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Podcast 20 October 2022

Creating movement for the home of tomorrow: Welcome to FutureHaus

Computer scientist Alan Kay once said, ‘the best way to predict the future is to invent it.' That’s precisely what Virginia Tech’s team of 25 students accomplished with the award-winning FutureHaus. Constructed to be as ergonomic and accessible as possible, the moveable house features digital technologies such as sensors embedded in floors to detect falls and height-adjustable appliances to provide accessibility to users who may be out of reach.

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Full transcript

Kim Moran: Hello. My name is Kim Moran and welcome to LinCast podcast with conversations exploring the latest research innovation behind Actuators and movements. Today I'm excited to be joined by Joseph Wheeler, the professor of architecture and co-director for the Center for Design Research at Virginia Tech. He has an impressive background with Virginia Tech for the past 27 years, and he's the lead faculty member for Futurehaus.

Futurehaus encompasses a team of 100 cross-disciplinary Virginia Tech students and faculty who designed and developed this award-winning state of the art modular home. So welcome, Joseph. So good to see you again.

Joseph Wheeler: Thank you for having me.

Kim Moran: I love to kick things off because some people may not know about Futurehaus. So, could you talk a little bit about this 900 square foot Futurehaus, how it came about and maybe what are some of the benefits of this intelligent home?

Joseph Wheeler: Well, we have a strong history here at Virginia Tech to teach architecture, primarily architecture, but a lot of collaboration with other areas, other disciplines of building things to learn by doing. Learn by building. And since 2002 Virginia Tech, it's primarily led by the architecture program. And in my work, we have entered the Solar Decathlon competitions that have been hosted by the Department of Energy. What it calls for is a very small house, around nine in 6 to 900 square feet that are powered by the sun and that are energy positive. So, the very challenging competition calls for the students to not only design the home, not only to make it energy efficient and sustainable, but to build it in and perform with it.

The competition calls for universities from around the world to build. These small houses started on the National Mall, to gather on the mall with these built houses for 1 to 2 weeks and test them out. Juries come in and they judge the architecture and the engineering - a subjective category. But then they wire up the house and monitor all the performance. It’s called the decathlon because there are 10 very difficult events. At the end of the day, the teams that score the most points in all ten events and have the total number of points win the competition. So, I'm proud to say, well Virginia Tech, where we started our first house in 2002, we got fifth place overall in the competition. In 2007, we got third place. But then in 2010, when we went to the first Solar Decathlon Europe competition and competed against many European teams, which brought on another really challenge. We won first place overall and that was with Aluminum House recently and now it seems to be more distant. But in 2018 we came back and competed in the first the inaugural Solar Decathlon, Middle East competition.

Again, placed first in that after winning that competition, we were invited to bring the house back to Dubai. This is after it all already came back home and halfway across the world, we were invited back to exhibit the house at the World's Fair, which just ended just a few months ago. So, we were there in Dubai at the World's Fair for 6 months with 16 students showing off this house and introducing about a million visitors through the house, over a million. It was very challenging, but also rewarding the same time. So, the Solar Decathlon with the challenges of being energy positive you have the whole side of solar technology and energy efficient systems and appliances and lighting. But along with it, by the nature of it with the challenge of it being energy efficient, it also should be small as the smaller houses use less energy. Well, the challenge with being small is space planning. And how do you make the most out of a small space? Now, this is a great challenge for my students of architecture because they should always be kind of efficient with their space planning. You don't want to you don't want to design too big of a house. Right. And so, it's built into the rules with 600 to 800 square feet, 609 hundred square feet - this is where we start. In fact, I'm teaching a class right now and we're starting off a new event. And the students you think it's hard to build these things. The space planning is extremely hard for young students, students or new at designing and along. So along with that challenge, we are we are. I introduce to the students’ concepts of flex space, smart space, and aging in place.

All right, go hand in hand. The pandemic brought on another challenge of people working at home and not going into the office, but staying at home with the kids, with the family all around. And how are you creative with how you use your space in your own home to make offices? And if you look at future apps, you'll see probably 15 examples of how we did well in this competition and designed some great strategies for space efficiency.

Kim Moran: What I thought was interesting, Joe, is just the collaboration you had at the university. I mean, you want to just talk a little bit about that, but you pulled an engineer the engineering department. So, you're obviously dealing with mechanical issues. You pulled an industrial design, isn't that correct? You had an architecture. Were there any other departments that were part of this?

Joseph Wheeler: We reached across five colleges and the five colleges at the university. Of course, within energy. Well, with the design, we have all the programs within the architecture college and that would be that would be industrial design, interior design, landscape architecture and planning. Outside of the university, we're working with multiple departments in engineering, such as industrial systems engineering because this is a prefab house is proposed to be factory built.

We're working with mechanical and electrical engineering for just the basic systems of the house, the electrical, mechanical. But then there is also computer science and computer engineering, because if you're going to build a house today our goal is to build it like this, to do it's got to be smart. And it was another challenge. And I think there's a challenge that goes along with our research in general, is when you see a Tesla driving down the road and you understand how a Tesla is built on an assembly line, and when you see sit inside a Tesla, you will you immediately know that you're driving something that incorporates the technologies of the day,

The current technologies. We are cutting edge. I mean, we're on the edge of self-driving cars, right? However, when you step inside even a new home today, what do you see? Recessed can, lights, drywall? It's the same thing. And it has been the same thing year after year after year. And a lot of work that I do with industry, with the construction industry, it's not just the technology, but it's also the attitude that stays behind. Because when you propose doing something new and different and innovative in it, it challenges you. It's just doing something. It calls for you to do something differently, like an alternative to drywall. And then you get this reaction. The reaction is like, we've been doing this the same way for so many years. Why would we change it? This works and we're doing it that way.

And it's also why taking this on and at the university level is an opportunity because with the students, we don't we don't immediately face those challenges. There's somewhat isolated from that. But then at the same time and we're running on but at the same time, the collaboration with the industry, along with these student projects, is where it really clicks with LINAK, that's with Mitsubishi, that's with Lutron.

All the, the groups we work with, and this is even builders and developers. I didn't forget to mention building construction, but that's when they come in and we work together and we make sure as we work together, we're moving forward. We're not moving backward. So anyway, I kind of stray away from your question, but it was multiple colleges and continue with that we worked with the school of business and the School of Gerontology.

Why does that come into play? Because with the whole concepts, all the concepts of aging in place, we we're looking at, hey, what's the best thing we can do with technology? Is it to accommodate our elderly or to design a home that you can live in from when you're born until the senior years of your life?

The one thing that's traumatic in any of my experience in life is, is to see an elderly couple have to move out of their home because they can no longer come in the house, can no longer accommodate them. And the best way to spend the last years of your life is in your own home, not in a senior care facility. It’s in your own home. So, it's one of the challenges that the students face when we design these, and we use the LINAK technology in a lot of cases to address some of these challenges.

Kim Moran: Well, I'm glad you brought that up. Because when you're talking about aging in place or inclusive design, universal design, that is top of mind in the design community when they're obviously doing product development, they're obviously doing a project. So, we're going to be showing a video so people can see how amazing this this home is in terms of movement.

But can you talk about how it responded to some of those needs so that people could stay in their house or so that the home adapted to their needs so that they were more comfortable?

Joseph Wheeler: Yes, probably the most important areas are in the kitchen and in the bathrooms. An example would be we took a wall mounted toilet, collaborated with Kohler on all our bathroom and kitchen fixtures. They're very interested in what's next in their products especially with A.I. and digital in our interfacing. But we took the toilet and it's a wall mounted toilet, but we actuated the frame for that wall mounted toilet within the wall.

So, we end up with a sit to stand toilet so it can lower very close to the floor and accommodate a child who may be potty training. Or you can sit in it at a high level for grandma. Right to sit to stand operation. And then once she's safely sat on the toilet, you can lower it to her.

The proper height for her to use that toilet ergonomically correct height. And then when it's time to get up, you've got the, the, the stand assist so you can use technology to help her stand up safely. The vanity in the bathroom, a very similar thing. If you have a husband and wife and a house that are different heights, the bathroom vanity can raise and lower to accommodate that individual person.

We've been working on a lot of interfaces, a lot of automatic interfaces where you don't have to physically control a switch or a button to adjust the height that could just walk in, and the mirror can recognize who you are and make that adjustment for that person. So, a child brushing their teeth or the young basketball player fixing his hair.

Right. So, we also use the LINAK actuators to make pretty much all the cabinetry in the house adjustable, the kitchen and probably the probably to me my favorite is the adjustment of the upper cabinet above the sink in the kitchen. It's a 9-foot-wide cabinet and it can raise and lower to where someone in a wheelchair who may be using the kitchen can reach the top shelf of that cabinet when it's fully brought down to the countertop.

But again, a child wanting to unload the dishwasher, they can lower the upper cupboard down and put the glasses where they belong right. Or just a difference of a tall couple and a short couple. If it's if the upper right, which is more of an on-demand kind of action, right. Because it's not an eye thing. It would have to be called for. So, you would say “cabinet lower” to the lower setting or cabinet raise up the base cabinet is different because that is going to adjust according to whoever is using it automatically. So, it's those kinds of examples. We would never be able to explore these ideas if we didn't physically build a house and physically test the house.

There was lot of LINAK cooperation with us on that - hey, we're working on this concept. Can we have or what type of actuators? Can we use that would make this work? And so, we spent lots of time in fact, Jim Thomas would come to visit us in Blacksburg and look at the projects and say, oh you need and whatever, whatever he'd call it out on the catalog. And the next day we'd have that product and we'd be installing it and prototyping it and testing it and making sure it worked. Another area is and now this is away from the aging in place, but it's very important for space efficiency is the bed design in the moving walls. So, we have a murphy bed, and the Murphy bed can deploy to the normal bed position or draw up and reveal a mirror that's mounted on the backside. And it's not just a mirror, it's a smart mirror that say it's a smart wardrobe mirror allows you to identify where in the house your articles of clothing are. So, in the morning you get up and you can scroll through it, say, I want to wear that shirt. It'll tell you where that shirt is in the house.

But it's not just an ordinary bed. It's a sleep number 360 bed, which you never see as a murphy bed. You never see an actual 360 because that bed is extremely heavy. Well, you have the right actuator the way it's no longer an issue. And so, we were able to work with LINAK to design the whole system that made the deployable in a murphy bed with a bed that's smart, in a bed that fits with the technology of the house.

So that smart bed alone does so much. It monitors your heart rate, and it monitors your REM sleep. We can tie the technology, the bed into a lot of the monitoring that we use as a whole house kind of in the area. Topic of telemedicine.

Kim Moran: Oh, interesting. Gosh. And I know as a parent with teenagers, I think that would be fantastic to know where their clothes are, because most of them are probably going to be on the on the floor.

Joseph Wheeler: But yeah, well, we, we can track it if it's in the hamper, the floor is still a problem.

Kim Moran: Well, we've really enjoyed partnering with you on this project. It's kind of had a life of its own for the past three years. So, thank you so much for allowing us to take part in it. I kind of want to jump over to just talking a little bit about, COVID 19 and the pandemic and how that has altered things in so many ways, in terms of flexibility around, hybrid work.

Kim Moran: And, where we're going from our architecture and product design. How would you say that this project has really been affected because of the pandemic? Is there anything that you had to work through that? A lot of us were all about, how do we adapt and change to this? But I'm really impressed that you were able have the home in Dubai during the pandemic.

Joseph Wheeler: So, we won't even go there. It was it was a nightmare. Well, we will go there. I, I lost all my students immediately. And we were about two months from the house leaving for Dubai. And within the contract of getting this over there, because the UAE paid the whole way, they paid for the students to go over in the house to go over.

And one of the arrangements that we made with them is that it would just be the house that was in the Decathlon competition in 2018. That would be a house designed for 2020. And so, we had a lot of upgrades. Electrochromic Glass. Beautiful glass that we installed, automating doors. We were able to do a lot of things that we didn't get to in the original competition and we had the plans to do a lot of this and then just it's like overnight the students were gone.

Joseph Wheeler: All the classes went online and the parents like, ‘we're going to get you back here.’ And it was me, myself, and I, three people trying to. And that's not fair because there were a few students, loyal students, who hung around and were able to help me here and there. But, even a challenge with the university, because they were wanting to limit the activity on campus, I had to get special permission, permission to state this as a central project to get to a few of the helpers that I needed and for even for me to go there and work on it.

And so, it was long days of getting this thing ready to go on the boat. Well, about a month and a half into that, and I knew this was going to happen, but the expo was postponed because it's a world pandemic. And they were they were realizing if we have the World's Fair now, no one's going to show up.

Right? It's going to be empty. So, they decided to postpone it for a year. And that was one of the happiest days of my life, because that gave me, at the time, a whole other year to continue to work on it and get it ready for the fair. And then the students came back later, and we were able to do some amazing things.

But as far as the pandemic and how it affected our project, it if anything, it just reinforced what we were doing with the architecture of small space and especially with LINAK and the, the type of products for desks and sit to stand in adjustability in furniture that, that everyone was scrambling to set up their offices at their home.

I mean, I was down in the basement with my son, and he was over here, in his sixth-grade class. And I was over there with my graduate students right in the same room and challenging as well, because, , how do you within the same room how do you maintain privacy and the quiet that you need for a very important teams meeting.

And so, the challenge is how do you design a tiny home that could be a satellite office for the future because after the pandemic we notice it didn't go away. Many of us are still working a couple of days of the week at home. Well, we must have that space. And a lot of times that space must come from our existing house, and we must think small space and think, ‘How we can accommodate an office within a residence in our house?’ We have a sit to stand desk. So, it's really, it's beautiful. It's essentially, we have, and we have a series of walls that move back and forth.

So, I talked about the Murphy bed on one side. There's the Murphy bed of the wall that's a closet that can move back and forth. Then a wall that's a Navy wall that has a television mounted in it, and that television can swing into both, face both directions, whichever room you're in, which side of the wall you're in.

Then we have the Home Office. Well, that Home Office has a sit to stand desk where when you raise that desk, you can pull out a table that's stowed underneath there, and then you can lower that desk. And then you have a double desk, kind of executive office suite. You can move that a wall further and you can borrow the dining room table from the dining room, which is easily deployable, is on wheels.

And then you can have a full-blown office with the executive desk and a conference room - that TV is now facing the office space. So, you use the TV for the teams’ meetings, but then when the family comes home, at the end of the day, you can slide the wall over, raise your head to stand desk, put the other desk under and stow the up against the wall. Your bills, your paperwork, everything can just stay there. But now you have a clean-living room and now the dining room table to prepare for, the kids when they come out of the school. So, we did all of this. I mean, amazing. The house is 900 square feet, but probably in a 12 foot by 30-foot space.

We were able to get a full office, a full living room and a full bedroom, and that that would change throughout the day and all of these walls are automated. So, you would go to the wall, and you would just select what scenario you wanted. Big office, small living, press the button and you could just sit back and watch it make its adjustment.

Kim Moran: Considering how much space you have in, in and how flexible it is. But that's obviously the beauty of it. So, I guess one last question. So, what's next for Futurehaus?

Joseph Wheeler: Oh, I said earlier, I well, for Futurehaus. All of our projects are never, the final project and we see them as research prototypes where we learn a lot of valuable information that we can apply to the next house. And then the next house is like the new model of the Tesla that's coming out, right?

So, we don't want to for it to get too stagnant, in time, we've got to continue to move forward. So right now, I have a team of 15 students and we're designing the next Solar Decathlon project. We have gone way beyond Solar Decathlon. We use the Solar Decathlon as a basic project, but we see the integration of technologies is very important. We see affordability is very important and we see modular construction is very important. So, my students are struggling right now because they're coming from a previous year where they barely could design a building. And with this studio, they're challenged to think of all these other constraints. And, I mean, they absolutely have to be skilled at space planning to start this out.

So multiple weeks and they're still struggling just with floorplans. But by the end of the year, one of those students will have developed the next generation Virginia Tech solar house. And you can bet that we'll have some LINAK in there. As long as your company continues to support us.

Kim Moran: We'd love to know how exciting I'm once again, thank you so much for taking the time with us today. Joseph, proud to partner with you and I'm so excited to see where Virginia Tech is taking architecture in the future. So, on behalf of LinCast, I'm Kim Moran. I'd love to thank you for joining us today. Also, I’d love to have you join us at Orgatech in Cologne, Germany, where we're going to be featuring Futurehaus.

Kim Moran: We're going to be in Hall 10.1 in both CE 50. I hope you have a great day and thank you so much.


About Joseph Wheeler

Joseph Wheeler is a Professor of Architecture at Virginia Tech School of Architecture + Design.

He pursues professional research in environmental and sustainable design and assumes leadership positions in the implementation of design theory and ideas.


He believes that there is a distinct advantage to the exposure of students to the direct making of Architecture and therefore is involved in many multidisciplinary full-scale research projects.

As co-director of School of Architecture + Design Center for Design Research, he has led multiple interdisciplinary projects which include the 2005, 2009 and 2010 Solar Decathlon house projects, the latter of which won first place overall in international competition in Madrid, Spain.

Other research includes projects related to industrialized processes, modular construction and energy efficiency.

Learn more about the Virginia Tech's award winning FutureHaus.

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