A LEGO-Like Home Powered Entirely by the Sun Pops Up in Times Square

Prefabricated, solar-powered, and filled with cutting-edge technology, the FutureHAUS is the smart, sustainable home of tomorrow.
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Developed by over 100 Virginia Tech students and faculty, the FutureHAUS is a prefabricated smart home that actually generates more energy than it uses. After placing first at the 2018 Solar Decathlon Middle East in Dubai, the FutureHAUS has been packed up, shipped, and installed in just three days at the heart of Times Square for NYCxDESIGN.

The FutureHAUS debuted in Times Square today, and it will be open for public viewing and tours daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. until May 22.

"The biggest challenges of building the house in Times Square are the time and size constraints. We have to be fast and efficient in order to construct a fully functioning house in just three days," says faculty lead Joseph Wheeler.

The cross-disciplinary Virginia Tech team first delivered their futuristic design to the 2018 Solar Decathlon Middle East—a global competition launched by the Dubai Electricity & Water Authority and the United States Department of Energy to promote research and development in sustainable architecture. The competition crowned the prefab the "world’s best solar home," outperforming 14 other projects by university teams.

The team shipped the FutureHUAS on five 43-foot-long trailers from Virginia Tech to Dubai, and installed it in less than two days for the 2018 Solar Decathlon Middle East. The open hatch is for drone deliveries.

The perforated privacy screens that wrap around the home were inspired by local culture.

Virginia Tech was the only American team at the 2018 Solar Decathlon Middle East in Dubai. Over 100 students and faculty were involved in the home's research and development; a dozen students and faculty were on-site in Dubai to erect the house.

Transporting the 900-square-foot house over 16,000 miles—from the U.S. to Dubai, and back again—required the prefabrication of pre-wired, pre-plumbed, and pre-finished units that can be taken apart and assembled like LEGOs with a crane. The streamlined factory process was inspired by the advanced manufacturing systems used in the automotive and aircraft industries.

In the 2018 Solar Decathlon Middle East competition, students had to prove the functionality and sustainability of the house by completing everyday tasks—from washing clothes to boiling water.

In the kitchen, adjustable counter heights can accommodate users of all ages. A smart faucet dispenses water with a voice command, electronic mixing valves regulate water temperatures, and a backsplash touch interface monitors cooking performance.

The house comprises 18 plug-and-play "cartridges"—the FutureHAUS team’s term for prefabricated components—built inside a Virginia Tech research facility. "[After] these cartridges are set into place, a spine cartridge will drop down and interconnect all of those components and tie them to a mechanical room with the electrical systems," says architecture professor and FutureHAUS faculty lead Joseph Wheeler. 

"You complete these cartridge components, you wrap them up, you deliver them to a site, you set them into place, you connect them like LEGOs, and" —Wheeler snaps his fingers— "you’ve got a working, functional smart house…instantaneously."

Located over the central hallway, the 33-foot-long spine cartridge serves as the home's central nervous system. It contains all the electrical and communication lines, as well as ductwork for HVAC.

Equipped with solar panels and solar thermal technology, the FutureHAUS produces all of its own energy, with enough leftover to feed the grid.

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Powered by a 15-kilowatt photovoltaic array that doubles as a shade canopy, the prefab home is a treasure trove of futuristic technology. And though smart tech elicits the most excitement from visitors—from the touchscreen panels to the walls that move via gesture control—the FutureHAUS team emphasizes that the integrated technology isn’t just for show.

Designed to accommodate virtually any user, the bathroom comprises two separate areas—one for bathing and showering, and one with a toilet, vanity, and touchscreen smart mirror. A closed-loop water recycling system in the shower cuts down on water usage by 90 percent compared to standard showers.

The vanity and toilet are height-adjustable to accommodate a range of users.

The smart mirror allows residents to control the bathroom's features with a touch—and it can even pull up real-time weather and traffic data.

"A lot of these functions may seem flashy and kitschy on the surface, but they really do have a deeper function and purpose that is aimed for usability," explains Josh Delaney, a Virginia Tech architecture student. The FutureHAUS promotes aging in place and universal design by using artificial intelligence to "learn" the preferences of the homeowners over time. 

The FutureHAUS team converted a Sleep Number 360 smart bed into a Murphy bed that rises to reveal a dressing room smart mirror with an RFID wardrobe database that can help pick out and locate clothes. The wall can move to create an expanded bedroom, office space, or living room.

The home's solar canopy features prefabricated aluminum shading elements and five three-kilowatt photovoltaic arrays.

The team designed the FutureHAUS with Middle Eastern culture and climates in mind, however it can be replicated and customized for other places in the world using the same prefabrication process.

"We believe our method of prefabricated modular housing brings that efficiency," adds Wheeler. "If you can set up a sophisticated smart home...in three days in Times Square, imagine how [important] this could be to the home building industry."

The FutureHAUS seen at night in Dubai. 

The home's doors have three automated layers: a clear glass insulated door for enclosure, a frosted insulated glass door for privacy and protection against sun glare, and a bug-screen. The doors can be controlled via touchscreen interface. 

The audiovisual wall features a television that can be used for teleconferencing on the office side (not pictured). It spins around so that it can be used for entertainment in the living room.

The patterned ceiling LEDs can mimic daylight to sync with occupants' circadian cycles—or they can create mood lighting.

Located at the Times Square Pedestrian Plazas between West 46th St. and 7th Ave., FutureHAUS officially opened to the public today. It will be available for public viewing from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day until May 22. At the end of NYCxDESIGN, the plus-energy home will be shipped back to Virginia Tech, where it will serve as a campus research facility to explore ways of introducing smart technologies to everyday life.

Related Reading: The Ultimate Guide to Prefab, The Solar-Powered Orchid Tiny House Has a Gorgeous, Light-Filled Interior 


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