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Inside the US-built home of the future at Dubai's MBR Solar Park

Inside Virginia Tech's 3D-printed smart home that won top honours at the 2018 Solar Decathlon Middle East [PICTURES]

Future Haus is intended to be smart in its internal systems and construction processes.
© Erik Thorsen / Virginia Tech
Future Haus is intended to be smart in its internal systems and construction processes.

The desert outside of Dubai witnessed an unusual sight in the last two weeks of November 2018, as a patch of open ground became first a construction site, then a showground for a group of concept homes that demonstrated ideas for the future of solar-powered, sustainable housing.

The 15 temporary houses were built for the 2018 Solar Decathlon Middle East, an international competition that challenged teams of university students to build efficient, sustainable, and solar-powered houses.

The competition came to the Middle East for the first time under the patronage of HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of the Executive Council of Dubai, and was organised by Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa).

Fifteen teams participated in the inaugural Solar Decathlon [© Dewa].

Launched in 2002 by the US Department of Energy, the Solar Decathlon aims to raise awareness about the importance of using renewable energy sources in housing, and to involve university students from various academic disciplines in the design and construction of show homes that test new designs and technologies.

The decathlon attracted 15 teams, with 600 students from 54 nations and 28 academic institutions taking part at the 60,000m2 site at Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park (MBR Solar Park).

For the competition, the teams that had won their place in the finals had to design, build, and operate sustainable, cost- and energy-efficient, solar-powered homes. The design of the homes focused on protecting the environment, and also took into consideration the local climate and cultural conditions.

Each design was tested and rated on 10 main criteria: architecture, engineering and construction, sustainability, communications, energy management, energy efficiency, comfort conditions, house functioning, sustainable transportation, and innovation.

The teams took part in various challenges that tested the homes for functionality. These involved cooking, doing laundry, and hosting dinner gatherings for fellow competitors and invited guests. Teams were required to log miles driving an electric vehicle that had been charged by their house’s solar power system. Each home was also connected to a smart system to monitor its performance across key metrics.

VIRGINIA TECH'S FUTURE HAUS

Virginia Tech’s Future Haus won first place in the Solar Decathlon, as well as taking a number of other category prizes.

The Future Haus team was led by Virginia Tech’s Centre for Design Research in the School of Architecture and Design, and also included students and faculty from a number of other disciplines, including the university’s Centre for Power Electronics Systems; computer science; mechanical engineering; and the Design, Research, and Education for Additive Manufacturing Systems Laboratory.

The idea for the house was not just to develop concepts for how future houses could operate, but also how they are built. Drawing inspiration from automobile and aviation industry production processes, the house was constructed from a number of prefabricated cartridges, which provided different functional elements for the house, with integrated smart systems. The panels were designed for energy efficiency and constructed with new materials.

The inaugural Solar Decathlon was held in Dubai late last year [© Dewa].

Construction of the panels was carried out offsite. The construction process utilised building information modelling software with digital fabrication tools and processes, including automated construction and 3D printing, to ensure high-quality and customisation capabilities.

The modular design allowed for ‘plug-and-play’ assembly of the house on site, making it much faster to assemble, and enabling workers to build a technologically advanced building without needing the skills, tools, or time to install all the systems themselves, from scratch.

The cartridges included ‘programme cartridges’ that comprised of elements for a specific room or living function. For example, the kitchen cartridge had built-in appliances, adjustable counters, water fixtures, and food storage. The bedroom cartridge had an automated fold-down bed, lighting, side tables, and wardrobe cabinets. In addiditon, ‘service cartridges’ handled various home systems.

Future Haus achieved high levels of energy and water efficiency [© Virginia Tech].

These included a ‘spine cartridge’, the central nervous system of the home, with electrical and communication lines; heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning ducts; and wet and dry mechanical cartridges for water, solar thermal domestic water heating, distribution pumps, and electrical systems.

Two ‘door cartridges’ provided automated door systems with touchscreen interfaces, while five ‘solar cartridges’, carrying mini photovoltaic arrays, were assembled as a canopy over the home, collecting the sun’s rays while providing shade to the house underneath.

The Future Haus featured smart systems to manage all aspects of the home, and the design included considerations for older people, as well as for people with disabilities.

The main living room space included movable walls to allow the home’s residents to configure the space according to their own requirements, enabling them to switch between the living room and dining room as required. This flexible space was configured by moving walls along cordless DC-powered overhead rails, while furniture such as a dining table could be stowed away and the TV could be rotated into the dedicated AV wall. The room also featured lighting options from an LED-illuminated glass ceiling.

Future Haus is assembled from pre-built cartridges [© Virginia Tech].

The house also included customisable office space, which could be set up in different configurations, offering everything from a one or two desk layout, up to a conference room. Meanwhile, the AV wall could be used for teleconferencing.

The kitchen included many smart features for cooking, inventory management, and water control, including voice-activated features for ease of use while cooking, and touch interfaces over the oven to monitor cooking activities. The kitchen also featured a ‘social table’, with displays that allowed users to access other house controls, or watch cooking videos or interactive media for entertainment.

The event was held at MBR Solar Park [© Dewa].

Future Haus included a full-size master bathroom, which was assembled from two cartridges and included a range of smart fixtures, including a smart mirror, voice interface, a 3D-printed sink, an adjustable-height toilet, and a bathtub with a built-in sound system and integrated video screen.

The bathroom was designed to accommodate users of any height or age, as well as those with disabilities. It included a floor sensor capable of detecting slips and falls, and provided data about the user’s weight on the smart mirror. The shower included water sensor technology to recycle clean wastewater and reduce consumption by up to 90%.

The house entryway also included smart features, with a double doorway acting as an airlock to keep cool air inside, and a washing station for prayer ablutions. The entry also had home control systems, a window with built-in solar panel, and a drone delivery hatch in the roof.

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