The house of the future

Virginia Tech’s award-winning 2011 Solar Decathlon entry, the Lumenhaus, points the way forward. Made largely of recycled materials, it includes solar power, an open plan, convertible countertops, movable interior and exterior panels, and other smart details.
Photograph by Jim Tetro
Date:1 January 2013 Tags:, , ,

How leading-edge technology today will help build a better home tomorrow. By David Agrell

Buying a home means investing in the future. But the house you’re in today won’t be entirely compatible with your needs tomorrow. Rising costs – and, in some cases, dwindling availability – of energy and water are changing how our dwellings function. Meanwhile, social trends dictate not only how we build homes, but also how we live in them.

The building industry is responding by developing construction methods and materials that outperform anything used in the past, while automated systems help homeowners do more with less. That may sound like we’re on the road to domestic austerity, but, well, we’re not. “We don’t have to choose between being responsible and keeping our quality of life,” says home builder Ron Jones. “We can have both.” Here, PM explores emergent systems and anticipates how they’ll shape the American house of tomorrow, and possibly the South African house, too. Are you ready?

Home automation

Smart homes monitor their own efficiency – and also make life easier and safer.

Today – In smart homes, a single device – often a smartphone – controls lights, appliances, heating, irrigation and even door locks to better suit the home’s function at a given time. Smart thermostats, such as the Nest, study how you live and make adjustments to fit. The more sophisticated the automation, the more efficient and comfortable a home can be.

Tomorrow – The home will be equipped with a central nervous system that will sense and analyse all appliances and systems, making adjustments when needed. It will send us messages to tell us we’re out of milk and even order it for us. Biometrics will replace the key: we’ll unlock doors via a handle that validates our thumbprint before activating the circuit.


Cheaper, faster and more durable prefab systems will replace timber framing.

Today – Some wood-framed homes aren’t durable enough to survive the life of their mortgage (that’s assuming that your bank would even consider financing the build). This is partly due to cost-cutting construction methods that undermine quality. But whenever many parts, each with inherent flaws, combine to create a single structure, problems arise. One solution is to pre-fabricate whole exterior walls in a factory.

Prefab homes are hardly a new idea, although they’re often associated with cheap, flimsy or temporary structures. But high-quality modular systems that feature concrete-based panels, wood composites or structural insulated panels are changing that perception. Insulated wall units arrive on-site with window cutouts and electrical and plumbing conduits in place. “This is cost-effective and reduces building-site errors,” says builder Ron Jones, a consultant for the National Association of Home Builders in the US.

Tomorrow – Massive parts, including entire walls and roofs, will be poured from autoclaved aerated concrete, a porous, lightweight product with great strength and excellent insulating properties. These sections will be lifted into place on-site by cranes. The home’s window assembly will be pre-fabricated, too. The receiver jamb will arrive pre-installed in a wall, and a sash assembly will be added using a weatherproof lever-lock mechanism. To change window styles or replace a damaged window, homeowners will simply unlock the levers on the interior jamb and put in new panes.

Social trends

Percentages of echo Boomers who consider these features “very important”
(source: the Concord Group)

Today – Echo boomers – the children of baby boomers – don’t want sprawling, suburban homes (that is, at least in the United States; the jury is still out of the needs and desires of South African homeowners). Data collected by real estate consultants RCLCO show that two-thirds would rather live in a diverse, walkable community, while half would trade a large property for closer proximity to work and shopping. “We’re changing this idea of location, location, location,” says urban designer Marianne Cusato.

Tomorrow – Echo boomers will become not only the largest group of homeowners since their parents but home-builders, too. That shift could spell the end for America’s wood-framed houses. “Echo boomers are going to be more open to the efficiencies of modular building,“ Cusato says. They will also be far more likely to use plumbing and heating systems that help save water and energy.


Solar energy now turns roofs into power generators, but future homes will go one better, using less energy overall.

Today – America’s homes consume a quarter of that nation’s energy, and heating and cooling alone can guzzle up to 60 per cent of a typical household’s R18 000 annual energy bill. But modern temperature-control systems use a fraction of the energy they did a generation ago, and the appliances are downsizing. Some furnaces today are no bigger than a three-drawer cabinet. The number of homes with ultra-low energy demands is also increasing, thanks to tight door seals, high-R insulation and low-U windows, which can help reduce bills by up to 90 per cent. (High-R and low-U factors indicate better insulation and greater resistance to heat conductivity, respectively.)

Still, a third of the home’s energy is used to heat water. The roof can provide the solution: it’s a gigantic heat sink, absorbing solar energy from above and heat from rooms below. This energy can be used to heat water and rooms. A roof can also generate electricity via photovoltaic peel-and-stick film applied directly to a metal roof, or with roofing shingles that contain solar arrays.

Tomorrow – Sophisticated heating and cooling systems will monitor current weather forecasts to keep conditions comfortable. Heat-transport fluids developed by the University of Maryland contain heat-absorbing nano-size particles that move through tubing under the roof deck, transporting waste heat to a heat exchanger. Improved photovoltaic roof panels will become efficient enough to power separate circuits that feed LED lights, computers and other electronics. Windows will help out as well. UCLA researchers have developed a transparent PV film that is applied directly to glass.


Rising rates and dwindling resources will encourage us to use less.

Today – Water rates soar as municipalities grapple with economics, infrastructure upgrades and droughts. But water usage – and bills – are slashed in half by installing low-flow showerheads and tap aerators, fixing leaky pipes and retrofitting toilets with low- or dual-flush devices. Outside, moisture meters and soaker hoses manage irrigation better. Rain collectors and drought-resistant plants complete the equation.

Tomorrow – Local governments will relax restrictions on grey water systems that recycle non-sewage waste for non-potable uses. The rising cost of municipality-supplied water will lead to sophisticated monitoring devices that track each and every drop – to the cent. Suddenly, Caltech’s vision of a better toilet – a solar-powered unit that recycles water and turns waste into fuel (above) – doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Related material
* Video: Explore the Lumenhaus, particularly the various components and systems that make it a zero-energy home.


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