When Le Corbusier famously introduced the idea of a house as a "machine for living" in the early 1920s, few people could have imagined just how high-tech home design would be less than a century later. Though humans will probably always have the upper hand in the creativity department, computers may make our houses smarter than we are when it comes to sensing conditions, regulating comfort, and doing the dirty work necessary to reduce the impact of our lifestyles.
About a decade ago, before "clean tech" and "carbon neutral" were household terms, architect Scott Specht began developing a farsighted concept for a house that would use new technologies as a way to untether itself from the grid. From manufactured structural components to a computer-coded "brain" that reads and responds to indoor conditions, the suitably named zeroHouse would be a completely self-sufficient home. "It was a self-as-client project (every architect seems to have one)," says Specht. "I would work on it in the bits of free time between income-producing work."
A few years and many "expressionist" versions later, Specht was ready to make zeroHouse a full-fledged project of his firm Specht Harpman, which he runs with his partner, Louise Harpman. With the help of engineering consultants and some sleek marketing materials, they revealed the concept to the public. Though zeroHouse exists only in 3-D renderings and brochures, its striking appearance and "zero-impact" ambitions were enough to attract significant interest across the digital media world and beyond. The project was even noticed by DuPont, which made zeroHouse the poster child of a short-lived green ad campaign.
"They ran a series of ads in the Wall Street Journal featuring large pictures of the house," Specht recounts. "There was a lot of discussion about building a full-scale version. Ultimately, DuPont’s campaign strategy changed, and they decided against pursuing the approach. Our belief in the project didn’t end there, however, and we decided to take it further on our own."
Not surprisingly, the idea has retained the public’s curiosity, riding the swell of popular interest in sustainability and design and appealing to a futuristic sensibility. ZeroHouse does not conceal its high-tech features with a quaint residential facade. The structure looks just like what it is: a hybrid of house and machine. Two identical modules, measuring 36 feet long and 12 feet wide (the maximum width legally permitted for interstate truck transport), are stacked perpendicular to one another, forming a cross when viewed from above. A giant solar array stretches across the top of the upper unit like the blades of a helicopter, performing triple duty as a channel for rainwater collection and a shade canopy for the two roof terraces.
This sort of integrated functionality is essential and intentional in the zeroHouse design, says Specht, who explains that most off-the-grid homes operate discrete systems to meet the various requirements of an independent structure. "Photovoltaic power generation, waste processing, water collection, and storage are not designed to work in conjunction with each other," he explains. "We find huge benefits in merging these systems."
Where possible, active features like heat-recovery technology are supplemented with passive approaches, such as gravity-fed water from overhead storage tanks, eliminating the need for pumps. In addition to rainwater collection, the house also captures, treats, and reuses graywater from sinks and washers. Food scraps and human waste go below the house into a composter that turns all but a small amount of "black water" into dry, nontoxic fertilizer that needs to be removed just twice each year.
In choosing to promote zeroHouse as a no-impact project, Specht Harpman had the challenge of considering not only the burden of the home’s construction and operations but its eventual end-of-life scenario. Though they have not performed a full life-cycle assessment on the design, they prioritized features that will ensure longevity. Specht says that the easy transportability of the house gives owners the flexibility to relocate without incurring the huge energy expenditure of building a new home. The panelized wall modules can be switched out individually, keeping material use to a minimum when making repairs, and the entire home is free of paints and finishes that would require maintenance or off-gas and pollute.
Considering the $350,000 price tag, any prospective buyer would certainly hope that the compact home makes up for its price through its exceptional efficiency. Many sustainable purchases are justified as upfront investments for long-term savings, and this is no exception. "We are gearing the house toward first-adopter clients who are interested in the potential of a fully self-sufficient, environmentally clean, yet extremely comfortable, residence," says Specht.
"If the sales figures are high enough, the costs will inevitably come down with quantity efficiencies." With its eco-cachet and forward-looking functionality, the zeroHouse aspires to become the Prius of prefab. Like a hybrid car, it is a tool for lifestyle change that anticipates challenges and arms owners with solutions before the problems have fully taken hold. Owners get to feel both responsible and stylistically bold—a perfect formula for setting a trend.
When not working in design, Sarah Rich writes, talks and forecasts about food and consumer culture.