When the Solar Decathlon Middle East — an international competition where teams have to design, build and operate a grid-connected solar-powered house — got underway in Dubai late last year, it unveiled a new way to live and build. Fifteen teams from 28 universities across 11 countries came together to build sustainable homes of the future. Adopting cutting-edge smart technologies, 100 per cent reliance on renewable power, and aiming for optimal energy and water efficiency, participating teams assembled fully functional high-performance homes that combined design excellence and market potential on the vast expanse of the Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park at Seih Al-Dahal, around 50km south of Dubai.
Two years of research, planning and translating classroom theory into reality resulted in the setting up of 15 solar-powered homes assembled within a set deadline and which offered an alternative to traditional homebuilding methods and usage of materials. These well-designed spaces, adapted to the climatic conditions of the Middle East, captured the imagination with their endless possibilities and was a telling sign that how we live is bound to change in the coming years.
Challenging the status quo in every design and construction aspect, these self-sufficient and environment-friendly homes incorporated elements that included moveable walls to better utilise space, homes with green vegetal roofs, aquaponic systems, super insulated building shells that conserve energy, innovative water treatment and recovery systems, and more.
Building a house with a purpose
University teams from UAE, Palestine and France collaborated to create Baitykool, a multi-family housing unit for extremely hot climates. While achieving net zero energy was the prime driving factor for the competing teams, the students at University of Wollongong Australia, University of Wollongong in Dubai and TAFE NSW took their design sensibilities a notch higher by taking up the challenge of building a house that would also serve a social need. Says Professor Tim McCarthy, faculty advisor for Team UOW Australia-Dubai: ‘The goal was to build a house with a purpose’.
Two factors shaped their thinking and research: what kind of house is going to be needed in the future and what kind of house is needed now?
As almost 25 per cent of the population are above the age of 65 in Australia, the students decided to build a house that would improve quality of life for those living with dementia and other age-related disabilities by adapting to occupants’ needs as they age. ‘The UAE has a relatively young population,’ says Prof Tim. ‘But demographics show that by 2050, it will have caught up with Australia. Internationally, dementia affects around 50 million people and studies indicate that 1 in 3 people will live with dementia or Alzheimer’s in their lifetime or will have to care for someone living with the disease.’
Named ‘Desert Rose’ after a flower that flourishes in challenging environments, this prototype house has been designed as a state-of-the-art home incorporating features that enable it to adapt to possible future needs resulting from age-related disabilities. For instance, all doorways, hallways and rooms are wide enough to accommodate a person with a wheelchair or walking frame. Innovations developed at UOW’s Sustainable Buildings Research Centre made a significant impact on the design while students gathered inputs from local aged care providers and the Dementia Training Australia group.
‘This dementia-friendly project was also co-designed with people living with brain degeneration diseases,’ explains Prof Tim. ‘Students have come up with innovative solutions by asking questions like: What is making life difficult for you? And how can we use technology to redesign to make those things easier for you?’
Starting with the entryway to the home, the ramp that takes you inside the house has a 1:14 slope which uses 20 per cent less energy than the standard 1:12 slopes found elsewhere, including in the UAE. ‘The recommended 1:12 gradient for wheelchair ramps is based on the needs of a healthy — but immobile — 65-year-old on a wheelchair. At 1:14, even older and physically weak individuals can use the ramp independently.’
Transitions between rooms are smooth to accommodate wheelchairs, scooters and walkers and also to eliminate trip hazards for those who are infirm or have poor vision. ‘There are no steps anywhere. So, if you have a mobility scooter, you can drive it all the way through — from garage to the kitchen,’ says Prof Tim.
A key aspect of designing a dementia-friendly home, adds Prof Tim, is to bear in mind that when a person starts to lose memory, he/she may tend to get lost in their own home; they may forget where things are. ‘Desert Rose house therefore operates on the line of sight principle to guide occupants to each room. For instance, from the dining room, you can see the kitchen, the bedroom and the bathroom. These visual cues enable a person living with dementia to engage in necessary daily activities. Line of sight from the bed to the toilet is critical as research confirms that people living with advanced dementia who can see the toilet when they wake up are up to eight times more likely to use the washroom. This simple design element ensures that occupants can navigate their homes with greater ease and independence.’
In the kitchen and bathrooms, taps are easy to turn on and off, offering least resistance, especially for those with arthritis. Taps also change colour to indicate water temperature — providing yet another visual cue. The maximum temperature can also be controlled for each fixture to prevent scalding. When left unattended, taps are programmed to turn off after a certain time frame — benefiting especially those with poor short-term memory.
In bedrooms, windows are triple glazed to improve insulation levels and will open when the temperature is right outside, while built-in cupboards are wheelchair-friendly and shelves can be accessed easily from a sitting position. In the kitchen too, the sink can be lowered — if required at a later stage — to meet the needs of a wheel chair-bound occupant.
The use of contrasting tones of colour throughout the house helps those with sight loss and dementia to define objects in each room more clearly, says Prof Tim. ‘In the kitchen, for instance, colour contrasts make the edges of cabinets more visible and identifiable.’
Smart technology leads the way
Yet another important dementia-friendly feature of the house are sensors that monitor activity without being intrusive, points out Prof Tim. ‘Thanks to smart technology, special sensors can detect for instance, how much water has been used or if the taps were not turned on at all during the day. Any deviation from the normal patterns of activity therefore acts as a trigger for the caregiver to check on the occupant.’
For two years since October 2016, more than 200 students — including 45 who travelled to Dubai — worked on bringing the idea of Desert Rose to fruition. This included students from every faculty of the university. As part of a multidisciplinary team, students learnt not only engineering but also gained insights into aged care and dementia care, says Prof Tim. ‘They have also come to understand that an engineering solution is not always simple — you can’t choose something just because it is proven technology; it must work, and it must have a purpose.’
To avoid expensive retrofit charges in later years, strong points have been located in the wall frames of the bedroom, bathroom and other places for railings while the bedroom ceiling can connect a hoist to get in and out of bed should the need arise.
With its concrete outer wall made with 20 per cent recycled glass powder replacing carbon dioxide intensive cement — serving both as a shading element and for absorbing solar heat — and with its biophilic design that reconnects occupants to the natural world, Desert Rose demonstrates that homes can be both sustainable and modern whilst encompassing the changing needs of an ageing population.
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Apartment living was given a sustainable twist and designed as an epicenter of social activity by the Dutch student team from Eindhoven University of Technology in Netherlands. Team VIRTUe, as they are called, aims to connect people and technologies with LINQ, an urban apartment concept that encourages social interaction.
Team VIRTUe believes that environmental sustainability should not be viewed on its own. Instead, sustainable development must holistically account for economic and social aspects as well, as these form the three pillars of sustainability.
According to Simone tax, an Urban Design student, the idea of creating an apartment complex stemmed following a visit to Dubai by her fellow university students two years ago to study the city in preparation for their participation at the Solar Decathlon. ‘We realised that the city had witnessed a massive spurt of growth in just a short span of time, and the resulting urban sprawl had spread toward the edges of the city.’ They felt it was important for people to interact better with each other and the community.
Hence, the VIRTUe team came up with the idea of showcasing an apartment complex that would provide ample scope for shared spaces and social facilities. ‘The core idea behind LINQ,’ she explains, ‘is to connect people to each other and connect people to innovative, smart technologies to enhance a sustainable mode of living.’
All the apartments in LINQ are designed around structural core modules that link sustainable technologies to each other to improve efficiency, explains Mohamed Tantawi, a Building Physics student. ‘An easy-to-use smart system connects all the inhabitants to these technologies, which not only monitors each apartment’s water and energy use but also gives suggestions to the user on ways to improve efficiency practices.’
Running on a net-zero solar energy system, the shape of the building ensures minimum energy loss, he adds. ‘The roof and south façade are tilted 15 degrees to provide for roofed PV panel efficiency and to create a shadowed south façade in summer.’
The living spaces inside the apartment are compactly designed as inhabitants can use the communal spaces including a playroom, small theatre, laundry room and a shared kitchen, adds Simone. ‘A lush green atrium connects different floors and serves as a meeting place and vertical garden for the residents of the complex. This green wall system uses little water and also has cooling capabilities.’
The Romanian team’s versatile EFdeN house with a protective layer of vegetation has convertible living spaces, modular furnishings and smart systems.
US-based Virginia Tech Team offered a glimpse of the future with FutureHAUS, a plug-and-play module where all the house’s components are pre-manufactured and pre-fabricated allowing for faster building, better quality control and construction safety.
By drawing public attention to the potential benefits of latest technologies and materials in energy-efficient design, smart home solutions, water conservation measures and sustainable buildings, the first edition of Solar Decathlon Middle East served as a learning experience as it successfully showcased how zero net energy homes could be both livable and attractive.
Synergy of Ecosystems
By making use of local materials, energy sources and social and human capital in the UAE, Heriot-Watt University, Dubai, conceived of and designed the ORA house to achieve their goals of sustainability and energy efficiency.
ORA is an innovative housing prototype that stands for three ecosystems, explains Shameel Muhammed, assistant professor at the School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society at Heriot-Watt Dubai. ‘ORA stands for organic — comprising of all passive design strategies and systems; resilient — bringing together all active systems that work together to provide an efficient comfort condition for the inhabitants; and adaptive — reflecting the multicultural and diverse lifestyle that prevails in the UAE.’
A key challenge for the Middle East, he adds, ‘is to effectively bring down the cooling load of an enclosed space. ORA’s strategy to tackle this is an adaptation of the traditional wind towers of desert architecture — The Hybrid Barjeel. Unlike the traditional version, the wind tower used in ORA is laid horizontal facing the prevailing wind direction in the region. The incident wind enters the long horizontal duct through a sand trap, facilitating the removal of dust particles, and is then made to pass through an interior green wall. Thus, besides improving air quality, it also lowers the temperature by around 4-5 degrees.’
ORA’s team included students studying different disciplines. ‘The synergy of the team was able to design a cohesive ecosystem that addressed the engineering and construction, adaptability, resilience, food sustainability and water management,’ says Shameel.
However, what has been the biggest takeaway for the ORA team from participation in the Solar Decathlon ‘is the entire journey and the end experience of building the house,’ he adds. ‘A highlight of the competition is that it not only demands innovative design approaches, but also challenges the team to build and prove its performance. For our students to be part of such a challenge is a key learning experience that extends beyond conventional teaching. ‘The learning achieved in such platforms at a very early stage of their university education has the potential of drastically improving their career path.’
What is the Solar Decathlon?
Dubbed the “energy Olympics”, the Solar Decathlon is a biennial, international competition created by the US Department of Energy that encourages university students from around the globe to design, build and operate an affordable and architecturally beautiful, net-zero energy house. Last year, Dubai hosted the first Middle East edition of the event as a partnership between the Dubai Supreme Council of Energy, Dubai Electricity & Water Authority (Dewa) and the US Department of Energy. University teams had to build a grid-connected solar home suited to the climatic conditions of the region. The teams were judged on 10 criteria. The next Solar Decathlon is scheduled in Dubai in 2020 to coincide with the Dubai Expo.