A little more than two years ago, a group of Virginia Tech students and faculty designed and built FutureHAUS, a high-tech, solar-powered house that ultimately won the 2018 Solar Decathlon Middle East competition held in Dubai, a city of approximately 4 million people in the United Arab Emirates

The victory brought international acclaim to both the group and to the university, and it led to the house being displayed for various periods of time in New York City’s Times Square and in Alexandria, Virginia, near the site of the university’s future Innovation Campus.

Now, after a year off because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the house’s world tour is resuming.

On April 2, the various components of the house left Norfolk, Virginia, on a cargo ship bound for Dubai, the site of this year’s Expo2020 — an event better known to many as the “World’s Fair.” Event officials postponed the exposition last fall because of the pandemic, but rescheduled it for this October through March 2022.

“They wanted to showcase the winning house, so that’s why we’re doing this,” said Joseph Wheeler, a professor of architecture and lead faculty member of FutureHAUS. “It’s an invitation from the Dubai Energy and Water Authority, and they’re paying for the house to be shipped and to accommodate the students while they’re over there for the two three-month stints.”

Wheeler expects the house to arrive in Dubai in late April. At that time, he, graduate teaching assistant Blake Massie, and two recent graduates who participated on the 2018 team plan to travel to Dubai to oversee the house’s assembly. Insurance restrictions related to the event prevent them from taking a hands-on approach with the assembly process, but they will be offering guidance to the contractor charged with the task.

FutureHAUS, however, will not be the same version that won the Solar Decathlon Middle East in 2018 when it surpassed dwellings from 14 other countries. Wheeler and a team of students from various colleges on campus spent the past year rebuilding and renovating.

They wanted to make improvements before sending it back to Dubai, adding the latest in technological features that continuously become available. But a Blacksburg thunderstorm in fall 2019 unexpectedly added to their workload, forcing them to rebuild certain sections of the house.

“A storm ripped through the site where it was stored and toppled it and nearly destroyed four or five of the 12 cartridges,” Wheeler said, referring to the customizable pieces that include walls, floors, ceiling, wiring, and plumbing. “We spent the summer not only working on the improvements, but also the reconstruction of the components. But we brought it back to life."

A class of 50 research students helped with the project, though COVID protocols complicated matters, preventing more than five or six of them from working at any given moment. Also, students from a fall electrical engineering capstone course added their expertise, providing ways to enhance the electrical system.

In addition, last summer, Wheeler spent a portion of the insurance money received from the storm damage to hire six people to help expedite the building process.

“I thought the team worked creatively within the time constraints and the difficulties of working with insurance to install something that works effectively in Dubai,” Wheeler said.

Students work on the framing of FutureHAUS
Three students work an interior wall of FutureHAUS while at the Blacksburg construction site in early March while preparing the house to be shipped to Dubai, the site of the World Expo2020.

The research group came up with numerous ideas for improvement. Not that they needed to do so, though. The house already contained an array of incredible features to meet the group’s aging-in-place goals. Aging in place is a phrase that refers to the allowing of people to stay in a home for a lifetime, if they so choose. FutureHAUS meets the needs of everyone from a recently married young couple to a middle-aged couple with children to elderly people in their 80s.

What are some of the features of FutureHAUS? The house has a solar-powered electrical system, a touchscreen backsplash in the kitchen, automatic sliding doors, adjustable countertops (along with vanities and toilets), movable walls that allow for the changing of floor plans, and a water filtration system that recycles 90 percent of the water used in the house.

Other common-sense features include a dishwasher that senses when one is low on detergent and orders more (which then gets delivered by a drone and dropped into a “hatch”) to floor sensors that measure the impact of a fall (think of an elderly person) and notifies help, if needed.

But those in the group added even a few more touches. They replaced the frosted glass on the doors with electrochromic glass that tints dark during times of extreme heat, as is common in the Middle East. They also added facial recognition technology that allows access to the house, and with Mitsubishi’s help, they upgraded HVAC systems.

“It [the house] can accommodate you as you grow throughout your years,” said Massie, who received his undergraduate degree at Fairmont State University in West Virginia and will graduate from Virginia Tech in May with a master’s degree in architecture. “One of the great things, too, is it’s accommodating you throughout your day as your day changes. I love the idea that the office can expand during the work hours. You can flip your TV around and teleconference during the 9-to-5 day. Then when it’s time to put the office away, it can tuck away. You put the wall back, flip the TV around, and now you’re watching TV on the couch with your significant other or your children.

“I think the house is very adaptable not only year to year, but hour to hour.”

All of the features of this house highlight the positives of the prefabrication process – another of the group’s goals. In prefabrication, workers of all trades build the components of a house in pieces at a factory and then assemble the various pieces together at the site. The workers communicate and work together to save time, costs related to shipping and labor, and material waste.

“I think prefabricated architecture has a good place because I think it can provide a high quality of architecture to the masses at a lower cost than what is available if you’re building high-quality architecture on site,” Massie said. “Especially if you’re thinking about integrating technology and saving time on the job.

“It’s really smart, too, because one of the hallmarks of prefabrication is minimizing construction waste. About 40 percent of our landfills are filled with building materials, and prefabricated building in a factory can reduce that. We’re building smarter homes, and that reduces construction waste because you’re not outgrowing and renovating your home after 20 years. You can stay in it long term.”

Students work on an exterior wall of FutureHAUS
Two Virginia Tech students work on a exterior wall of FutureHAUS at the Blacksburg construction site before the house was shipped to Norfolk and then on to Dubai.

Mitsubishi, Dominion Energy, Dupont, and Kohler – companies with international profiles that rank among the best in their respective industries – partnered with Virginia Tech on this project. They worked with architecture, electrical engineering, and computer engineering students, along with faculty members in those disciplines.

They all played a part in continuing a Virginia Tech tradition of building cutting-edge solar homes. That tradition started with LumenHAUS, which was the first “house of the future” and built in 2010. Wheeler coordinated those construction efforts, too, as he and his teams of Virginia Tech students and faculty have focused on living experiences over the past decade.

They all see a home building industry that constantly evolves and changes. This time – and yet again – they took what many viewed as a future dream and turned it into today’s reality.

This fall, Wheeler tentatively hopes to take eight students to Dubai – plans that hinge ultimately on final university approval, as school officials monitor the pandemic health situation in conjunction with local, regional, and national agencies. But if everything works out, those eight will work externships with American companies until their October departure and then finish those externships in Dubai.

In January, that team will return to the United States, and a new group of eight will head to Dubai as part of a travel abroad program, with faculty working three- or four-week stints at a time.

“We’ll take all necessary precautions,” Wheeler said. “The students are serving as ambassadors. Two people at all times will be at the FutureHAUS site. They’re going to be there to meet and greet famous people from around the world – people that are interested in the house. They’re not giving tours of the house. They’re just there as ambassadors.

“Over the summer, we’re going to be preparing a 15-minute long, self-guided tour. We’ll have 32 iPads that we’ll sanitize so they [visitors] can go through the house virtually, or they can scan a code using their personal devices to access a self-guided tour.”

Hopefully, those students and faculty get to be a part of one of the world’s biggest events. But if the team is unable to travel safely because of pandemic guidelines or other challenges that may arise, they intend to celebrate their contributions to a cool project – one that not only brought fun to their academic lives, but also taught them how architecture, construction, and logistics work together and ultimately prepared them for their future careers.

That alone is invaluable.

“I didn’t get much experience of that as an undergraduate, so I’ve been able to grow a lot on this project and hone my skills,” Massie said. “It’s been incredible. It takes these abstract things that we learn in the classroom and brings them into reality. It’s really been invaluable.”

Written by Jimmy Robertson