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1:1 Digital House and the Future of Green Building
Alex Steffen, 4 Apr 07
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There is a direct link between the growing "intelligence" of our homes -- their increasing ability to use electronics to sense, monitor and adapt -- and their sustainability. Many of the coolest aspects of green building involve the building itself responding to the conditions around it, working with, rather than against, the sun, wind and weather. Such adaptive, responsive buildings are at least as important a goal as radical new material breakthroughs.

We don't even need robotic edge monkeys crawling all over our homes to get there. The tools are ready-to-hand or coming soon. Smart homes can automate the opening and closing of windows to maintain ventilation and cooling, angle sunshades for optimal solar heat gain, even turn geothermal heat pumps on and off.

Smart homes can also change the way we think about inhabiting our homes, by revealing to us previously hidden connections and facilitating better choices. Making intelligent action the easiest choice is a powerful design strategy. Using meters (like the PowerCost Monitor) to show us the results of our actions has a powerful effect: as we've noted before, studies show that simply making people aware of their energy use can induce them to use 10% less energy before they even get around to a swapping out an incandescent for a CFL. Sending price signals as we make consumption choices (from pay-as-you-go car insurance to pay-as-you-throw garbage fees) can bring home the backstory of actions we've tended to ignore: true costing can become a form of perspective-shifting.

But our homes needn't be smart only in operation. We are increasingly able to customize the design of pre-fab structures in such a way that their particular responses to a site context could be maximized. Each home site is different: why shouldn't each home reflect its site in ways large and small?

Add to the mass-customization of home designs the existing sustainability benefits of pre-fabricated buildings, and what we see revealed is a potential breakthrough in producing lovely one planet homes on a mass scale.

But how realistic is such an idea? Such a technology must be decades away, we might think, but we'd be wrong. It's here now, on demonstration in London: The Digital House.

Designed entirely in a virtual environment, the Digital House shows just how much precision is already available in computer-aided design:

The Digital House is produced using a detailed 3D computer model that contains all of the construction elements including every wall and screw hole which are pre-determined before the construction. This information is transferred to a CNC Router (Computer Numerical Control) which rapidly cuts out elements in engineered timber. These are assembled into lightweight hollow cassettes like big bricks of Lego, which can be filled with recycled newspaper to achieve a high level of insulation and air tightness. The technology behind the Digital House allows every part cut to be different than the next, so that houses can be customized to each individual’s requirements. This moves away from standardisation that has previously been an economic driving force in prefabricated systems that are criticised for being inflexible in their designs and visually repetitive.

As a proof of concept, a cross-sectioned home was recently put on display at the Architecture Foundation’s Yard Gallery.

What makes such tools even more exciting, though, is the way in which two other forces are coming to coincide with CAD: materials insights and metaverse technologies.

Materials: Simply put, we're getting better at making digital tools which help designers factor in the ecological implications of their materials choices at the initial design stage, by using databases and models to assess whether another material or technique might offer a more sustainable solution to a particular design challenge. As Dawn said in her piece in the Worldchanging Book, Ecodesign's Killer Application, building the ecological impacts of design decisions into the very software designers use to create and prototype products changes the very way designers think. And such information could just as easily be incorporated into building design programs.

Metaverse: We are gaining increasingly sophisticated tools for not only measuring and viewing the real world, but for mapping the real world into virtual spaces, and mapping virtual worlds into physical space.While the emergence of this physical-virtual hybrid "metaverse" has numerous implications, in this context it offers the potential for cheap and widely-available access to the kinds of knowledge about home sites and their contexts which until very recently was the domain of specialists: things like the terrain, hydrology and solar exposure of a site; the location and description of infrastructure connections; surrounding views and noise hazards; planned developments in the area and so on. Not all this information is available now, but much of it may well be before too long.

The possibilities for new technologies to interface with digital home deisgn don't stop there (for instance, don't even get me started about the future implications of nanotechnological fabrication), but consider the implications of what we've already mapped out here: smart, green homes, customized at the design stage for site conditions and user preferences, incorporating sustainable materials and techniques at every turn, produced more quickly and cheaply than conventional homes, and built to facilitate a one planet life.

That future may not be here yet, but it looks closer by the day.

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I agree with most of what you've written, Alex, however, when it came to designing and building my self-sufficient home (1990), I chose to minimize the amount of electricity that the house uses, which meant foregoing alot of the "smart house" technology, which simply uses too much power. Instead, I chose passive solar technology (passive meaning 'doesn't use any additional energy') and consciously choosing to interact with my home in terms of opening and closing windows and shades. Also essential is feedback to the user, i.e. how much electricity is being generated by PV panels vs. how much the house is using at any given time. And one of the most important features when designing a house is to be able to turn off electrical outlets in a room easily. I wired half of all the outlets in every room to a switch which turns all the outlets on and off; I then plug in all the "parasitic loads" into those outlets (the ones with transformers that are OK to turn off when not in use), and flip the switch at night to turn them all off. That kind of simple design elegance is at the heart of smaller energy footprints... and I agree with everything else you write about above.

Posted by: Ben Levi on 5 Apr 07

While interesting, intriguing, perhaps even inspiring or intoxicating, the "intelligent house" is a pipe dream. Petroleum reserves, water reserves and the extraction / refining of rare earth halides and other minerals needs to be allocated to life saving devices like pace-makers, defibrillators, earth quake and other early warning devices.

Houses can be designed to be intelligent without a micro-chip and wires. The Anasazi indians, and many other indigenous tribes paid attention to nature and built accordingly.

You can have your "cold beer and hot showers" as Amory Lovins says, without a computer keeping an eye on everything.

M Kennedy

Posted by: M Kennedy on 6 Apr 07

I think it's a fair point that we have a tendency to throw a computer at a problem these days, rather than looking for simpler alternatives. However, remember that the starting point of the article was how to make existing houses smarter (ie without major refurbishment)

The problems involved in using a computer are, themselves, solveable. There's no reason why a computer running an 'intelligent' house has to use much power.

This article reminds me of the 'Internet 0' project which proposed (among other things) a peer to peer interaction between simple electronic items in the house. (Jon Lebkowsky covered it here)

Thus, turning on a light switch didn't cause current to flow by closing a circuit. Instead, the switch broadcast a signal to a receptive device (the light) asking it to turn on.

The potential for such a simple gimmick can be seen when you consider just how much extra wiring (and labour) is needed to connect the light to the switch (or switches).

OTOH, the idea seems to have languished since 2004.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 9 Apr 07



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