An interview with two protagonists of the Smart House project, Europe's first experimental house designed for testing the behaviour of plastics at home: Virginie Delcroix, Director of Research and Development at Bostik in southern Europe and Jean-François Chartrel, Director of Arkema's Applied Technology department.
In what context was this project launched?
Virginie Delcroix: Creating the Smart House was the logical next step in the establishment of Bostik's Research and Development Centre in Compiègne, France, and the company's acquisition by Arkema in 2014.
The in-house laboratory can be considered the common instrument for applied research relating to technological developments of the company most strongly oriented towards the Construction industry and of all its other subsidiaries. Beyond this, it is a collaborative, or even prospective, platform for all partners involved in our innovation strategy.
This synergy is a boon for all parties as it is oriented towards the Construction industry's priorities. This is why we have focused the Research and Development projects to be conducted in the context of the Smart House on four areas: environmental quality, energy efficiency, comfort and health.
How is the Smart House different from a normal house?
V. Delcroix: They have very little in common in terms of design and implementation. The first two steps for building this 160 m² house took respectively 18 months to complete . A relatively long period for planning a construction of this size and a perfectly extraordinary period for building the house. Designing the house was not the most critical area for the architect and the design firm in that we had already drawn up detailed specifications based on our Research and Development priorities.
However, the building's experimental nature created serious difficulties during the construction works. It was sometimes necessary to use unconventional methods in respect of the rules of the art in force in the Construction industry such as installing various electrical systems fulfilling the same function: the photovoltaic systems, for instance, or bonded cladding panels alternating with hanging siding.
The products and solutions had to meet stringent requirements during the installation phase, and it was sometimes necessary to remove them, during the construction works, and to start over.
How then is this building realistic?
Jean-François Chartrel: Not economically, obviously, as its cost far exceeds that of many of the most advanced buildings currently being built. This does not mean that the Smart House is uninhabitable. Disregarding the 200 sensors and other actuators necessary for the simulation which, as an aside, is the main system responsible for the exorbitant extra costs for this 160 m² house - it uses materials, construction systems and home automation appliances that are currently on the market or in late-stage development. And for good reason! We are not aiming to show off the home of the future. We are more concerned with testing Arkema's and its partners' current solutions intended for the home, in different configurations, in order to improve their performance or validate their appropriateness for sale.
This experimental house is therefore perfectly realistic as regards the most stringent requirements in terms of comfort. Although it is inhabited by "ghost" inhabitants made from Altuglass, it functions in a way that truly reflects the needs and activities of a family whose members enter and leave the house several times per day, cook, invite friends, and move around, by changing the temperature, the humidity or the quality of indoor air. Various scenarios were identified in this regard when the Smart House was commissioned. This does not mean that it is future-proof; changes may be made, including the technical solutions that we are testing.
What changes are being considered for the near future?
JF Chartrel : After barely a year of tests on the initial system, we do not have sufficient information with which to draw up a comprehensive report. This is why it is even more difficult to say which will be the next solutions that we will be installing. However, some ideas are emerging. We know, for instance, that photovoltaic production is at around 26 MW since we opened the house a year ago. This does not cover all energy needs given the intervals in production and consumption. This has led us to consider adding, in the future, domestic energy storage systems to the Smart House in order to test the PVDF (polyvinylidene fluoride) Kynar® resins developed by Arkema for the batteries of hybrid and electric vehicles.
In the area of health and the environment, we will undoubtedly soon be experimenting with recycling adhesives and flexible floor coverings intended for hotels and hospitals, where such materials have to be frequently replaced. This is not a major issue in residential homes, but it will be necessary in the long term.
Is the Smart House a showcase for your innovations?
V. Delcroix: This experimental house obviously provides a significant benefit in terms of advertising, but it is only a secondary concern. This can be seen in the people who visit the house. The visitors are mainly researchers, engineers and experts in the field of construction, who work in other branches of the Arkema group; and for its industrial partners, and academics. We also receive visits from investors and officials in charge of urban policy from around the world. And finally, we have marketing and communication professionals.
The Smart House is not actually designed for group visits because of the monitoring system that governs its functioning and the ongoing tests. It is also difficult for non-specialists to understand its functioning.
This is why we created a showroom which acts as the actual showcase for the project and our know-how, and where the solutions and products tested in the Smart House are presented in a more educational manner.