Is This 'Olympic Games' Solar House the Future of Architecture?

By That's Shanghai, August 18, 2022

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Zhangjiakou, one of the three main 2022 Winter Olympics events sites, is also host to another 'Olympic game' – one that has united students internationally in a quest for clean-energy solutions.

A house designed by student and staff teams from universities in China and the US that demonstrates cutting-edge sustainable design and architecture techniques is on display in the Chinese city, along with 14 more units modelling green methods.

International university teams competing in the US Department of Energy's biennial worldwide Solar Decathlon competition – dubbed "the Olympic Games in the solar energy and green building industry" – collaborated on the houses' designs.

The multidisciplinary Y-Team, led by Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) and composed of partners from Philadelphia in the US and Suzhou, Haining and Beijing in China, created this fully solar-powered, sustainable house.

Y-Team house construction workers in Zhangjiakou build living green wall and frames for outer membrane that will regulate the temperature, capture solar energy and bring in daylight.

It features relatively low-carbon construction materials such as engineered bamboo; a living green wall and roof area for insulation and air filtration; an interactive workspace using architectural surfaces as a user interface; a solarium equipped for indoor gardening; integrated semi-transparent photovoltaics and other energy-saving strategies.

The team designed the house to be potentially marketable, accessible, comfortable and convenient besides sustainable.

The small house demonstrates concepts that can scale up and could impact the building industry, says team member Xi Chen, a PhD student in architecture at XJTLU who has worked onsite throughout the construction.

At the Solar Decathlon China's mid-term evaluation, the interdisciplinary Y-Team's house was in second place among the finalists on display in Zhangjiakou.

The main structure, the interiors, and the furniture are mostly made of bamboo. Y-Project interior rendering.

According to Y-Team members, cross-national efforts offer a big plus for projects requiring creativity and innovation – like new design methods that might help save the planet.

“People from different countries have various strengths in their professional fields,” Chen says. “Working together promotes an information interchange and makes it possible to test techniques under different contexts and scenarios.”

On the other side of the globe, team member Olivia Birritteri, a 2021 graduate from Thomas Jefferson University's Bachelor of Architecture programme in Philadelphia, adds:

“The exposure to new technologies and ways of thinking that expand problem-solving abilities is an advantage.”

The Y-Team's house pushes the limits of what the students thought possible, Birritteri says.

“We took an initial concept that at first did not seem plausible and then rapidly prototyped and tested our ideas until we could make them real. That was exciting.”

Because of pandemic travel restrictions, the Y-Team's US and Chinese students have never met in person. As a result, their house demonstrates more than sustainable techniques. It's also an example of successful long-distance collaboration. 

Problems take longer to solve remotely than they might otherwise,” Chen says. “However, regular and on-time updates of any changes really help.”

Regular communication is key to successful remote projects, team members say.

“During the main construction period, we constantly had meetings and video chats with our collaborators, sponsors and suppliers,” Chen says.

The Y-Team includes students, faculty and experts from XJTLU, Suzhou; Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia; the Zhejiang University-University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Institute (ZJU-UIUC Institute), Haining; the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR ), Beijing; and the Suzhou Institute of Nano-Tech and Nano-Bionics (SINANO). Team members are from 12 different nationalities and academic disciplines including architecture, industrial design, urban planning, engineering, business and communications.

Other finalist teams in the Solar Decathlon China with demonstration houses in Zhangjiakou include universities from Poland, France, Norway, Australia, the UK, Denmark, Switzerland and Germany, besides China.

XJTLU's Schools represented on the Y-Team are the Design School, International Business School Suzhou, School of Advanced Technology, and School of Intelligent Manufacturing Ecosystem.

The 2022 Winter Olympics are being held from 4-20 February. Olympic Games to be held in Zhangjiakou include biathlon, snowboard, cross-country skiing, ski jumping, and other ski events.

By Tamara Kaup. Additional reporting by Catherine Diamond.

[All images courtesy of XJTLU]

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