Sustainable smart home app

A mobile app to help people live more sustainably.

Final designs


We built an app as part of Team Virtue, a university team that built a sustainable house for the Solar Decathlon competition in Dubai. The app helps inhabitants of our house to live more sustainably, both environmentally and socially. Through iterations, we focused our designs on educating users about behavior and lifestyle. The app also showed our vision to the competition's jury and visitors whom all responded very positively.

Designer at Team Virtue UX, Interactions, Animations, Front-end dev

Team: 2 designers



The Solar Decathlon Competition

In the Solar Decathlon Middle East competition in Dubai, eighteen university teams from over the world design and build full-size, innovative houses to tackle sustainability problems. Teams are evaluated on ten different aspects. A multidisciplinary team of 50 students from my university developed an apartment called LINQ, throughout a two-year process.

A couple of team members in front of LINQ: the sustainable house that we built in Dubai. A couple of team members in front of LINQ: the sustainable house that we built in Dubai.

The LINQ apartment

Within 60 years, Dubai has grown from a picturesque town to a mega city with almost 3 million people. This brings great challenges, both environmentally and socially. LINQ was developed by the team with this larger picture in mind. LINQ is part of an apartment complex with the same name, located in an existing neighborhood in Dubai, and has a big focus on shared facilities and social interaction. During the competition, one apartment in this complex is built.

LINQ is one apartment in the LINQ apartment complex
The house of the future is not a show building full of robotics and technical gadgets. It is often a compact home that is part of a building in which residents share facilities and spaces.
~ Nathalie de Vries, MVRDV (article in Dutch)

Setting goals

When I joined the team, one team member had already created a basic version of the app. We discussed how we could develop the app in such a way that it would demonstrate the vision of our team to people. We wanted to take the application beyond a regular smart home app and focused on educating people about sustainable behavior and lifestyle. We also wanted to keep the app simple and have a wow-effect: it's part of a competition after all. We made quick sketches as a starting point.

House functioning How can we make sure that people really understand the functioning of their house?

Education How can we positively educate people about their sustainable behavior and influence their lifestyles?

Social LINQ focuses on social interaction and shared facilities. How can we build this into the app?

Control over appliances How can we let people have control over appliances and show monitored energy consumption?


Starting development

We used research conducted by previous team members that focused on personalised feedback to influence sustainable behaviour. Besides, we looked at how other apps show (sustainable) data and appliance controls and we analyzed how other apps inform users and motivate behavior change. We developed our app using ReactJS to be able to scale it to multiple platforms. The API and database layer, necessary to communicate with appliances and sensors, was built by another team. We had bi-weekly meetings to discuss architecture and functionality.

API team meetings

Limitations and constraints

In the meantime, our team tested the real house on the university campus. It was temporarily opened for visitors and we put iPads in the house with a basic prototype of the app based on mock-up data. With the competition deadline coming up, these weeks taught us to set limitations and constraints.

  • LINQ is entirely developed in collaboration with many sponsors. It meant that sensors and smart appliances could arrive later than we hoped for or have compatibility issues. This costed too much time during development, so we removed most appliance controls from the app.
  • Removing these appliance-specific controls made us rethink the application flow and redesign the homescreen and room-screen. Now, we could focus more on the other three goals.
  • We optimized the app for offline usage because we had several moments of unstable WiFi.

Rooms layout

Connecting the app

We went to Dubai were the competition was being held and continued developing the app. Each university team had 15 days to build their house and connect their systems.

User observations

Then, the competition phase started and our house was opened for public and juried tours. During the first days, we were able to fine-tune the application. For instance, we noticed that buttons on the main screen were not clicked often during tours. We redesigned this part.

Finalizing the app


The homescreen

  • The tabbar shows three different views: LINQ (the entire apartment complex), My LINQ (your own apartment), and the District/Neighborhood.
  • Each view shows an animated clickable circle in the middle that indicates if its 'sustainability level' is fine (green) or requires attention (yellow or red), and relevant items at the bottom.

We wanted our app to assist users in living more sustainable lifestyles, but an app full of notifications and advice to live more sustainably would result in a boring list of text and expected actions. We used the three views to inform users and help them understand their house.

  • A click on the colored circle opens an interactive visual view of your apartment, complex or district.
  • The 3D-view shows how the smart system adapts to your energy usage and tips on where improvements can be made.

  • Each item at the bottom can be clicked and shows a quick popup. For example, My LINQ shows info about your house (eg temperature or humidity) while LINQ shows info about shared facilities.
  • An example to encourage social interaction is that residents can indicate if they would like to catch up with people from other apartments.
  • We connected with house sensors and external API's to generate helpful tips. For example, based on weather forecast or sunset times, it tells you if it's effective to do laundry now or to wait for sunnier hours.
Tips about using the shared washing machines
A few pop-ups from the app. LINQ is all about shared facilities, social cohesion and innovation.

The rooms screen

The rooms page shows an overview of all rooms in the house. Each room has a detailed view.

  • Realtime energy usage can be seen per appliance or even per power socket.
  • Graphs allow users to monitor energy usage and identify patterns and peaks across hours, days or months.

Entire apartment usage
Bathroom usage
The homescreen
Opening Ceremony

Feedback & learnings

The feedback on the app was great. Our visitors liked our approach and the jury was very positive. They especially liked the social components of the app. One jury member reported that our team "had used innovative solutions such as an application that would help residents reduce their ecological footprint", while another mentioned an "excellent phone application for management and social interaction."

The Solar Decathlon was a great experience which taught me many things. I gained a lot of experience in project management, teamwork, and dealing with uncertain situations. From a design perspective, it taught me more about persuasive design, smart systems controls, and designing for different cultures, as well as designing and coding everything from scratch.

In the beginning, we wasted a lot of time working on features that didn't work in the end. This project was built entirely from scratch with zero budget and depended heavily on partners and sponsors. We put too much time into designing and developing for appliances and sensors we were hoping for but were not sponsored for in the end. Too much time was lost on binding together appliances from different manufacturers to create a fully functioning app to control appliances. Instead, we should have adjusted our concept earlier.