Managing an eco-friendly house with Lego-like technology bricks

Jean-Charles Fosse and Johann Bigler during construction of the NeighborHub in the hall of blue FACTORY in Fribourg© Jessica Ruffieux/Flavia Viscardi

Jean-Charles Fosse and Johann Bigler during construction of the NeighborHub in the hall of blue FACTORY in Fribourg© Jessica Ruffieux/Flavia Viscardi

Thanks to startup ThinkEE’s modular system – which consists of technology bricks linking various connected devices – data from a host of sensors can be collected regardless of the sensors’ protocols. It can also be used to control the devices in real time from a single interface. The system recently underwent pre-market testing in the NeighborHub eco-friendly house, which will be Switzerland’s entry in the international Solar Decathlon competition.

As part of the Solar Decathlon challenge, EPFL-born startup ThinkEE has created a smart ecosystem to control the house – dubbed NeighborHub – that Switzerland will present at the competition in Denver this fall. The ecosystem includes sensors for measuring things like air temperature, humidity and power consumption, as well as a battery. The sensors will be located throughout the wooden house in order to minimize its energy usage. The system is designed to collect data from all the sensors and compile it onto a single platform, making it easier to monitor and manage the house’s devices.

One of the ten criteria on which houses entered in the competition will be judged is smart energy use. The houses must also run entirely on solar power. “One challenge we faced was how to connect the various objects in the home, given that the environment was constantly changing – we had to adapt to the project schedule and deadlines,” said Jean-Charles Fosse, one of the founders of ThinkEE. “The information we obtain from the data will be available to the home’s occupants and visitors, but with different access rights.” The startup’s system will be unveiled to the public in the blueFACTORY innovation district in Fribourg, Switzerland, on 10 June, as part of NeighborHub’s open-door day.

Just nine days for assembly

Another big challenge will be assembling the wooden house in Denver in just nine days. NeighborHub is the result of a cross-disciplinary project carried out by four universities in French-speaking Switzerland.* It has already been set up in blueFACTORY; now the team is busy testing the last features. It will be taken down just after the open-door day and shipped to Denver. While the house is making its way across the Atlantic, the ThinkEE engineers will tweak the interface and use the data collected to improve their system’s algorithms.

The Solar Decathlon competition is a great opportunity for ThinkEE to test its modular system under real-world conditions. The system’s core innovation is its design based on a central technology brick to which other technology bricks can be attached as needed. That required overcoming a major obstacle – the multitude of different computer languages, or protocols, used by various devices. Getting them all to communicate seamlessly can be a long and tedious task.

Today’s large companies can afford the programming required for different protocols to be able to communicate; they typically carry out that work in-house. But it’s out of the reach of small businesses which lack the resources to implement web 4.0 technology. The advantage of the system developed by ThinkEE’s two founders – Fosse and Johann Bigler – is that it can be tailored to the needs of small firms. Their Lego-like architecture consists of modules that fit together depending on the number of devices involved, how they are connected and what computer language they use. ThinkEE’s system also stores the collected data in a well-structured way so that users can easily find the information they need. It includes an encryption-based data protection system that allows for limited, secure access.

The system has a wealth of potential applications in the internet of things. For example, it could be used to control the air temperature and humidity around a valuable painting right from a smartphone, monitor the start-up of a machine from home or instantly generate a graph of a sensor’s yield. That would save users significant time since they wouldn’t have to make a trip on-site. The system can also indicate whether devices are on or off and show how much power they are using – all in real time. What’s more, users can program when certain devices should run and for how long.

ThinkEE’s founders were working together on a semester project at EPFL when they ran into a dilemma. The website they had developed at the time worked well, but it couldn’t connect different devices because the devices couldn’t be consolidated in a single application. That’s how they came up with the idea for their startup. With the help of an Innogrant, they finalized their business plan in 2016 and will soon market their system. “We are currently working on a single interface that facilities managers can use to monitor their building complex and make the right decisions,” said Bigler.

*EPFL, School of Engineering and Architecture of Fribourg, Switzerland (HEIA-FR), University of Fribourg (UNIFR) and Geneva School of Art and Design (HEAD Genève)

The NeighborHub open-door day will be held on Saturday, 10 June from 10am to 5pm in the blueFACTORY district in Fribourg, Switzerland. For more information, visit