In October, the American University of Ras al-Khaimah’s (AURAK’s) plans for a net zero-energy house were accepted into the Solar Decathlon Middle East competition, being held in Dubai from 2018. The university now has to plan its entry.

Drawing on local traditions, approaches and products is an important aspect of the project and from early in its planning, AURAK has said it wants to work with regional industry partners to develop the home, in which people must be able to live.

Central goals to Solar Decathlon Middle East 2018

  • To promote the benefits and opportunities of renewable energy, energy management and sustainable construction, and encourage innovative approaches by students to these
  • To encourage industries to use materials and systems that reduce the environmental impact of their buildings
  • To promote responsible energy use, renewable energy and energy efficiency
  • To promote architecturally attractive solar power system integration
  • To demonstrate that high-performance solar homes can be comfortable, attractive and affordable

Ambitions for the design include that it draws on traditional architectural techniques. This is as much a cultural issue as it is an issue around clean energy. Approaches the university is keen on seeing the student-designed house adopt include traditional wind catchers, courtyards and the use of sun-breakers to help cool the home and reduce the amount of energy required from air conditioning.

It is hoped that in the long term, local manufacturers and real estate developers will use some of these approaches. The university wants students to work with local industry and consider off-the-shelf products and materials for the house that are designed to be both sustainable and cope with the region’s weather conditions.

Localisation is an important sustainability issue. High transport miles during a product’s production and distribution almost certainly come with high carbon and aerosol emissions. While localisation will reduce transport miles and make communication simpler, it does not mean a product can be automatically classed as more sustainably produced. Other considerations include the manufacturing processes, for instance the fuel type that supplied the energy or the disposal methods employed for industrial water.

If a product has accumulated a high carbon footprint to reach its destination, then effectively what a country or region is doing is creating pollution elsewhere, such as its place of manufacture and the countries from which the raw materials come.

Levels of sustainability are unique to a country and this is evident in the types of products used in this region. An air conditioning system developed for a European country for instance will not necessarily be designed to cope with the extended hours of use required in the GCC, or the levels of dust in the atmosphere.

Within the net zero-energy house project, AURAK has said it will continue to conduct long-term, in-the-field product testing to ensure the components are fit for the region. While imported systems and equipment have been tested in weather conditions local to their origin, performance can be vastly different once operating in the region’s harsh weather conditions.

AURAK has taken on the challenge of focusing on local materials in its net zero-energy house. By working with local manufacturers, the university hopes to ensure any materials used perform well in harsh conditions and that if changes are needed, it can work closely with the company, accelerating design, development and innovation.

MEED will be following the design and construction of AURAK’s entry for Solar Decathlon over the course of the competition, providing regular updates on progress.