Virginia Tech students create award-winning house of the future

The university recently won an international competition with an idea that could revolutionize the housing industry as we know it.

Photo by Erica Corder

Remember the House of the Future that was at Disneyland back in the day? The design by the now controversial Monsanto Company that heavily featured plastic was a popular stop at the amusement park’s Tomorrowland. But it’s been more than 50 years since the attraction shut down, and its prediction of what a house would look like didn’t ultimately come true.

With technology continuing to evolve and a housing industry that is becoming more constrained, the time may be right for a new house of the future. In fact, we may already have one thanks to a team down at Virginia Tech.

This past fall, Virginia Tech was the big winner of an international competition known as Solar Decathlon Middle East. The only American entrant, Tech’s FutureHAUS concept won the first overall prize in the competition to build sustainable, grid-connected, solar homes. In addition, the team also won first place in the subcategories for architecture and creative solutions, as well as placing in the top three in a number of others.

“It’s more than just a win,” says Joe Wheeler, an architecture professor at Virginia Tech and the lead faculty on the project, “it’s a verification of our concept.”

That concept has been in development at Blacksburg since the school won the 2010 Solar Decathlon Europe and decided to spring board that success into a greater focus on real-world applications related to medium and high-density housing. Years of research resulted in FutureHAUS, which approached building a house like you would build a car, on an assembly line.

Working in a factory, rooms in houses would be built through individual cartridges—one for the kitchen, the bathroom, the living room, etc.—prefabricated with all the necessary appliances, wiring and technology. These cartridges could then be shipped to a site and easily constructed by essentially snapping the sections together.

More than five years of research had been conducted and prototypes had been designed when a fire on Virginia Tech’s campus in February 2017 destroyed essentially everything that Wheeler and his team had been working on. Determined to rebuild, Wheeler decided the inaugural Solar Decathlon Middle East was the perfect opportunity, “as a way to bring this research back as FutureHAUS 2.0, new and improved,” he says.

More than 100 students and faculty from a range of disciplines worked on the project at Tech through classes or volunteering, recreating the project from design to physical structure in about 18 months. In Dubai, up to 22 students were on hand to construct the house, which only took two days. One of the student architectural design leaders was Herndon native Michelle Le, who saw the opportunity to put her studies to the test.

Photo by Erica Corder

“One of the things that people don’t experience enough is the difference between working on just paper and computers versus actually having to produce it in real life,” says Le, who graduated from Tech in 2018 and works as a junior architect at the firm ODA in New York.

In addition to its unique construction, the FutureHAUS is also crafted to incorporate the latest technologies, including touch screen control panels, automatic sliding doors, a smart mirror, a moveable wall to create different floor plans and a sink created in collaboration with Kohler that can pour precise amounts of water.

You won’t have to go to Disneyland to see this potential house of the future. Wheeler says that Virginia Tech is working on plans to display the FutureHAUS this summer, potentially starting at the location of Tech’s future Innovation Campus before making stops in Chicago and New York.

Wheeler says that there is interest to create more prototypes over the next couple of years that could lead to a shift to industrialize housing, or, as he explains it: “to bring the housing into a facility where you can benefit from economy of scale, quality control; having a facility where you can really integrate technology in an environment that is suitable for installation.”

Le echoes her former professor’s thoughts: “Being able to build extremely efficiently, as well as maintain that sense of humanity and living in the way we design and build, and also celebrating the technology that we have, is a really good balance for something for the future.”