part of the team’s $300,000 winnings was used to reassemble NeighborHub in the urban center of Fribourg, one of Switzerland’s “energy cities.” The hope is that those who may be initially indifferent to the project will witness its benefits and be inspired to participate, according to the NeighborHub website.
 
NeighborHub’s innovative features include laminated veneer lumber for the house and furniture, allowing small trees to be converted into larger planks; multifunctional spaces that easily change from a dining space for a community meal to a conference room for educational workshops to a bike-repair shop or local market; active solar electric photovoltaics wall panels collect heat from the sun to warm the water and space; a green roof that collects storm water and grows food; two vertical greenhouses; and also a zero-water “dry” toilet uses worms to treat and recycle waste.
 
Challenge to Triumph
With many academic disciplines in the mix, the Swiss Team was able to achieve consensus on different design elements by splitting the team in seven different work groups: architecture, engineering, communication, branding, partnership, construction, and management. Each work group was managed by one or two students, Cotture says, and each idea was discussed within a group and took into account all the different aspects of the project. “When dealing with differences of opinion, the team always tried to find the optimal solution for everyone, keeping in mind the feasibility and time aspects,” he adds.
 
The team involved itself in all stages and processes of the project. For example, some students earned licenses for driving a forklift, boom lift and other construction machines, Cotture says. “Our house was built mainly by students with the supervision of construction coaches,” he says.
 
Partners who helped defray the costs to build NeighborHub provided more than financial support. They gave students advice and short training sessions, Cotture says. Often, apprentices joined the team for few days to help with the construction and provide guidance.
 
Being a team overseas competing in a U.S. event presented the biggest challenges. Swiss Team students had to design a home that could be shipped in 40-foot containers, which required splitting the house in many small prefabricated elements that the team needed to assemble within nine days onsite. In addition, the house needed to conform to U.S. electrical standards and appeal to a U.S. housing market. In some instances, communications had to be prepared in three languages—French, English, and German. 
 
“Our team came up with a different concept by proposing a house as a community service, rather than a family home,” Cotture says. “Most members of the jury appreciated the boldness of the concept. And the public onsite were very receptive about our concept.”

Heather Swink is an independent writer based in Barrington, IL.
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