The Swiss students who went to Denver to compete in this year’s Solar Decathlon are living out their dream. The jury will announce the winner on 14 October.
For three weeks now, some 40 Swiss students have been in Colorado for the Solar Decathlon, an international competition organized every two years by the US Department of Energy. Universities from around the globe compete against each other to design and build a functional and innovative solar-powered house. It’s a decathlon, so there are ten categories to compete in: architecture, market potential, engineering, communications, innovation, water, health and comfort, appliances, home life, and finally, energy. The team that earns the most points wins the competition. The first results will start coming in on 12 October, and the winner will be announced two days later.
The Swiss project, called NeighborHub, is a neighborhood house built by students from EPFL, the School of Engineering and Architecture of Fribourg, the Geneva School of Art and Design, and the University of Fribourg. There are now just a few days left before this three-year-long adventure comes to an end, and the tension, fatigue and excitement building among the students near Denver Airport, where the competition is being held, is palpable.
“Who put away the bar for closing the facades? Can someone give the mechanical room a wipedown? Where are those gold flat-head screws? We need Benoît’s arms…and his raincoat! Has anyone seen my green shoes? Pizza party at 1pm @site or @hotel. Muddy day… AGAIN!” Reading through the Swiss team’s WhatsApp group messages shows just how difficult their mission is: they have to organize the on-site teams day and night, manage the ups and downs of extreme weather conditions, sort out meals, and buy urgent supplies on the other side of town. And those are just a few of their many tasks.
The competition’s tight construction schedule leaves little room for error. So everything has to work like Swiss clockwork, even though the young students are not used to the vast open spaces of Colorado. In the event of a crisis, however, there are six experienced supervisors on hand, some of whom have been helping out since the start of the project and who have already been involved in other pioneering initiatives, such as the Alinghi sailing team and the Solar Impulse plane.
Rainy and cold
Over the nine days the team had to build NeighborHub, they were on site every morning at 7 o’clock sharp. This Swiss punctuality, which drew the attention of the organizers, meant the team managed to finish building their house on time. Their Swiss precision was also on display when they assembled their solar house. Other teams arrived on site with a house in two or three parts. NeighborHub, however, crossed the Atlantic in a dozen containers, and the students had to rebuild this complex puzzle piece by piece, despite the heavy rain and biting cold. For the students, who on some days arrived back at their hotel rooms exhausted and covered from head to foot in mud, the construction phase was almost certainly one of the greatest challenges of this entire experience.
Original and radical
Once they finished building their house, the students got to check out the other ten projects. The engineering students, most of whom are from EPFL, went from house to house inspecting their competitors’ mechanical rooms with curiosity, while the architecture students were more interested in aspects such as space, light and ambiance. By viewing the other projects, the Swiss Solar Decathletes realized just how original and radical their project is. Their ten competitors all put solar panels on the roof, while the Swiss team integrated photovoltaic and thermal solar panels into NeighborHub’s structure by installing them on the facade. This unique approach cannot go unnoticed: day and night, these shiny panels make NeighborHub stand out from the other houses. What’s more, the Swiss project is an educational neighborhood center designed to provide information and advice on the environment – it is not an individual home, which is what the other teams opted for.
Already a victory
And what do people think about NeighborHub? “We weren’t sure whether the American public would like our project, but the people who visited the house during the construction phase and the public viewings were really curious about and interested in our concept. We’re very proud that NeighborHub has gotten such positive feedback,” says Samuel Cotture, the Swiss team’s leader and recent EPFL graduate in mechanical engineering. Nobody dares speculate about who will win, because all the projects are unique (see box). But Cotture is unconcerned: “Just being here in Denver and presenting the house we’ve been dreaming of for all these years to the Americans is a victory in itself.” Simply taking part in Solar Decathlon was no mean feat: out of the 16 candidates, only 11 teams were able to get the backing and sponsors needed to make their project work.
A number of hurdles still await the Swiss team before the competition is over: they have to make sure the hot water and the household appliances are working to show that the house is functional, and they have to organize a games evening and drive the electrical car that goes with the house 45km every day. So the Swiss team’s WhatsApp group won’t be going quiet anytime soon.
As their final task, the students have to conduct guided tours for the general public every day up until the end of the competition on 15 October. People can also visit the exhibitions that have been organized on the theme of solar-powered houses. Through Solar Decathlon, the US Department of Energy seeks to demonstrate the potential of solar energy to its citizens and raise their awareness of sustainable living. NeighborHub has been a dream come true for around 250 Swiss students, who have in some way been involved in the adventure over the last three years. But will it be enough to win over the jury? We’ll find out in just a few days.