The house of the future. But then as an architectural tour de force, sustainable and with state-of-the-art building technology. Solar Decathlon Europe is a high-level university construction village. But where is TU Delft?
Campo de Lago, the city park in the west of Madrid, was one of the few places in Spain where building was still going on this September. And some building at that. Trucks and containers came from all corners of Europe to erect eighteen houses in next to no time. They varied from a more or less traditional dacha (a Russian country house), by way of a Japanese house with its own small paddy field, to the visionary Canopea roof terrace that is intended to crown the top of a small apartment block. No lack of imaginative energy here at the ‘Villa Solar’.
Solar Decathlon Europe challenges universities to come up with winning designs in the area of architecture, building technology and sustainability. At the same time it is a look into the houses of the future.
Immense amounts of machinery
The majority of houses were erected at Campo de Lago within a few days. The students and supervisors spent the remainder of the two-week building period installing and adjusting the equipment. If you look into the technical area of these houses, you will see an immense amount of machinery that combines the latest technology in the areas of climate control, energy conservation and solar cells. The houses have been sustainably constructed, produce roughly twice as much electricity as they consume and maintain a pleasant interior climate.
Project manager Dr Sergio Vega, who, five years ago, led the team from the Technical University of Madrid (UPM) in the competition that originated in America, is especially proud of the Smart Grid at Villa Solar. At the previous edition in 2010, the excess amount of solar energy that was generated was channelled into the electricity network. At this edition, it is a smart grid that determines whether it would be more practical to store the solar energy in one’s own batteries and electric cars, or whether the price is favourable enough to sell it to the public network. This is one of the very few places where the public is able to see how something like this works in practice.
At the previous edition in 2010, almost 200,000 people visited Solar Decathlon Europe. However, the event is not only intended to inform the general public about energy-producing houses. The organisers also encourage the exchange of knowledge between teams and specialists, by organising targeted tours for professionals and forum discussions about architecture, building technology, industrialisation, communication, sustainability and energy efficiency. At the end of the previous competition, the organisers published a book in which all the submissions were described in detail, together with the findings of the jury and the performance details during the competition weeks.
When asked about any surprising designs, Vega names the Revolt House, TU Delft's submission: “I found the idea of a floating house that revolves with the sun an interesting new concept.”
The submission of the Danish Technical University DTU stands at the head of the park and attracts attention through its high austere shape and inaccessible grey walls with strange angles. They call it Fold, explains economics student Philippa Taul, because the shape came about while folding sheets of paper. The walls are made of super-insulating layers of the experimental insulation material ‘air wool’ by Rockwool, the main sponsor. The angles and dimensions of the walls have been worked out so that there is no direct sunlight through the windows. This reduces the need for cooling. The solar panels are another special feature, not only because they are embedded in the roof - more and more teams integrate the panels in their design rather than screwing them on afterwards - but they also provide heat in addition to electricity. The DTU students do this by cooling the underside of the solar panels with a liquid. This improves the efficiency of the PV installation and provides a source of heat for the shower. The students are also proud of an inconspicuous central supporting wall of laminated wood that keeps the whole of the slanting construction upright.
“People spend 95 per cent of their time indoors,” says Bálint Bakos, structural engineer of the Hungarian team. This is the reason why the team from the University of Budapest designed a house that entices the occupants out onto the trapezoidal patio between the small winter house and the long summer wall. The summer wall, which closes off the entire length of the patio, is covered on the outer face (southern side) with large glass panels containing 1.9 kWp worth of thin-film solar cells. An outdoor kitchen is installed on the patio side, and inside the wall there is a reservoir of rainwater that is used for cooling and heating the house. The water itself is cooled by allowing it to flow over the solar panels on the roof during the night and then collecting it again. The patio of the sleek black-and-white house has a magnificent view from Villa Solar of the royal palace. In a month's time, the so-called Odoo project will be rebuilt on the university's campus in Budapest.
The French submission Canopea won the competition. Unlike the other teams, the French have not gone for a detached two-person house, but for a communal area for the residents of small flats they call ‘nanotowers’. Their submission is based on the limited amount of space available in Grenoble, and intends to provide residents with an attractive living environment without resorting to detached houses. In a nanotower of eight floors, each floor accommodates an apartment. The upper floor provides a communal area with a washing machine, a summer kitchen and lounge facilities. The green-coloured solar cells in the glass and the breeze through the blinds should reinforce the impression that you are living in the treetops. According to the notes, ‘Canopea combines the experience of the spatial qualities of your own home with living in a densely populated city centre and the feeling of being part of a community.’
“It is appealing for universities to participate here,” argues project manager Sergio Vega. “It enables them to build prototypes of extraordinary buildings, which in turn encourages collaboration between various departments and faculties. It is also a formative experience for students to be able to participate in such an international competition. Moreover, participation is important for the visibility of a university. All the teams are displayed on our website, which is viewed by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.”
But whoever takes a look at the Solar Decathlon website right now will look in vain for a contribution from TU Delft. Apart, that is, from a message of 13 March about the withdrawal of the submission (‘Revolt House se retira’). Last year, a tent version of Revolt House was still a crowd puller at Llowlab, the scientific appendix to the Lowlands Festival in Biddinghuizen in the Netherlands. Barely six months later, the project, which at that time involved more than thirty students from various faculties, was terminated.
Where is TU Delft?
“I found it an incredibly difficult decision,” says dean of the faculty of Architecture Prof. Karin Laglas. “The Revolt House was such a good example that comfort and sustainability are not incompatible. But it was very difficult for the team to get the sponsorship together.”
This is confirmed by PhD candidate Florian Heinzelmann. He was the project leader of the Revolt House from September 2010, under the responsibility of professor of Building Technology Prof. Patrick Teuffel. The total budget amounted to 880,000 euros, says Heinzelmann. At the beginning of this year, when the decision had to be taken on its continuation, only 422,000 had been collected. It is true that large building contractors were interested in the project, but they were afraid to commit themselves to it.
Karin Laglas believes that the current economic crisis had a part to play in it. It made it extremely difficult to get sponsorship together. Last February, a decision had to be taken. “When there was still so much uncertainty hanging over the sponsorship, and after consulting with a number of people, I decided to put an end to it,” says Laglas. She does, however, appreciate what the students had achieved up to then.
When asked whether he understands that decision, Teuffel replies that he would rather have continued. He denies that his departure from TU Delft had something to do with the cancellation. At most, it only accelerated his decision to go to Eindhoven University of Technology.
Tim Hilhorst, Building Technology student, who was involved with the project from the beginning in September 2010, has made an analysis of what went wrong. According to him, it started by having an understrength team at the onset: a single PhD candidate for all the tasks. Teuffel and Heinzelman confirm this. However, they say that this was a condition that they accepted. The intention was that students should take responsibility for all aspects of the project.
But Hilhorst acknowledges that the search for sponsors got under way too late. And, in addition, the relevant networks of well-known professors such as Van Hal, Van Gameren, Van den Dobbelsteen and Patijn were only approached at a late stage (October 2011).
Hilhorst also believes that the project could have been developed better in collaboration with sponsors. This is endorsed by the Danish team in Madrid. It is perhaps taking it a bit far to claim that their Fold submission is a Rockwool demonstration project, but the sponsor was nevertheless clearly able to put its own stamp on it. Others point to the luxurious kitchen in the Italian villa: Villa Solar is of course also a fine sustainable platform for sponsors to present themselves to the world. Capice?
The third European Solar Decathlon will be held in France in 2014. The question is whether TU Delft will also be present. The current project manager Sergio Vega hopes so; he would like to see the revolving house in the flesh. The Delft Energy Club would also like to go and is searching for a professor and students to initiate the project. In any event, Prof. Thijs Asselbergs of the faculty of Architecture recommends finding a location for the house for after the competition: “The campus, a city, a company or a museum. You need a party that commits itself to it.” Tim Hilhorst also considers it possible that TU Delft or a ministry might offer core funding. He has come to understand that this is how most of the other teams work. He found this out when he told the organisers that Revolt House was being withdrawn. They asked at the time: “Have you considered sponsorship?”