"Students are not just building a house here; they are building their future and that of future generation. It is not just for competition but it is a response to the defining challenge of our century: Climate Change!"
By Rajendra Shende

Just 20 km west of Paris stands a huge icon of French grandoise, the Palace of Versaille. Wealth has been the legacy of Versaille for more than 300 years. It was Louis XIV, in 1682, who made it into his royal seat. The sprawling palace, which took more than 100 years to complete, was and remains a symbol of luxury, opulence, magnificence and splendour.

I must have visited and gone around the palace several times. But when I was there last week, something was different. Not far from the palace, in a place called Solar City, 20 teams of students from engineering and architectural institutes from 17 countries and three continents were building houses and apartments that would get energy only from the Sun. Their efforts are part of the Solar Decathlon Europe (SDE) 2014, organised by energy ministries of the US and France.

Solar Decathlon is linked to the Louis dynasty in totally different but interesting ways. Louis XIV was called the Sun King ('le Roi-Soleil' in French). He conceived his empire, his life and his rule based on God Apollo related to the Sun. All over his empire and in the palace he used symbol of the Sun. Though he never used solar energy for productive use, 20 teams here, however, are working hard to build a house that puts only the Sun's power for all productive use.

Team Shunya, a collaboration of IIT Bombay and Rachana Sansad's Academy of Architecture, is one of these 20 international teams selected for 2014 Solar Decathlon Europe after first level screening in 2013. 'Shunya' (Zero) is meant to reiterate the goal of a zero-energy house. It has become the first team from India to ever be selected in the Solar Decathlon, whose previous participants included MIT, Purdue, Cornell, CMU, TU Darmstadt among others.

Team Shunya is building a sustainable, cost-effective, solar-powered house for the Indian middle class in urban areas. Their house is, in fact, one of the units of an apartment building in Mumbai. It is a house with real life urban situation and shows the way to address India's urban challenges.

As per the guidelines, the house was constructed first in IIT Powai (Mumbai) campus then disassembled and shipped to France where it will be reassembled with the strict time-line. The final phase of the competition will include a two-week exhibition typically with more than 300,000 visitors.

The entire project is a largely student-driven initiative, with faculty members and institute authorities providing guidance in key matters.

It is definitely a different feeling when we build house here in France. We have to crack and comply with European standards. Not same as cracking IIT examination, said Punit Batra, leader of the Team Shunya, a student who has just given his final year B.Tech. exam.

In order to promote sustainable living at an affordable price, Team Shunya has provided for six people to be accommodated in a relatively small area of 700 sq ft.

Why six members? Because we are assuming that 'joint family' concept is going to prevail in urban area in future. The parents of the husband or wife would stay with their son or daughter to take care of their small children when they go for work, said IITian Ankit Chauhan.

Through the use of multi-functional spaces and modular furniture, we have maximised the comfort and functionality in the house, added another IITian, Sanjana Purohit.

The house has 5 kwp (kilowatt peak) solar PV panels. Using an FPC (flat plate collector) system with phase change material, the hot water requirements of the house will be met on the rooftop. Other innovations include a novel solar powered dryer and a smart home energy management system, which will also match the PV generation with grid peaks to minimise the peak load on the grid.

It would also provide the owners the opportunity to control the appliances through a simple application run on their cell phones or tablet devices when they are not at home. These measures will work together to create a net-zero (Shunya) energy house, that supplies more to the grid than it draws.

Passive solar architecture is another central design tenet. With the aim of reducing the requirement for artificial thermal and lighting control as far as possible, the cost can also be brought down.

Scientific principles from Vastu Shastra have also been employed for arriving at the spatial arrangement of various rooms according to the time of the day, highlighted Parth Bhatia from Energy and Environment Departnment of IIT Bombay.

More than 20 business houses have supported Team Shunya. TERRE Policy Center, a sustainable developmental platform operating from Pune and Paris, is a knowledge partner of the team. It has lent support in the form of media outreach and for creating an awareness among the urban residents.

The houses in the competition will be judged on 10 extensive criteria, including architecture; house functioning; engineering and construction; communication and social awareness; energy efficiency; urban design, transportation and affordability; electrical energy balance; sustainability; comfort conditions; and innovation.

The houses will be open for public from June 27-July 14, after which the results would be announced. July 11 will be celebrated in the Solar City as India Day. The Indian embassy in Paris and TERRE Policy Centre has supported and encouraged the students throughout.

Students are not just building a house here; they are building their future and that of future generation. It is not just for competition but it is a response to the defining challenge of our century: Climate Change!

(Rajendra Shende is chairman TERRE Policy Centre and former Director UNEP, France. He can be contacted at [email protected])


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