American University of Cairo
Inspired by the aesthetics of Egypt’s antique mashrabiya screens and a desire to help create a greener Egypt, a group of mechanical engineering students at The American University in Cairo (AUC) will present to the world their innovative solution to address household energy inefficiencies. As part of the Sustainable Living Interactive Design (SLIDES), program, students are challenged to design and complete construction of an energy-efficient house for a major international competition, the Solar Decathlon, taking place this summer in Madrid, Spain.
The Mechanical Engineering club, the innovators behind AUC’s design, wasn’t immediately drawn to the SLIDES competition. Rather, the team’s first project was a Formula SAE - style car. The car, “Flavio,” which was eventually entered into the “Made in Egypt” competition, occupied the team’s time during the first few years. “Then in the summer of 2009, after “Flavio” was complete, one of the students who was in one of our first meetings in 2007, where we had discussed the Solar Decathalon, remembered the competition and mentioned it to me," explains Lamyaa El Gabry, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and faculty advisor of the student group. “This student, Mariam Gobriel, was really motivated to enter the competition and wasn’t deterred by the difficulty of the task. She came to my house with two others: a construction engineering graduate and another friend to begin discussions. We realized that more students from more specialties would be needed for the project," said El Gabry. “As the team grew, the project became more and more developed. “
With specialization achieved, the team still realized that they were lacking in knowledge of the competition itself. A recent graduate was able to attend the competition in 2010 to get first-hand knowledge of the competition and strategies. “We would Skype with her [the student] as a team and ask her to report what was happening; which ideas were working and which weren’t," said El Gabry.
More secure with their newfound knowledge of the competition the team submitted their proposal to the 2011 competition. “We got through Round One of the selection process but were not selected in the Final round of the 2011 Solar Decathlon in Washington, DC, said El Gabry. Undeterred, the team resubmitted their proposal the next year for the 2012 Solar Decathlon Europe in Madrid were chosen as one of twenty teams worldwide selected to compete.
The selected proposal draws inspiration from a number of sources. The house is designed like a “matchbox,” with a sliding front to open and close the house. The idea for the sliding entrance was then fused with the idea for screens that surround the exterior. The design, which intentionally mimics the aesthetics of a mashrabiya screen, evokes the Egyptian design influence. The screen, says El Gabry, “takes the ancient Egyptian façade of interlocking rocks and the arabesque use of the mashrabiya as a screen and brings both to the 21st century in a modern and slick look.“
El Gabry is cautiously optimistic despite looming challenges. “The biggest challenge right now is funding and finding a sponsor. This is the thing that keeps us up at night. Last year, three teams failed to make it to the finish line only two months before the competition because they didn’t have money,” she recounts. “There were some businesses that were initially interested in sponsoring the team during the proposal phase in 2010 but, citing financial instability in Egypt, have backed out."
Additionally, technical and logistical challenges abound. The team must figure out how to build the house, but then deconstruct it to ship it to Spain. Once there, the team will have only nine days to reassemble it and connect to the grid to start the contest.
El Gabry says she is proud of what the team has accomplished. “It’s been fun to see this project take form, from a proposal to a model and, soon enough, to an actual full-scale house. The transformation is really rewarding to bear witness to. It’s also great to be working with a truly interdisciplinary team.”