BLACKSBURG – Virginia Tech researchers are getting ready to show off their vision for a smart house of the future, complete with movable walls, a countertop that charges your phone and a closet that remembers where you left your shoes.
The project, dubbed FutureHAUS, has been under construction for three years in a Virginia Tech warehouse off Pepper’s Ferry Road. Pieces of the house have already been displayed at trade shows across the country, with the final pieces – a bedroom, home office and laundry room – being unveiled at the Kitchen and Bath Industry Expo in Orlando, Florida, next week.
Joseph Wheeler, the Tech professor leading FutureHAUS development, said the whole project is built on the idea that homes should be manufactured like vehicles: in a factory, as one integrated system with technology built in from the beginning.
Instead of nailing together pieces of wood on a job site and then installing wiring, Wheeler and his team of about 12 Tech students are developing a manufacturing technique that would ship homes as a set of cartridges. Each would arrive with plumbing and electrical built in, ready to be fit together like LEGO blocks.
One cartridge could be a bathroom wall with a touchscreen mirror, sink and the necessary water pipes. That piece could connect to a kitchen wall with electrical outlets and cabinets, or an office wall with a desk that folds down into a bed.
By fitting about a dozen cartridges together, Wheeler said a 2,200-square-foot house could be assembled in a matter of days.
Since all the pieces are built in a factory, he also said the home could incorporate technology that could otherwise be impractical.
“It’s all about integration,” Wheeler said. “The technology is here, this is the way we build now and it’s not working. So we’re trying to come up with a better way to build for that to happen.”
Standing inside the FutureHAUS, Wheeler pushes a button to demonstrate how one of his walls separating a bedroom and office could be moved on a motorized track. With the push of one button, the wall moves toward the office, doubling the size of the bedroom for nighttime. Press the other and the wall slides back, expanding the office for working hours.
In another demonstration, Wheeler shows how a television could be shared between two rooms. In the office, it could be used for teleconferencing. But swivel that wall 180 degrees, and the same TV is moved to the living room for movie night.
Inside one FutureHAUS closet is a touchscreen mirror that shows all the shirts you have in your closet at that moment. Pick an outfit, and a conveyor belt brings it to the front. Walk over to the shoe rack and an LED light points to a pair for selection.
“Some of these really could take off; others seem ridiculous,” Wheeler said. “But that’s what we do. We’re doing research; we’re exploring what is the best solution and what is the best way to build. …We can’t explore, we can’t improve until we build it and try it out.”
Wheeler’s team has already assembled one of its cartridge homes as a proof of concept in Charlottesville, where home prices are cheaper than Blacksburg, he said.
Virginia Tech’s FutureHAUS will be on display in Florida next week. When it comes back to Virginia, Wheeler said he expects it to receive a permanent home inside Tech’s new “smart village” near U.S. 460 in the coming years.
Someday, Wheeler even said he hopes to build an on-campus dormitory for students with cartridges.
“It’s going to happen,” Wheeler said of the construction industry he believes is already beginning to embrace modular design.
“What you see now is going to happen. This makes complete sense.”