10.03.17 - Switzerland is taking part in the Solar Decathlon 2017, an international solar construction competition between universities organized by the U.S. Department of Energy. The Swiss Team’s competition entry is NeighborHub, a space for initiating social and environmental change. Banking firm Landolt & Cie is the project’s second Diamond Partner.

The Solar Decathlon was established as an international competition between universities in the United States in 2002. The goal is to design and build a home powered only by solar power in the space of 18 months. Indeed, the Swiss Team has been preparing for the Solar Decathlon 2017 since 2015. This year’s event will take place in Denver, Colorado from October 5-15th. The Swiss Team is made up of around 50 students from four higher education institutions: the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), the School of Engineering and Architecture Fribourg (HEIA-FR / HES-SO), the Geneva University of Art and Design (HEAD / HES-SO) and the University of Fribourg (UNIFR) united under the banner of the Swiss Living Challenge.

A multifunctional space...

The Swiss team has designed an instigator of change, a neighborhood house that can be integrated into various urban settings. The aim of NeighborHub, as it is called, is to bring neighbors together, working with them on more energy-efficient solutions. There are seven issues to consider: energy, mobility, choice of materials, biodiversity, food, waste management and water management. Visitors can get advice and take part in interactive events and discussions on these seven themes. NeighborHub’s architectural design includes a large multifunctional space to facilitate these various interactions.

...that speaks to you

Inside NeighborHub there is a temperate zone, the skin, with a heated space, the core, in the middle. These two areas are divided into four modules: an equipment room, a kitchen, a bathroom with a separate dry toilet and a private space with a bedroom. In this shared dwelling, not only the walls but also the furniture and other surfaces speak, as it were, to the building’s occupants by means of printed text and a system of signage devised specially for a shared space. ‘We came up with some catchy phrases to tell visitors about NeighborHub’s features so that they can settle in quickly,’ explains Flavia Viscardi, the student in charge of communication in the building. ‘To complete the house’s vibrant and informative visuals, we’ve used color coding and illustrations.’

Sunshine and plants for the building envelope

In line with the Solar Decathlon’s competition rules, solar panels have been installed on NeighborHub’s exterior surfaces, providing 100% of its power. Contrary to common practice, however, these panels are not fixed to the roof; instead, you’ll find the solar and thermal panels on the building’s façades and doors. The external surface consists of photovoltaic cells, together with opaque polycarbonate panels and transparent acrylic panes. ‘The unit also has vertical greenhouses, and an aquaponic system for growing fruit and vegetables with a fish tank below,’ adds Axelle Marchon, the student in charge of coordinating the architectural team.

A closed water cycle

The roof of the building is partly covered by plant matter, and rainwater is collected in the middle. The water used in the NeighborHub can be separated out into various types – much like for waste recycling. The rainwater collected on the roof is used for some domestic appliances, as its low mineral content minimizes scaling. The waste water from these appliances, as well as from showers and sinks, gets used as grey water, which is treated using a phyto-purification process: the water is filtered and purified using a reed bed with different layers of gravel. There is no ‘black water’ from conventional toilets in NeighborHub, as the building is instead equipped with dry toilets. ‘The compost we get from them will provide nutrients for the crops that are grown around the NeighborHub and on the roof, thus completing the circle,’ explains Camilla Wiseman, who, together with her student colleagues, designed the entire water system.

Timber rooms shipped across the ocean

The international nature of the Solar Decathlon competition means the project is subject to an extremely tight timetable. After the building has been constructed, it will be disassembled and must then be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean before reaching the competition venue. This journey cuts down the time allocation for the only two teams based in Europe. This crucial logistical factor was taken into account from the start of the project, however, and so the NeighborHub is made up of modules whose dimensions are suitable for the containers in which they will be shipped. These modules are made entirely out of wood, which is light and has a positive carbon balance. ‘Once the prefabricated modules arrive at the competition venue in Denver, Colorado, they will be assembled, a bit like a Lego house,’ says Matias Cesari, the student in charge of the building site.

A house like no other

As a competition, the Solar Decathlon has focused on traditional dwelling models, featuring a single family home with a car, with various proposed energy and environmental solutions. The competition criteria and rules were therefore devised from this perspective. But are detached houses really in keeping with today’s social and environmental imperatives? ‘NeighborHub not only satisfies the Solar Decathlon criteria, it boldly presents an alternative way of living on a neighborhood scale, that is both collective and environmentally friendly,’ explains Marilyne Andersen, Dean of EPFL’s School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC) and the Faculty Advisor of the project.

Solid long-term diamond partners

The Swiss Living Challenge project could not have made it out of the classrooms without the considerable support of its partners, who provided not just their financial backing but also their expertise. The Town of Fribourg is now among the group of institutional partners. The bank Landolt & Cie has been a loyal supporter of the project from the very beginning, in keeping with its traditional stance of encouraging Swiss innovation and environmental protection. Landolt is a privileged partner of the EPFL, having worked with it for many years and funded a professorship there. It was therefore only natural for the bank to intensify its commitment to become a Diamond Partner alongside Groupe E, which has been following the project with great enthusiasm and has contributed its own expertise.

Groupe E provided technical support throughout all of the project phases. It assigned apprentices to assist students with the initial design, execution diagrams and final installation. Company specialists also provided students with suggestions on the best renewable energy sources, electrical installations, heating, home automation and building envelope.

The NeighborHub can be freely visited during an Open Doors day on June 10th, 2017.

A list of all Swiss Living Challenge partners and more information can be found here:

Authors:Clarisse Aeschlimann, Alexandra WaltherSource:Mediacom