FutureHAUS takes smart technology to the next level

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FutureHAUS will be on display at 2602 Main Line Blvd. until Aug. 16. (Photo Credit: Erik Thorsen)
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By Missy Schrott | [email protected] 

While its Innovation Campus isn’t slated to be completed for another 10 years, Virginia Tech is already showcasing its talents in Potomac Yard.

FutureHAUS, an award-winning solar home designed by Virginia Tech students and faculty, is on display in Alexandria this summer. The 900-square-foot home aims to embody futuristic home building and living practices through sustainable energy, easy assembly and smart technology.

Through its solar panels, FutureHAUS generates more energy than it needs to operate. (Photo Credit: Erik Thorsen)

Temporarily located at 2602 Main Line Blvd., the house will be on display and offering tours until Aug. 16. It is based near the site of the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus, the 1-million-square-foot graduate campus that is coming to Alexandria as part of the deal that attracted Amazon’s second headquarters to the region.

Virginia Tech built the house for the 2018 Solar Decathlon Middle East, an energy competition in Dubai that attracted 60 entrants from around the world. Not only was Virginia Tech the only American team selected to compete, it won first place in the overall competition, in addition to placing in each of the 10 decathlon categories.

More than 100 Virginia Tech students and faculty members have contributed to the project’s research and development over the years.

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“The idea the of this house has been in development for seven or eight years or so,” Matthew Erwin, the project’s lead engineer and a recent Virginia Tech graduate, said. “But what it always was in the past was stand-alone pieces. Like, one year, the team before me would make ‘the kitchen of the future’ and showcase that around, and then the other year they would make ‘the bathroom of the future.’ With this house, we actually made it so they could all come together now.”

It took a core group of about 25 students and staff across multiple disciplines – architecture, engineering, industrial design and more – about a year and half to design, and six months to build, FutureHAUS, Erwin said.

Two walls in the FutureHAUS are adjustable to allow the living room, office and bedroom to expand and contract as needed. (Photo Credit: Erik Thorsen)

With the house’s factory-built, Lego-like pieces, it only takes about 72 hours to assemble or disassemble. After coming back from Dubai, FutureHAUS went on display at the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg before traveling to Times Square in New York City. The project came to Alexandria in late June.

“What this is, is a new concept for how to build houses – going away from conventional construction, which is stick-built on site, and looking at more factory-built construction,” Joe Wheeler, the faculty leader on the project, said. “Not like the factory-built houses that we used to know, which were trailers or doublewides. This is a whole different concept that’s almost like building a house with Lego pieces.”

FutureHAUS is composed of 18 prefabricated cartridges of various shapes and sizes, all of which can be transported by a standard truck. The largest cartridge is the “spine” of the home, which is about 3-by-12 feet.

“Everything was done at the factory, and then it’s installed quickly and everything’s already finished,” Wheeler said. “All of the wiring for this is done ahead of time in the factory. … Even the PVs, the photovoltaics [solar cells], are prefabricated. They’re built in the factory and they’re brought in. Really, in just a matter of hours, you set them, you stack them down on the roof and you just plug and play.”

The Sleep Number 360 mattress in the FutureHAUS bedroom can track a person’s REM cycles in order to wake them up at an optimal time. (Photo Credit: Erik Thorsen)

The solar panels allow FutureHAUS to produce more energy than it uses. The home generates all of its power and hot water using the solar panels. On top of that, it’s still producing twice the amount of energy it needs to operate, Wheeler said.

“Never will you have a problem of running out of power,” Wheeler said. “We have the battery backups, and we use the utility grid as storage, so if there’s a power outage we have the battery. … Throughout the year, we end up with no electric bill.”

Beyond the home’s sustainable energy and easy assembly, it embodies the name FutureHAUS with its futuristic smart technology. With about 67 smart devices throughout the home, Virginia Tech aims to promote accessibility and aging in place.

Two sliding walls allow the home’s inhabitants to easily adjust the size of the living room, bedroom and office. Smart screens glow from the island, the kitchen backsplash and the mirrors. Adjustable counters and cabinets make the home height-accessible for everyone – from a child, to someone in a wheelchair, to Lebron James.

The house even uses weight detectors to determine, for example, who walks into the bathroom. Users can preset the home so that when it recognizes their weight, it will adjust the vanity and toilet to that user’s preferred height.

The bathroom at FutureHAUS is loaded with smart technology, including a tub that maintains a specific temperature and a water-recycling shower. (Photo Credit: Erik Thorsen)

“My weight’s going to be different from my wife’s and my 10-year-old and my 6-year-old,” Wheeler said. “So, when each of those individuals come in here, it’ll recognize who you are based on your weight signature, and it’ll make the adjustment accordingly. And it can be very precise.”

Wheeler said he hoped the devices in FutureHAUS would redefine smart technology.

“[T]here’s thousands, gazillions of products that they call smart, but they’re only smart within themselves,” Wheeler said. “You can download an app on your phone and control your oven with your phone, but what good is that? There’s an interface already on the oven. To me, that’s not smart. What’s smart is when you bring up a recipe, and on the screen, you can see, ‘Preset oven to 350.’ You double click on that, and it’s already doing it. That’s smart.”

Other features, including a REM-cycle-triggered sunrise alarm clock and a water-recycling shower, promote smart living throughout the home.

For now, FutureHAUS is basking in its global success and touring different cities, but Wheeler said the next step is to explore production. Eventually, Virginia Tech hopes to partner with a production company to sell the FutureHAUS – smart features and all – for around $800,000, as well as another version without all the bells and whistles for less than $100,000, Wheeler said.

The home will be on display in Alexandria until Aug. 16. Public tours are offered on Thursday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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