During its first appearance at the Solar Decathlon Middle East in Dubai in 2018, VIRTUe took sixth place in the total ranking with building concept LINQ. From Dubai to Wuppertal; quite a change indeed, team spokesperson Willem Arts (third-year student of Sustainable Innovation) acknowledges with a smile. Nevertheless, the team gratefully embraced the German town. Not just because this is where international design and building competition Solar Decathlon Europe will reach its climax in June 2022, but also because it serves as a point of departure for VIRTUe’s own concept, with which the team hopes to compete for a place on the podium.
The choice for Wuppertal was made partly based on strategic calculations - as the team quietly hoped it might have a leg up on the competition thanks to the locals on the jury, Arts admits - but on substantive criteria as well, as a result of two visits to the town and conversations with the people of Wuppertal last year (when the corona situation allowed it). Arts: “Wuppertal actually perfectly illustrates the problems in many European cities, with quite some decay and all kinds of recognizable social and technical sticking points.”
This time, the team doesn’t just propose to tackle those challenges with a house, but with a broader concept for entire neighborhood in fact. The concept’s name, ‘ripple,’ refers to small behavioral changes VIRTUe aims for, which will hopefully spread from neighbor to neighbor one way or another. “We can only truly make a difference once people collectively decide to reduce their energy, water and product consumption. And that starts with how designers of buildings, homes and streets think.”
VIRTUe’s way of thinking is centered around an apartment complex, which is easily adaptable to a specific city or location and can be realized within an existing urban environment, according to Arts. With this concept, the team doesn’t aim for one, all-embracing innovative item. Arts: “On the contrary, we decided to bring many, very simple things together. Think of awnings that move automatically to keep house temperature at a constant level. Or think of smart ways to deal with generated solar energy. By combining different systems in an apartment, you can anticipate the solar panel’s peak moments when production is highest, and turn on the washing machine during the day instead of in the evening.”
Optimizing the energy balance, incidentally, certainly isn’t a new idea, Arts hastens to say. He specifically points to the added value of VIRTUe’s self-developed smart display EQUI (see photo above), which is connected to machines inside and outside the house, sets positive goals, and issues advice in the field of sustainability. It can, for example, schedule to turn on the dishwasher of washing machine when there is much solar energy, based on weather forecasts. “A machine can give advice and motive you, by telling you that even though you planned to do the laundry tonight, it would be better to do it at noon because that’s when it expects there to be more sunshine.”
Sharing and inspiring
VIRTUe is also thinking of ways to make people share their sustainable activities, and to let them collaborate with each other and inspire each other. Either through an online social platform, such as an app where people can share the sustainable targets that were met, or through physical, social contact, “for example in public spaces where neighbors can take sustainable initiatives together. One of the things we focus on specifically is urban farming, where you can grow crops together in a building or a public space, for example.”
VIRTUe will actually build part of its concept in Wuppertal in June 2022, just like the other seventeen participating teams. The team needs to finish the demonstration house in a mere two weeks’ time, which will be quite a challenge, Arts says. And so, a couple of trial runs won’t hurt. This is why the team also plans to build its house on the TU/e campus next year and show it to the press and the public (see image above). “We hope that we will able to bring some assembled parts with us to Wuppertal in 2022, so that we won’t need to put back every screw again when we get there.”
The students from Eindhoven hope that they can leave their demonstration house behind in Germany after the final round of the competition; the organizing committee of the Solar Decathlon is going to select eight houses that will be allowed to remain intact and to function as a hostel.
Arts hopes that his team of 44 members, which by this point no longer includes TU/e students alone but a few Fontys students as well, will in any event end up in the top three in Wuppertal next year. Although beating the competition or winning a handsome sum of money isn’t what matters most to him at all. “The best thing about the competition is that it makes innovations and sustainable living more visible. In the end, we all believe that something should be done about Co2 emissions, particularly about the industry’s role. This competition allows us the share our vision on that, both with experts and the public.”