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Builders Imagine Homes of the Future

Monday, October 16, 2017

By Michele Lerner, Washington Post

Ever thought about having a dedicated room with an operable opening on the top to accommodate drone deliveries?

Or using a 3-D printer to supply hinges for your cabinets? Or imagined your home’s windows adjusting to light and seasons the way your photochromic glasses do: darkening slightly in the summer to reduce heat build-up and fading to black at night for privacy without shades?

These are among the innovations that could make your residence healthier and safer, more comfortable and easier to run.

Builders develop and construct “concept” houses to test products, techniques and residential designs that could someday become as common as open floor plans and high-efficiency heat pumps.

“The best way to predict the future is to make it,” said Jacob Atalla, vice president of Sustainability for KB Home in Los Angeles. “We collaborate with people inside and outside the housing industry to factor trends and technology into best practices for homes.”

Most of the trends expected to affect house designs address consumers concerns’ about healthier living, affordability and adaptability to future lifestyles.

“When we imagine the home of the future and look at innovations, it’s important to answer two questions,” said Matt Power, editor in chief of Green Builder media in South Portland, Maine. “Just like you ask yourself about relationships, you should ask, ‘Does this make your life better?’ And if the answer is yes, then ask yourself from an ethical point of view, ‘Does this reduce my impact on the Earth?’ ”

Smart Homes 2.0

Among the futuristic innovations already here are home automation systems, which have been available for decades. In recent years, systems such as the Nest “learning” thermostat that automatically sets itself according to the residents’ patterns have become more affordable.

 “The future isn’t just about cool stuff. It’s about how a home responds to you and makes it nicer and safer to live in,” said C.R. Herro, vice president of Environmental Affairs for Meritage Homes in Scottsdale, Arizona. “Right now my house automatically locks the front door, closes the garage door and puts on the outside lights when it’s 11 pm. And when I come home it puts on music and lights for me.”

Herro said windows that change pigment are being piloted now and will work automatically to make your home more comfortable.

The next step for smart houses is greater connectivity and intelligence, rather than just “command and control” as it primarily exists today, said Sara Gutterman, chief executive and co-founder of Green Builder Media in Denver.

“We’re seeing a convergence of smart-home systems and energy-efficiency, where we’re using technology not only to make our lives easier, but to save resources and to make our lives healthier and safer,” Gutterman said.

Gutterman said she expects that fully integrated, artificial intelligence and computer-based learning systems that optimize themselves will be in place within five years, at least for early technology adopters.

“We need to look at energy efficiency, water efficiency, smart-home systems and healthy homes together,” Atalla said. “For example, everyone recognizes the importance of sleep to people’s health. Connecting all your devices to turn down the lights gently and adjust the air temperature as it gets later in the evening can help restore your circadian rhythms. You can have white noise turn on while you sleep, and then in the morning your home can automatically mimic sunrise, and your tankless water heater can warm up the water for your shower.”

KB Home partnered with Apple to demonstrate the “HomeKit” in a model house near Silicon Valley that integrates all home-related apps into one connected app that can take care of lights, temperature, security and more with one command, such as “Good night, Siri.”

Flexible Floor Plans

In 2016, at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, the Greenbuild KB Home ProjeKt house included a flexible room that could be used as a garage or as a bedroom and bathroom for buyers without cars.

“We thought about people who host Airbnb guests, so we developed a movable wall that creates a private bedroom for guests and then easily moves again when guests aren’t present to increase your open living space,” Atalla said. “We also added flexibility with a rotating wall that has furniture to turn it into an office, plus a painting that converts to a TV in the living room that can rotate into the office if you want to use it for teleconferencing.”

Clayton Homes, which primarily constructs manufactured houses, built a 1,200 sq. ft. “Gen Now” house with sliding doors to convert rooms for multiple uses for similar flexibility.

Green Builder Media’s “Flex House,” a prefabricated residence, has a floor plan that can easily be expanded as a family’s needs change. The house is designed to power itself 100% off-grid, Gutterman said, and can harvest rainwater for its water supply.

“The house has 760 sq. ft. and costs about $85,000 without the land or the furniture,” Power said. “It feels a lot bigger because it has high ceilings and curved corners for a nice flow. We expect that house to go into production in about a year.”

Architects and builders not only need to respond to changes in the way people live, but they also must adapt to changes outside the home such as the emphasis on reducing dependence on cars.

“We’re already starting to see fewer garage spaces per unit in apartments and condos in areas where people walk more or rely on fleets of inexpensive on-demand cars,” Robert Dietz, chief economist of the National Association of Home Builders, said. “Eventually this could change requirements on builders and allow for more density and more units if you can roll back the need to provide parking.”

Dietz said developers are trying to figure out the potential impact of self-driving cars.

“Some people think self-driving cars could encourage people to move farther away from downtown areas because they can work and entertain themselves while the car drives itself, reducing the stress of commuting,” Dietz said. “But developers are also trying to determine whether Americans are now at peak car ownership for individuals, which could mean garages can be smaller in the future.”

KB Homes is also addressing the trend of e-commerce by preparing a landing pad for a drone on top of a house, with a chute leading into a dedicated space for deliveries that can be refrigerated for food items.

“The delivery pod can be accessed with a code given to a delivery person and by communication between the drone and an app on the homeowner’s phone,” Atalla said. “The homeowners would also have access to the pod from the inside of their house.”


Despite the plethora of sustainable products for the home, consumers are becoming more skeptical of the benefits of upgrading to energy-efficient systems, Herro said.

“Buyers tend to look at the price tag more than operating costs,” Herro said. “We need to be transparent about showing the cost-effectiveness of building more energy-efficient homes.”

Herro said that trillions of dollars are wasted because utility companies must run more plants than required to accommodate peak energy use – plants that are not needed when demand for energy drops.

 “We’ve been working to demonstrate that, with home automation and collaboration between builders and the utilities, we can reduce home-operating costs by 70% in the future,” Herro said.

Home energy-monitoring systems can be used to create a dialogue with utility companies, Gutterman said.

“Homes can now produce, store and monitor their energy and then use their stored energy when demand is at its peak or feed it back to the grid if they don’t need it,” Gutterman said.

A 3D rendering of a modern house interior with independent energy storage.

An app called Smappee is available to monitor how much electricity is being used by every device in your house, Power said.

“If you want people to use less resources, you have to make it a game,” Power said. “We need people to start competing with themselves and each other to see who can use the least (amount of) resources.”

Meritage Homes has built energy-efficient model houses to showcase various features at the International Builders Show. Herro said “grid harmonization,” in which home automation systems, battery storage of energy and links to utility companies to stabilize the use of energy to avoid peaks and troughs, will shift the housing market within three or four years.

“Homes are producing more power through solar panels and wind turbines, driven in part by the tax credits used to encourage the use of this technology,” Dietz said. “If battery technology improves, we’re likely to see a leap forward in the number of Net Zero houses that produce as much energy as they use.”

Power said that batteries that store energy are starting to improve, including Tesla’s Powerwall, designed to provide power all night for a house that runs on solar energy during the day.

In addition to energy-monitoring systems, builders are beginning to add water-monitoring systems that detect leaks.

“The next step is a whole house system that optimizes the way we use water,” Gutterman said. “The system can tell homeowners when something is overusing water so they put controls in, for example, to shorten showers.”

Gutterman said that most houses use potable water for everything, but gray water from showers and faucets can be purified and used for landscaping and toilets.

KB Homes uses gray water recycling in California to address ongoing drought issues there, using filtered water from the shower for landscaping.

“Now we’re working on adding a system to extract energy from recycled hot water to heat new fresh water,” Atalla said.


Herro said that concern about health will change the ways houses are built in the future. Builders use low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paint, and consumers are aware of the dangers of chemicals in household materials, but Herro said consumers and builders can still buy carpet that evaporates formaldehyde.

“So far, the (Environmental Protection Agency’s) Indoor airPLUS program is only voluntary,” he said. “Once we show more people that they could have fewer allergies and less exposure to toxic materials, they will demand the program in new homes.”

There is widespread misunderstanding of what causes poor indoor air quality, Power said. For example, he said, only 8% of people say they use their range hood fan when cooking, but cooking fumes contribute to indoor air pollution.

“In the future, things need to happen automatically, such as the range hood fan turning on when particles are detected in the air,” Power said. “There’s an app available now called Awair that identifies indoor toxins in your home.”

Herro said that lighting systems are available to help consumers get their bodies in sync with daylight so they sleep better.

Prefabricated Houses

One prediction for the future of home building at first appears to be more of a throwback: manufactured houses. The process of building parts of houses in a factory is more efficient than building them completely on-site, and also reduces costs to consumers.

“Ninety-seven percent of single-family homes are completely site-built right now, but we are anticipating that a growing share of homes will include modular or panelized pieces that will be built in a factory in the future,” Dietz said. “We’re facing a labor shortage in the construction industry, so increasing the factory-built elements of homes can help alleviate that issue.”

The average price of a newly-built home is more than $409,000, but manufactured homes average about $200,000, said Kevin Clayton, chief executive of Clayton Homes in Knoxville, Tennessee, which primarily builds manufactured houses.

"The Knight" model of modular homes from Clayton Homes.

“We’ve acquired a traditional site-building company and now we build manufactured, modular and traditional homes,” Clayton said. “But the lines between these building methods are blurring and sometimes there’s a mix of all of this in one home.”

Clayton Homes recently built a prototype for its “New Class of Homes,” priced at under $140,000, which have covered porches, more steeply pitched roofs and a garage, and look more like traditional houses than manufactured ones.

“We’ve been building test houses to demonstrate the energy-efficiency of our homes, including a Net Zero model (that produces as much energy as it uses) and models with solar panels and bamboo floors,” Clayton said. “All the lessons we learn when building our concept homes are being put into projects we’re working on now.”

While companies such as Clayton Homes have focused on manufactured houses for decades, traditional builders such as KB Homes are researching and developing what Atalla calls “cartridges,” which are components of a house, such as a kitchen with cabinets and counters, built in a factory and delivered to a house under construction for insertion.

“Building sections of a house in a factory reduces the amount of material needed and exposure to weather,” Atalla said. “But this also addresses the fact that a house and its owners will have different life stages, so instead of having to do a major remodel, someone can order a new cartridge to be inserted into the house.”

Dietz said 3-D printers that can manufacture house components on-site are also expected to change construction techniques in the future and perhaps shift home-building materials away from wood.

While some of these futuristic ideas have already been introduced into homes, Atalla said that the next step is to determine how they can be economically viable and scalable.

So while it may take some time for packages to be dropped into your pod by drone, you can harness technology now to connect your home’s systems for energy efficiency, security and wellness.

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