The Researcher Behind HouseZero Brings Us Closer to AI-Powered, Self-Regulating Homes

The Researcher Behind HouseZero Brings Us Closer to AI-Powered, Self-Regulating Homes

By Margaret Rhodes / Photos by Christopher Churchill
Ali Malkawi leads us into a future where software helps a house adapt to changing conditions.

A prewar wood-shingled house with a roomy front porch is an unlikely prototype for the future of energy-efficient living. But what you can’t see is that HouseZero, headquarters of the Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is tricked out with many, many sensors. 

A team of graduate students spends its days analyzing millions of automatically collected data points about the building’s temperature, humidity, energy use, air pressure, and carbon dioxide levels. The data inform an ever-evolving algorithm, which controls software that, in turn, adjusts the house’s windows, vents, and shades in constant pursuit of the optimal temperature, air quality, and energy efficiency.

Ali Malkawi is the founding director of HouseZero, headquarters of the Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities.

The house is the brainchild of Ali Malkawi, the center’s founding director. Before coming to Harvard, Malkawi spent several summers in Scandinavia, where he took note of simple design concepts that help maximize natural ventilation and "things that can make buildings more sustainable and help us move away from completely mechanic-ally driven systems," he says. 

At the center, Malkawi saw an opportunity to bring these ideas to fruition. He turned to Snøhetta, an international architecture firm with Norwegian roots, to renovate the 1920s building to serve as "an instrument of experimentation," he says.

Now more than a year underway, HouseZero combines natural climate-control solutions with state-of-the-art computation. The goal is to eventually find ways for us to trade our HVAC systems for intelligent homes that naturally self-regulate. Malkawi’s approach incorporates data-driven and physics-based modeling systems in the service of a future where software helps a house adapt to changing conditions. 

He sees HouseZero as both a research laboratory and a prototype. It sounds like a paradox, but building with big data, Malkawi says, has the potential to "connect people with the natural environment rather than separate us from it." 

See more of our climate-conscious home series.

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