Building on the Future with Gert van Vugt

By JUDITH HARMSEN

UCU Alumnus Gert van Vugt is an entrepreneur in heart and soul. In 2014 he started the sustainable building company Sustainer Homes, with which he designs the dream houses that may save our future. We sat down in Utrecht’s very own demo Sustainer on jaarbeursplein for a little chat.

You graduated UCU in December 2011, what did you do afterwards?

“After UCU I first did an internship and then went to the London School of Economics to do my masters in sociology. It was really cool, really theoretical and really intense. It was awesome, but I was completely done with academia in the end.”

“I decided to just start doing things that I thought were important, hoping I could eventually gain an income from it”

And then?

“I had always been interested the future of technology and its impact on social life, but also the impact of social life on the development of technology.  After my intense master I wanted to do something practical, but it was a really tough time to enter the labour market at the height of the crisis. Everywhere in the social policy world or other governmental institutions there was a complete hiring stop, so it was very difficult as a sociologist to get an income. I decided to just start doing things that I thought were important, hoping I could eventually gain an income from it. I started a think tank and some small side businesses. One of them was a solar panel installation business, which I started together with Wolf, my best friend since high school. With the think tank we explored the possibilities of the basic income, while at the same time running the solar panel installation company. One day I was on the roof with Wolf, in my climbing suit, when we learned that these houses were really not equipped at all to deal with sustainable energy sources like solar panels. No thought about the energy consumption of the house had gone into its design, even in the newly built structures. We started thinking: wouldn’t it be cool if we could design a house where we integrate the comfort you want and all the systems you need to survive, and through that actually create a basic income in a technological way?

As you can imagine, for a former sociologist and solar panel installer this was an amazing idea to actually try. Together with another former UC student Jacintha Baas, my partner and a really smart architect, we set up Sustainer Homes. We entered a business accelerator, got some basic funding and built our prototype in three months. We were able to enter the market as the youngest and most disruptive building company.”

“There was a UCU saying at the time that said: ‘You can have an academic life, you can have a social life and you can sleep, but you can only pick two of the three.'”

Was this the career you imagined when you were at UCU?

“I remember thinking that I was not going to work at a regular company and I really liked entrepreneurship. During my time at UCU I already started a couple of different initiatives and organizations. I was in ASIC (ASC’s predecessor) and I set up the Kleine Consultant. I knew that I was an entrepreneur of some kind, but to end up in the building industry, I would not have seen that coming.”   

Many current UCU students experience it as a challenge to balance the competitive academic climate with an intense social life. Was that pressure to be good at both already present when you studied at UCU?

“Yes, definitely. I remember we wrote episodes of Super Sticky Surfaces about this. There was a UCU saying at the time that said: ‘You can have an academic life, you can have a social life and you can sleep, but you can only pick two of the three.’”

Do you have advice for people of how to cope with that?

“Sometimes while studying you are very output oriented and you want to achieve results. It might be tempting to do the same in your free time. For example, you want to participate in the musical, spend as little time on it as possible and still rock the show. Or you are on a sports team, but you still want to be the best. I think the challenge is to not have these two avenues where you try to maximize the output of your time, but to also have one avenue of your life where you just do things for their own sake not for some external measure. That’s why I liked the bar a lot, because if there is one thing that is unproductive it is drinking. It’s not just a waste of time now, it is also a waste of time the day after, but it kept me sane I think. I would say: let go sometimes and don’t forget to enjoy the things you’re doing! Although there is a lot of pressure at UC, there are also a lot of opportunities. If you end up looking back at a time where you have only thought about achieving some goal are you really going to be happy about it? Sure, you should spend half of your time on preparing for the future and doing well, but the other half you should spend on being in the moment and realizing the fact that you are in an extremely privileged position. UCU is a frickin’ awesome place to be! If you don’t stop to appreciate that, you are missing out.”

Sustainer Homes is often looking for interns and Gert loves working with UCU Students, if you’re curious to know more, check out sustainerhomes.nl!

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