Students show ‘homegrown’ ingenuity in competition with Scottish CLT

Students show ‘homegrown’ ingenuity in competition with Scottish CLT


A team of students from Herriot Watt University are building innovative prefabricated homes from CLT panels made with Scottish timber, as they seek to compete on the world stage in September.

Team Esteem are the only UK based team amongst 11 entrants to the Solar Decathlon Middle East (SDME) 2021 Challenge. With 120 students from Edinburgh and Dubai’s campus from the academic disciplines of Architectural Engineering, Civil/Structural Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science, Data Science, Marketing & Business Management, Urban Planning and Construction Project Management the team have high hopes and a good chance of winning the worldwide university challenge to design, build and operate a solar powered house.

Team Esteem’s wall and roof sections are all plant based, as called for by Joe Giddings last week in his article for the Architects Journal. The Scottish CLT structure manufactured by the students from home-grown Sitks spruce at Construction Scotland Innovation Centre is wrapped in cassette panels consisting of OSB, I-joists, woodfibre board and hemp insulation from the new Scottish start up IndiNature, and attached by specialized clips from Rothoblaas UK. A breather membrane, timber battens and an as yet undefined cladding complete the exterior.

SDME 2021 challenges the student teams to focus on seven interrelated pillars: Sustainability, Future, Innovation, Clean Energy, Mobility, Smart Solutions, and Happiness.


The houses developed by the participant teams must show a clear understanding of sustainability in the built environment. The design, materials, systems, and components should have a very low environmental impact during its whole life cycle. Additionally, the houses should provide healthy and comfortable spaces, and meet all the needs of their occupants, with a minimum consumption of energy and water. The study of the local environment, the bioclimatic architecture, and the passive design strategies are good starting points.


SDME 2021 shares the Dubai Government’s commitment to accelerate the future. In the competition, bright young minds will work together to transform the current and future built environment challenges into great opportunities to generate breakthrough solutions. The teams shall evaluate innovative technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, 3D printing, the Internet of Things, and biomimicry, and implement in their projects the ones that assist in making their houses most sustainable, efficient and comfortable.


SDME 2021 is an excellent platform to test and display materials, components, equipment, and systems developed or improved by the participant universities, or by their research and industrial partners. Innovation will be embedded in all areas of the project. The teams shall adapt or look for new solutions to respond to the SDME 2021 challenges, the extreme heat, achieving high efficiency, smart energy management, low embodied energy, clean energy production, water conservation, and occupant comfort. These creative solutions can include responsive skins, adaptive facades, advanced glazing system, 3D printing, novel solar technologies, AI, smart systems, solar cooling, and energy storage, among others.

Clean Energy

The houses must be net zero energy buildings. They must also be very-high energy efficiency solar houses that can connect to the grid and generate enough energy to compensate its demand, including an electric vehicle. While it is essential for the designs to ensure the renewable energy supply, it is even more important to limit the energy consumption. Therefore, passive design strategies and energy efficiency are key elements. The seamless integration of photovoltaic and solar thermal systems into the building envelope is also necessary.


The teams must also address the question of energy coupling between the energy-plus buildings and electric transportation systems. The SDME projects must prove that they can produce enough energy to cover the demand of both the house and the electric vehicle. SDME is not a competition for electric vehicles but a testing ground for innovative solutions merging community design, housing and sustainable transportation in a holistic approach.

Smart Solutions

The SDME 2021 projects will incorporate smart technologies that offer wise energy management and increase the energy efficiency, safety, and comfort of the occupants. The smart solutions shall interconnect each house’s systems and use information technology to optimise its overall performance. These solutions must include user-friendly interphases and dashboards.


The teams must design the houses for people and make them happy. They need to think about how to make owners happy, creating comfortable and pleasant living spaces. The views, the sunlight, the interior-exterior relation, as well as the indoor environment quality (IEQ), are just some of the aspects that need to be considered. The house systems and technologies must be user-friendly, and must give the occupants the ability to override any programmed action. Teams are encouraged to implement technologies that teach, give suggestions or help the people reduce their energy and water consumption.


Team Esteem’s place in the final of the Solar Decathlon Middle East 2020 competition was announced in October 2019 at the World Green Economy Summit in Dubai.

The competition, which was created by the US Department of Energy, brings together universities from all over the world to design, build and operate a grid-connected, solar powered house. The house will be part of Word Expo 2020, which was delayed until 2021 and kicks off on the 1 October with 25 million visitors over a six-month period.


Solar Decathlon is an intensive learning experience for contestants as they grapple with the latest technologies and materials in energy-efficient design, clean energy technologies, smart home solutions, water conservation measures, electric vehicles, and high-performance buildings. The first phase sees the students research, design and enter the challenge. The second phase sees the chosen finalists raise funding and sponsorship as well as and constructing their design before organising delivery to Dubai. During the final phase of the competition, the teams assemble their houses in an expo area, open them to the general public, while undergoing 10 different challenges, the reason why this initiative is called a decathlon!

The 10 challenges: architecture; engineering and construction; energy management; energy efficiency; comfort conditions; functionality; transport; sustainability communication; innovation – plus each team needs to adapt their designs to the heat, dust and high humidity experienced in the Middle East.

There will be winners in each of the challenges in addition to the overall competition winners and there are three different ways to earn points: Jury evaluation, Task completion, and Monitored performance.


The core team has over 120 student members, which are divided into a number of sub-teams, each taking responsibility for the development of a particular aspect of the project. The team meets collectively on a weekly basis to share progress, discuss challenges and agree on next steps. Having multidisciplinary team members allows the team to move forward with design decisions that consider various perspectives, creating solutions that are not only the most energy efficient and optimal for its context, but also ensure comfort, happiness and inclusivity for future occupants.

Onsite learning – UK Timber

Alex MacLaren, Associate Professor in Architecture at Edinburgh’s Herriot Watt University visited the SDME 2018 while at Herriot Watt’s Dubai campus and started the ball rolling. “Constructing the prototype at the Edinburgh campus is an adventure all of itself. This is the first time this Scottish mass timber, using this system, and with these innovative materials and systems, has ever been constructed. The students have done the drawings, placed the orders, then helped in the factory to manufacture but only now, as it takes shape in 3D, is that really becoming a reality. The construction phase in Scotland has engaged more than 30 students from across multiple disciplines and levels of study; and from locals fitting in shifts between their summer jobs, to overseas students here to learn.

“The student team has made the impossible possible during the pandemic; and we are now seeing the fruits of their labour. I am so proud to be working with these young professionals.”

Chloe Chandler, a third-year MEng Structural Engineering student, took part in the factory work at Construction Scotland Innovation Centre, and also on site at the university: “Team ESTEEM has given me the confidence to explore real world solutions for problems and challenges in the built environment, overall promoting extra-curricular development and confidence.”

Ellie Witton, who heads up the Structural Engineering sub-team comments: “Involvement in building the prototype has provided an on-site experience overcoming challenges while seeing the design come to life. This is incredibly rewarding, as most structural engineers specialise in either design or site engineering, however, within this project I have now experienced both. Constructing the prototype allows us to assess site operations more realistically and establish any issues with the structural shell ahead of the competition in Dubai.”

Onsite learning – Dubai

On 30 August the prototype prefabricated building will be deconstructed and loaded into six shipping containers to head to Dubai for the final stage of the challenge. The student construction team will have 2 weeks to assemble and complete their home in full view of the World Expo visitors. This is followed by 2 days of challenges.

Sonia Piorek, who has completed her BEng in Architectural Engineering, was the former student lead and now team advisor spoke to me about the challenge. “The depth and breadth of learning is immense and so hard to express. As a team we have collaborated to overcome so many challenges whilst learning about materials, their impact and even manufacturing them ourselves. Our final challenge is to complete the build in Dubai and we are still looking for support and sponsorship whether it’s a few pounds or a few thousand. Every little helps!”


If you would like to support Team Esteem personally visit their crowd funding campaign page. If you are interested in sponsorship either financial or product contact Sonia via phone 07526848964 or email – they are finalizing their cladding solution this week.

Further information via the new podcastYouTube video, or the Team Esteem website.

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