Team ESTEEM project update

Online Editor

Team ESTEEM is a student team from Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh that’s participating in the world’s largest design and construction competition, the Solar Decathlon Middle East. Here, they provide an update on their story so far…


Working on our adaptable strategy for modern construction solutions to meet the world’s carbon agenda, we manufactured a world-first: a house fully constructed from Scottish-grown and pressed cross laminated timber. A huge collaborative student success of proving the existence and ability for the new industry in the UK, contributing to the development of the local economy.

The students played a key part in all of the processes in designing and working with industry at all stages, introducing over one hundred young professionals to the sustainable benefits of mass timber production and the solutions required to overcome the technical complexity and associations with using timber as a building material. The immense effect of celebrating the positive environmental impact and carbon reduction across social media has spread the message to many thousands more people worldwide.

Designing to the constraints of transportation via containers, the design required flexibility and de-mountability which challenges the wasteful approach of single-use residential properties that ultimately lead to demolition.

Our commitment to reduce embodied carbon is matched with the need to operate a thermally and energy efficient house. Priorities were placed on minimising energy use from manufacture to as-built and continually improving the resilience to the changing climate requirements across both Scotland and Dubai.

The innovation and solution to creating a low carbon design is further aided with the use of recyclable, natural materials such as hemp insulation and wood fibre rigid insulation. These work with the timber structure to create an organic, safe environment for the occupants, free of emissions and VOC’s often associated with alternative materials. We believe this is a key driver for the success of the design solution and the achievement felt by the students constructing this.


The courtyard is integral to the experience of the house as it provides a private outdoor recreational area. Therefore, we had to think creatively to make it a comfortable space. We looked to regions with warmer climates for inspiration as it was evident that conventional air conditioning systems and fans would not be suitable. The Windcatcher is a hallmark of traditional Persian architecture, but it had to be adapted to fit our design philosophy.

When designing our ideal windcatcher, our team reimagined what is usually quite an active, angular structure to one with complex curves and soft edges. Our design incorporates an entirely passive functionality of natural airflow through our concrete model, in alignment with our ethos.

Along with the tower, we designed a conformal bench to close off the courtyard. This is an example of creative integration; the bench follows the curves of the tower while fulfilling the criteria for courtyard privacy.

This design was made possible by using 3D printed concrete, provided by Concreative in Dubai. This manufacturing process is truly at the leading edge of construction.

We therefore achieved a creative outdoor cooling solution that requires no power, has almost negligible running costs and is extremely reliable. Fundamentally, the windcatcher is a creative redesign of an age-old concept to create an outdoor cooling system in harmony with a modern house.


Our house exploits architectural strategies to embrace a balance of open, celebratory community areas and small, focused private spaces. The living room and dining/kitchen area flank the external courtyard, facing each other across retractable triple-glazed doors.

The living room and the dining area benefit from luxurious high ceilings, giving an expansive feeling to these rooms, encouraging gathering and communal engagement. Conversely, the bedroom and study are enclosed spaces, wrapped in the thick CLT walls (both internal partitions and external) providing thermal, acoustic and visual separation for quiet enjoyment and focus.

Reconciling traditional Emirati architecture and its emphasis on privacy with the open-planned character of Western design posed an even greater challenge for the team. Hence we created a hybrid by using the courtyard as a space that divides the two halves, whilst keeping them connected.

The interior design celebrates its engineering: we leave the timber walls visible and tactile where possible and enjoy the aesthetic of revealed services runs and some of our high-tech energy-saving solutions; the HVAC runs above the kitchen, the recycled waste brick wall; the water conservation in the bathroom.

Windows can open, enabling users to decide to welcome in an evening breeze when suitable and to pull hot air from high levels through the house.


To ensure smooth and efficient management of our construction process, we built our own bespoke web-based tracking systems; our talented developers coded internal tools from scratch that allowed us to work smarter. QR code stickers were placed on each panel and scanning them would take you directly to that panel’s page. Members could track and monitor the condition of panels to ensure all knowledge was up to date and centralised. Moreover, the intelligent system aids communication with working with the often-unfamiliar material and/or building methodology.

We also re-made our website from the ground up to be faster and more aligned to the ESTEEM brand. Using React, we’ve built a modular and component-based foundation that allows us to more easily expand upon as things change.


What started as a crazy idea quickly evolved into reality as we took on new members to help create an experience of our house unlike any other. We recreated our house in our own Minecraft world, making it accessible to everyone. It took around 3 months of working out the dimensions – we wanted to make it realistic, but not compromise on the feel – and retexturing the Minecraft assets, pixel by pixel, to show the actual materials that we will be using.


With the Covid-19 pandemic and continuing travel restrictions, we used augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) to bring the ESTEEM house and its experience to everyone around the world. It is a means to showcase and describe the story behind our innovative ideas and solutions to visitors of the house in an engaging and educational way.

To make the experience of using the AR experience seamless, we hosted it on Zappar which eliminated the need for users to download an app before use.

Our creative solution to make VR accessible is to use Mozilla Hubs. It’s web-based and allows several visitors to communicate and discuss amongst themselves during a virtual tour given by a tour guide. It supports VR headsets but doesn’t require one. For visitors who meet us in person, we use the Oculus Quest to showcase the VR experience.

These technologies are instrumental in preserving the hard work that we’ve put into the ESTEEM House, especially to showcase areas that aren’t immediately visible. These experiences will still be accessible even after the competition is over.