In recent years, innovation in digital technologies transformed the way we live. Advances in smartphones, robotics and computers revolutionized every aspect of our lives leaving it almost impossible to imagine life without them, yet these types of technologies remain object focused vs. concept focused. At Virginia Tech, an interdisciplinary team of 25 students and faculty is taking existing technology that work independently of each other and asking the question, why can't these components work together? Their FutureHAUS project is about creating an interface that is completely connected within one smart-home system.
Virginia Tech placed first in Dubai's Solar Decathlon Middle East competition that challenged 15 universities from around the world to design, build and operate energy positive solar homes. While the baseline for the competition revolved around energy efficiency within a 900-square-foot space, what differentiated FutureHAUS from its competitors was the smart technologies.
"We didn't enter the competition for the competition's sake. We used the competition to test out an idea of how to build a future house," says Joe Wheeler, an architecture professor and leading member of the FutureHAUS team.
"The competition didn't control what the end product was. Our vision of what a house should be is what controlled this end product."
The future house Wheeler refers to is composed of several cutting-edge concepts. The prefabrication concept proposes that homes be built like cars or planes, utilizing an efficient and sustainable factory. The system is different from modular or double-wide concepts which ship an entire build in one piece. Instead, the FutureHAUS comprises 18 prebuilt "Lego style" modules that are plug and play once they arrive on-site from the factory. This allowed the team to put the house together in two days.
Not only are the modules easily transportable, but they are loaded with state-of-the-art technologies that revolve around the idea of aging in place. The research team submitted their request for participation in the competition in 2016, giving them two years to come up with their plan.
"We did a lot of user group studies. The university is a perfect test fit for that, not only because you have the student body but also you have the researchers doing their own research," says Bobby Vance, a professor and program manager at Virginia Tech's Center for Design Research.
Technologies that support aging in place include rooms designed to accommodate users of any height, age or disability. For example, the bathroom includes a touch control smart mirror that controls bathroom functions and features, making the vanity and toilet height adjustable. The toilet will raise and lower based on who is about to use it. The kitchen counters detect height and automatically adjust to each user, too.
"Say you buy this home when you're 25 years old and you want to live in it until you're 85 years old. There's a lot that happens in that time," Vance said. "You could have small kids, you've got in-laws who come over, or maybe mom's in a wheelchair now. The home should be able to accommodate every change and every person."
Another central concept is that of flex space. The walls of the home can be repositioned based on different configurations that are stored in a central touch-screen interface. Users can adjust the size of the office/living/bedroom space with the touch of a button, allowing for maximum usage of a house with a smaller footprint. In fact, every aspect of the home can be changed and controlled through this interface.
"I think that's why we won the competition. Anyone can make an energy-positive home, but is it relevant? Is it a place that someone actually wants to live? This is about integrating technology in a seamless way," Vance said.
Skeptics may be hesitant to live in a home with as much innovative technology as FutureHAUS has, but Vance is confident that smart homes are close to being mainstream.
"You don't have to go all-in in the beginning. One thing we say is does anyone miss crank windows in their car? But does your Murphy bed need to have a smart mirror on the back? No. Does your shower need to be automated? No. Is the infrastructure all there for when you're ready to do that? Absolutely."
The FutureHAUS team also spent much of the two years leading up to the Dubai competition finding funding for the project. Sponsors include large companies such as Kohler, DuPont and Dominion Energy.
"We're committed to driving these types of projects, new opportunities for lower-carbon-footprint ecosystems, and this was a great chance for us to get involved," says Emil Avram, vice president of innovation at Dominion.
"We want our customers to look for carbon-friendly solutions the same way we are as an energy provider, and we'll help to provide them with those solutions," Avram said.
Matthew Boys, a recent graduate of Virginia Tech who worked on the FutureHAUS project as part of his capstone, interned with Dominion Energy for three summers before connecting his management with the FutureHAUS team. The 23-year-old industrial and systems engineering major managed much of the logistics for getting the house to Dubai.
"It was a heck of an experience," Boys said.
"Being in a different environment, seeing the fruits of our tireless labor come together was amazing. At one point, this was just on drawings so to see it actually happening and watching people go into the house and seeing their reactions, their jaws were dropping."
Although members of the FutureHAUS team are still thriving off the excitement of sweeping the competition in Dubai, they are already looking toward the future of smart homes. They have developed a VR model that lets users interact with their potential home in real time. This allows them to preview the finishes in the home, from the floors to the walls. The Dubai FutureHAUS is a very stark white, modern style, but the home can be customized to a more homey design.
"We're taking this to scale. We're going to find the investors and come up with a couple of model homes that aren't necessarily so futuristic like this, something that would meet market demand and propose what I like to call the Sears home of the future. We're going to revitalize it and bring it back in a modern iHome," Wheeler said.
The team has already begun researching what it would take to scale up production in a factory setting with a new team of engineering students. For a house named after the future, the technology is very much current. It may be just a matter of time before the FutureHAUS concept becomes a new normal.