Anaika Miller | [email protected] | Photos by Anaika Miller
The fields surrounding Virginia Tech’s Environmental Systems Laboratory, complete with the occasional rooster crowing, belie the high-tech work being completed inside.
Virginia Tech architecture professor Joseph Wheeler and his team are busy constructing FutureHAUS, a “smart” house with Bradbury-esque features including audiovisual walls, a wardrobe that will locate clothing for you and a key-less front door that opens using facial recognition.
“What we’re doing is trying to reinvent architecture,” Wheeler said.
The nine-room prototype is built upon the idea of integrating technology into the house itself to provide a better user experience.
“The question we’re trying to answer is, how do we make one package that controls everything?” Wheeler said.
FutureHAUS is the team’s answer.
After initially saving user preferences, the house will independently modify room temperature and lighting to suit an individual’s taste. The coffee-maker can be programmed to start when someone begins taking a shower in the morning, and the bathroom’s “slip-fall” floor will send an emergency text to designated contacts if someone falls. The toilet seat will close automatically when a user leaves the bathroom, a feature Wheeler said he has nicknamed “the marriage saver.”
Another core design element is flex space, the idea that a house can have less square footage without feeling smaller. This is exemplified in FutureHAUS by a Murphy bed which doubles as a desk and can transform the office into a guest room.
And while these components are exciting, FutureHAUS may stand out most for how it was built: by connecting pre-made modular “cartridges.”
Unlike traditional construction, which involves building a house step-by-step onsite over a period of weeks or months, the stackable cartridges can be pre-fabricated in a factory, delivered to the desired location and then fully assembled into a house within hours.
Wheeler said this factory approach “allows for the addition of quality, craftsmanship and the integration of technology,” because the more complicated electrical and technological aspects of the house will be embedded into the cartridge walls.
The concept was tested successfully last fall for a house in Charlottesville, which cost about market price, Wheeler said.
Though there is currently no factory that can produce the cartridges, Bobby Vance, project manager and a master’s student in the School of Architecture and Design, said his thesis project will be to design a factory that can efficiently build the cartridges.
“That’s really going to take it to the next level,” Vance said. “Currently, these are one-off prototypes, but as we begin to explore factory options, we’ll be able to lower costs.”
Third-year architecture student Trey King believes FutureHAUS will have a lasting influence on architecture.
“In the future, the technology will be more advanced, but the reason we’re doing this is to provide a medium to bring all of this together intuitively,” King said.
The team—which includes 11 undergraduates and several faculty members along with Wheeler and Vance—was putting the finishing touches on the house this week before packing it up for a demonstration at the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show, the world’s largest kitchen and bath industry exposition, held Jan. 10-12 in Orlando, Florida.
This will be the first time the FutureHAUS bedroom and home office are displayed publicly.
But FutureHAUS is more than just a glimpse into the future.
“It’s also about education,” Wheeler said. “The product as it stands right now furthers research opportunities.”
Wheeler said FutureHAUS has been worked on by students from many different backgrounds.
Third-year architecture student Katie Waldner said the interdisciplinary nature of the project is one of the reasons she thinks FutureHAUS is so interesting
“There’s really no field or other school that’s bringing all of this together,” Waldner said.
Third-year architecture student Charlie Queen said his favorite part of working on FutureHAUS has been seeing all of the parts coming together, which has made “the hard work worth it.”
“We were up until 4 a.m. [working on this], and you start to realize, ‘wow, I must really like architecture,” Queen said.
After the exposition in Florida, the team plans to permanently install the prototype at Virginia Tech’s Corporate Research Center so that it can be used as a model for teaching and learning about smart housing.