Solar Decathlon Middle East

As part of Team Virtue, a university team that participated in the Solar Decathlon Middle East 2018, I designed an app that helps people to live more sustainably, both socially and environmentally.

The Solar Decathlon Competition

In the Solar Decathlon Middle East in Dubai, eighteen university teams from all over the world design and build full-size, innovative houses to tackle sustainability problems. The competition is a collaboration between the United States Department of Energy and the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority. Teams are evaluated on ten different aspects. A team of 50 students from my university created the house called 'LINQ: connected to improve.'

'LINQ: connected to improve': the house we built in Dubai 'LINQ: connected to improve': the house we built in Dubai

Key concepts of LINQ

After I joined the team, I read documents with information and requirements for the competition. I learned why the team developed LINQ and why it is sustainable, innovative, and different from the competition. What's unique in our approach is that LINQ is part of a bigger apartment complex with the same name. Instead of building another neighborhood at the border of Dubai, LINQ is meant to be located in an existing neighborhood. During the competition, we built one apartment in this complex. LINQ is not only designed to tackle environmental sustainability problems; the concept deals with environmental, social and economic sustainability problems that come with Dubai's astonishing growth. For instance, there is a big focus on shared facilities.

LINQ is one apartment of 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)

The design process

Within Team Virtue, I was part of the Smart System sub-team. The team decided to create an app, and one team member had already created a very first version using ReactJS when I started. We shared ideas and discussed how the app would be able to effectively demonstrate the vision of LINQ to every user throughout the competition.

We wanted to take the application far beyond a 'turn your lights on and off'-app and focused on ways to educate people about their behavior and influence their lifestyles. Central aspects are easy-to-understand statistics, fast control over appliances, personalized advice, and social interaction. We made several quick sketches and notes as a starting point.

Drawings

Throughout the development, we had to deal with a lot of uncertainty. LINQ is entirely developed from scratch by students in collaboration with sponsors and partners, and, therefore, aspects important for the app - such as physical appliances, smart system components and sensors - could change up to the very last week. This made the process challenging. To catch up with the deadlines, we built simple user flows and only kept essential and distinctive features.

Flowchart

The API and database layer was built by another team. We had bi-weekly meetings to discuss architecture, functionality, and deadlines. If systems or functionalities in the house changed, we changed the structure of the app accordingly.

API team meetings

One major change was the way we showed appliances. Initially, we had a dedicated page which showed monitored energy usage per appliance and appliance-specific controls. However, because appliances and connections in the house changed frequently, it was very time-consuming to reflect those changes in the app every time. We decided to get rid of appliance controls altogether and changed the interface from per-appliance to per-room.

Rooms layout

Meetings and conversations with team members and other people gave us new ideas and informed our decisions. In the meantime, we built the entire house and its systems on our university campus as a test for Dubai. By assisting the team in building LINQ, I became even more involved in the project and learned how the physical systems and sensors worked.

Building LINQ

Our first deadline was the Dutch Technology Week. LINQ was opened for the public, and it was important for us to show a first version of the app to visitors, partners, and media. We put iPads in the house with a prototype and demonstrated a basic version of the app where people could interact.

After the Dutch Technology Week, we redesigned the home screen of the app. We built three different layers: My LINQ (your own apartment), LINQ (the apartment complex) and the District/Neighborhood. These three views make users not only aware of behavior within their own house but also the behavior of others. For instance, the LINQ view shows you the available shared facilities while the My LINQ view shows information related to your own house. A colored circle quickly indicates if everything is fine (green) or not (yellow or red).

The homescreen

We wanted our app to assist users in living more sustainable lifestyles. However, we realized that an app full of notifications and advice to live more sustainably would result in a boring list of text and expected actions. We thought about a solution and used the three layers to inform users and help them understand their house. A click on the circle opens an interactive view with the interior of your apartment, your complex and district in a visually attractive way. Each view shows easily how the smart system adapts to your energy usage and where improvements can be made.

Visual view View LINQ animation

To encourage social interaction and the use of shared facilities, we added extra components. For instance: a screen where users can confirm if they would like to catch up with people from other apartments, where they can see how many washing machines are available, and more. Additional tips, based on data such as the weather forecast or sunset times, show the user if it is effective to do the laundry now or to wait for more sunny hours.

Tips about using the shared washing machines

LINQ was demounted on the university campus and shipped to Dubai. We continued developing the app with the API and database team to link all systems correctly. This was quite difficult because we were not able to test any features directly in the house. We went to Dubai shortly before the competition started and began building LINQ.

Opening Ceremony

The competition

Each participating team had 15 days to build their entire house and connect their systems. Although personally I don't have a lot of knowledge in engineering & construction, it was cool to experience building a full-size house. However, it was stressful to finish everything on time, and connect all the systems. We worked from early mornings till late evenings.

Building LINQ in Dubai

After finishing the building phase, 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 during public tours, the buttons on the main screen were not clicked very often. We quickly redesigned this part.

Finalizing the app

Learning experience

The Solar Decathlon was a great experience in which I learned many different things. I gained a lot more experience in project management, teamwork and dealing with unforeseen situations. It also taught me more about topics such as persuasive design, smart systems, sustainability and designing for different cultures.

In every step of the design process, I tried to think about our vision and about how we could reflect this in our designs. It was important to show that the concept of LINQ is much more than a smart home. It is about sharing facilities (such as cars, bikes and washing machines), social cohesion and innovation.

A few screens from the app. LINQ is all about shared facilities, social cohesion and innovation. A few screens from the app. LINQ is all about shared facilities, social cohesion and innovation.

Although the feedback on the app was great, I feel it could have been better if we had put more thought into the conceptual process. We wasted a lot of time working on features that in the end didn't work. This Solar Decathlon project was built entirely from scratch with zero budget and depended heavily on partners and sponsors. In the beginning, we put too much energy into thinking, preparing and designing for the appliances and sensors we were hoping for; however, we were not sponsored for these in the end. Moreover, the fact that many students worked part-time made the communication process sometimes tough.

Overall, it was an amazing experience. It was great to see all the teams working so hard on their house and it was really inspiring to visit teams from other countries and learn from their approaches.