Building for the future

TU Delft’s entry for the Solar Decathlon, a worldwide competition on energy-neutral construction held in Paris this summer, secured third prize with an extended terraced house with a through-room.

But outside Europe, the concept of sustainable construction can mean something completely different (Photo: Hans Stakelbeek).

“Welcome to Holland,” says Rianne den Ouden as she greets the group who have assembled in front of the Dutch terraced house in Versailles. The student of architecture escorts the visitors to the living room, where an orange football scarf and photo of a field of tulips leave no doubt about the nationality. This is Holland. The typical Dutch home has been fitted out with authentic items purchased from an online auction site.

“Most of the teams use one or two manufacturers for their outfitting,” explains student Dennis IJsselstijn. The Dutch entry is modelled on his grandfather’s house. “But it is actually the blend of new and second-hand that makes the outfitting appears so realistic. We have hung photographs of the people who sold us their furniture as family photos around the house. It is our way of including the Dutch public in our entry.”

The refurbished terraced house is located between 19 other entries on a site in Versailles, to the south-west of Paris. From 28 June until 14 July, this was the venue for the Solar Decathlon Europe, a sustainable construction competition for university teams. The teams divide their time between welcoming interested members of the public (admission to the event is free) and carrying out tasks set by the judging panel, such as doing the laundry, maintaining a constant temperature of 20 degrees or preparing a meal for six. Sensors have been installed at various places in the house to measure the temperature, humidity and CO2 level. Energy and water consumption is also continuously monitored. The final score is calculated by adding together 10 different categories, ranging from architecture and energy balance to communication.

In the end, the Delft team’s entry “Prêt-à-Loger/Home with a skin” came third, achieving the highest scores for sustainability and communication. The team also scored impressively for energy efficiency, construction management and safety & security.

Dressed in shorts and a Delft blue polo shirt, Rianne den Ouden draws visitors’ attention to the light tubes that enable additional daylight to penetrate the living room from the roof. She then escorts the group outside. At the rear of the house facing south, a glasshouse structure has been fitted with integrated solar cells. This creates pleasant shade on the patio, as well as supplying solar power (maximum of 4.9 kW based on an annual production of 3,750 kWh). On a hot day like today, the vent in the roof is open, enabling air to circulate between the open area at the rear and the ridge of the roof. In winter, the glasshouse structure is closed in order to capture the heat from the sun and convert it by means of a collector and heat pump at the top of the roof into hot water for the shower and central heating. The northern façade and the roof have a layer of insulation 20-cm thick.

As well as providing energy, the single-glazed glasshouse structure also gives the occupants 2.5 m of additional living space. By way of illustration, the students have fitted out the veranda with a dining table, a clothes horse and a wall of fresh garden herbs. As they leave, the enthusiastic visitors are kindly requested to vote for the Delft entry and to ‘like’ it on Facebook.

By opting to renovate an existing house, in this case a replica of the 1960s house in Honselersdijk owned by Dennis IJsselstijn’s grandfather, the Delft team stands out from most other entries, which are new buildings. Professor of Climate Design and Sustainability Andy van den Dobbelsteen (Architecture and the Built Environment) observes: “The sustainability challenge of the future is all about improving existing housing stocks and changing individual behaviour. With this house, of which type there are 1.4 million in the Netherlands, we have demonstrated that we can make an average Dutch or North-West European house energy-neutral. We wanted to show that we can improve quality of life by offering additional comfort and space combined with an attractive, sustainable garden using local materials and plants.”

Alongside the Dutch entry, there are five other plans that involve the renewal of existing buildings: Ontop and Rooftop (Germany), Atlantic Challenge (France), Orchid House (Taiwan) and Casa (Mexico).

Thinking big
The original focus of the construction competition was on energy-neutral housing. That was the aim of the first Solar Decathlon, launched by the American Energy Ministry in 2002. The idea was for university teams to achieve realistic examples of houses with zero energy consumption through the smart application of solar energy. In the ensuing years, the competition spread to Asia and Europe and became a cross between a construction village for students and an Olympic Games for sustainability.

The French appear to relish major challenges and have therefore added a few other global problems to the mix for this version of the SDE (Solar Decathlon Europe). They invited universities to tackle a local problem of particular urgency, which resulted in solutions to such problems as the ageing population, climate change and urban sprawl, as well as natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and floods.

Architect, professor and competition director Pascal Rollet says: “Most teams have focused on energy transition in existing cities in old Europe. For teams from outside Europe, such as Thailand and Chile, sustainability is all about finding solutions to the natural disasters that plague their countries. In countries such as India and Europe, students attempt to find solutions for the rapidly-expanding cities.” Rollet was the supervising professor of the winning team Canopea in the 2012 SDE competition.

South America
From the outside, the Mexican building Casa looks closed off and not particularly attractive. Architect Julio Escandon explains that the team developed light self-build units that people can build on top of their concrete houses in order to call a halt to the incessant urban sprawl. Within the blind, white exterior walls, there hides a network of pathways, rooms and sunken gardens. White fabric sheeting provides valuable shade and also collects water when it rains.

The Mexican students envisage the development of a new community on top of the concrete construction of the suburb of Iztapalapa, featuring roof gardens, shaded communal areas and rainwater collection. “The government is concentrating on construction outside the city, but that is proving ineffective because people then need to spend 3 to 5 hours every day commuting to work. We are equipping the residents themselves with the means for small-scale infilling,” explains Escandon.

Casa Fenix is a Franco-Chilean emergency dwelling that provides refuge in the wake of earthquakes. The front garden is littered with wood debris, a cycle frame and a car tyre as silent witnesses of a tsunami or earthquake. Inside, a student is giving a guided tour. The dwelling is modular in design, with a base unit measuring 12 m2 with a bedroom, toilet and bathroom. Wooden beams with sturdy bolts and bunk beds make it feel like a holiday home or mountain hut.

“The challenge is to make temporary accommodation sustainable,” explains one of the Chilean students. The basic unit can be extended to include a kitchen and a living room. The home is supplied in flat-pack form, just like at IKEA. Energy is provided by 4 kW of solar panels on the roof. Fibre is used to provide cavity-wall insulation and water bottles in the living area serve as a heat buffer during hot days and cold nights. The standard of living is basic, but better than staying under canvas.

“Each team demonstrates key qualities based on the local context,” says Dennis IJsselstijn. “Everyone is focusing on problems in their own environment.” It is the return of commitment in architecture. The notion of commitment dates back to the 1960s and 1970s when Aldo van Eyck and Herman Hertzberger called on committed architects to offer good places for people to live in. The idea was that the built environment should provide security whilst also encouraging interaction by means of attractive communal places and outdoor areas. Classic examples of this include the ESA complex in Noordwijk and the headquarters of Centraal Beheer in Apeldoorn, as well as the Vredenburg music venue in Utrecht, now demolished.

From the 1990s onwards, this softer, human-centred approach made way for extravagance, grand gestures and architectural statements. People had no choice but to adapt to grandiose concrete, steel and glass. If necessary, sound-damping and insulating panels were added later, once the architect had left. However, the crisis of 2008 and beyond put paid to many megalomaniac real-estate dreams.

The new generation of architects currently graduating not only design places for people, but also devise solutions to today’s major issues at the same time. In the Netherlands, these are the ageing population, lifetime adaptability and energy consumption. Elsewhere, the focus is on improving the standard of living in slum areas, flood management or dealing with emergencies.

Back with the Delft team, Andy van den Dobbelsteen believes that what matters most is students’ increased awareness of the challenge of the future: “Creating better solutions for residents by making better use of all the new and existing parts of the built environment.”

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