e-House 2000 - Lab for Living

HouseLab

Builder Magazine, January 2001

By Michael McDonough

E-House2000 embodies the best of sustainable technologies and the Internet. Check out this living laboratory for the future of housing: It will change the way you look at home building.

Looking back, Frank Lloyd Wright had it figured out.

A hundred years ago, he created excitement by admixing building, technology, and style. He knew that nature—the site, the landscape, the sun, the earth itself—had to be part of the picture. A wild man in a cape, anything could set him off: a waterfall, a Mayan ruin, a seashell. He was an integrator, and that was his way into the American experience—as the generator of form. Frank Lloyd Wright is the patron saint of my house, the e-House2000.

What got me started on the idea for this house was a science fiction story I wrote with futurist Bruce Sterling. The idea for the story was that today, science fiction is actually science fact, that what we might see as possible in some far-off future as the ideal house is actually achievable now. The basics are all there, most of them just lying around on the Internet—deployable technologies you can buy today.

I decided to build that perfect future house. The e-House2000 would look like no other. It would be simultaneously contemporary and traditional, with a bit of edgy glamour thrown in. It would be green, of course. And it would be controlled from the Web. It would be created as software first, then morphed into existence. In a nutshell, it would take the best of sustainable technologies and the best of the Internet and make a whole new building type, a think tank for the future of housing.

So I gathered a group of scientists, engineers, and code hackers, and we researched every house building category we could find. From that, we created a Web site—a three-dimensional rendered virtual reality of the house, from photogrammetric aerial surveys right down to the marble tile and window gaskets.

Right now, e-House2000 is very close to becoming a reality in the rural woods of Stone Ridge, NY. Concrete pours are finished, and the aerated autoclaved concrete block, framing, floor assemblies, and SIPs are in place. The house is scheduled for completion in 2001. But you don’t need to see the final product to learn what e-House2000 is all about. Read on for highlights of this ground-breaking futuristic house. Take particular note of the exploded isometric on pages 258-259, which provides an overview of e-House’s most innovative systems.

Green Scene

Of course, as most housing of the future will have to be, the e-House2000 is green. But it’s not just about solar panels jammed on the roof; it’s about health and well-being. Here are just some of the home’s environmentally friendly highlights:

Efficient Energy Systems

The home’s photovoltaics are used as uninterruptable power sources, making e-House’s computer, two-way satellite, and whole-house supervisory control and data acquisition software operable 24/7/365. The heating system is miniaturized—an instant hot-water unit the size of a suitcase (so you get the utility room back for wine storage). For optimal comfort, the unit is tied to a radiant heating system in bamboo floors—performance combined with good looks.

What about good old thermal solar? It’s there, linked it to the geothermal loops in the fiber-optic conduit trenches and targeted for domestic hot water and radiant cooling. The house is supply-duct-free, running an energy recovery ventilator and a super dehumidifier—high and dry.

e-House also employs geothermal snow melting with recycled-newspaper spacers in its copper roof deck, and stainless steel/zinc tin roofing. Both materials age beautifully, and are designed for disassembly. In addition, the steel oxidizes uniformly when exposed to airborne pollutants, which makes it highly resistive to corrosion. Other efficient features include an aboveground biotech septic tank yields drinking water and a prototype fuel cell that runs on liquefied petroleum and hydrogen, pointing to the day when the building can run off the grid with only heat and water as waste products.

Innovative concrete

The poured concrete has recycled slag in it. And, as de-aerated flowable fill, it makes for a handy way to engineer subsurface thermal transfer rates at the geothermal loops. Our concrete block is aerated and autoclaved, a kind of shake-and-bake with R-factors as high as thirty per 8 inches of wall thickness.

Sustainable wood

The e-House’s wood is green. Literally. It’s young, fast-growth timber formed by computer into Wood-I-Beams and oriented-strand board (OSB). The framing lumber, chock-full of sustainable borax, updated as an insect repellant and preservative and delivered to the site ready to go. With sustainable-wood frames, the windows are high-performance and weather-resistant.

Super insulation. The e-House doesn’t just have insulation; it wears super insulation. Polyisocyanurate-in ceilings and cantilevered overhangs—-gives you R-factor bang for the buck while using lots of recycled materials. Cellular glass is guaranteed for at least 20 years, has been field-observed having no deterioration for at least 60 years, and is structural to boot. The cellular glass is used in all cavity walls and roof decks

Some of the wildest forms in the house combine all of the above ideas like pressure treated lumber and structural insulated panels (SIPs) made from OSB, urethane foam, and naturally occurring borates. The forms are first drawn in a computer, laser-cut on a bed the size of a flat car, and shipped to the site. Finally, they are placed with a cherry picker.

Traditional touches

e-House re-brands traditionally crafted, site-sourced materials as “alternate technologies” that are sustainable, low-tech, and time-tested. We’ve incorporated stone walls and hyper-efficient radiant fireplaces, copper roofing, bread ovens—things people love and connect to in buildings. Only now, they can be justified as energy savers or local economic engines or spiritual healers.

MENSA House

Unlike much current smart house technology that relies on the telephone to activate remote commands, e-House uses the Web to control just about everything. It does so using a system called SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition).

SCADA uses the home’s e-LAN and Internet to collect and broadcast data constantly, feeding information into software that tracks information and makes decisions about the house and its operations. For example, excess humidity levels might prompt the warning: “You’ve got pre-dry-rot conditions in Sector 4; deploy preventive maintenance procedures.” (For the research team, “Turn the dishwasher on from Tokyo over your cell phone,” became our clarion call.)

With SCADA, windows open automatically when the building’s weather station senses balmy breezes and close when the relative humidity and temperature matrix predict snow. (“Pre-start snow melt to reduce required BTUs” is the command line.) It’s geekdom raised to chic-dom.

Old Meets New

Sometimes old and new technologies overlap in the home. For example, we found marble from Irish quarries that had been closed for decades. In the past the stone was so difficult to cut and control, that nearly 90% of it was lost in the process. Now, using computers and lasers, it can be cut as thin as 1 millimeter with a loss factor is 1 percent. We used the stone in e-House’s fireplaces and bathrooms.

As for the foundations, they’re full of rubble. Rubble trench, a 19th-century technique (used by Wright at Taliesin), is updated with a chemically stable synthetic geofabric that directs water to drains and prevents silting. Layered into this mix are utilities and empty, future-proof conduit runs with pull-lines. Some of the slabs are reinforced with bamboo, our biotech vegetal “steel” that re-oxygenates the air, cleans the soil, gets carbon-sequestration credits (and makes a decent salad). A high-strength slag and concrete grade beam tops it off. In addition, Internet-maintained hydroponic bamboo plants inside the house act as organic HEPA filters.

e-House uses passive solar and daylighting, and natural ventilation in every room. Add that to the low-VOC paints, recycled content stuccos that breathe, and partitions that are recyclable and designed for disassembly—and you’ve got a healthy house indeed.

Limitless Possibilities

High-tech features notwithstanding, the best part of the e-House2000 is the rosy picture of the future it paints. For builders, the possibilities are enticing: the home as object of desire, energy credits as financing leverage, and better products that are easy to buy and install (and that self-manage their own callbacks).

New ways of combining technologies also come into focus with e-House. The high-tech, timed-staging and load-shedding of building mechanical systems can be tweaked and finagled using the computer to manage it all. New architectural styles can be based on the house’s interaction with the landscape and the sun’s path. (“Of course, the master bedroom faces the best view, Mr. and Mrs. Jones, and the kitchen catches the morning sun.”) People will buy this stuff for the sheer high-tech/high-touch pleasure of it. Think of it as the bottled-water, free-range-beef, and hybrid-car movement of the home building industry.

Think about your e-commuting home buyers, too. A different breed, they need not move around as much by car as before, and their houses are more than a breakfast pit stop and weekend crash pad wrapped around a microwave-and-TV lifestyle. They inhabit them.

Recognizing all these possibilities, banks and mortgage companies might start thinking about replacing low-initial-cost analyses with long-term investment strategies. If people stay put longer, maybe investing in that scenario makes sense for everyone. Then tax incentives for local industries, solar power, and green technologies might become part of every politician’s campaign promises—the technological equivalent of kissing a baby. Builders might find their labor shortages becoming more manageable, because high-tech building is super-efficient and they could get by with smaller crews and more machines.

The building industry itself might change, attracting a new generation of polymath, highly skilled, dot-com refugees who want a sense of accomplishment and outdoor physical exercise for at least part of the year. So your local organic farmer and finish carpenter might also be a flat-screen R&D guy six months of the year, or your plumber might be a horticulturist, or your construction manager an award-winning environmentalist. Mine are. People might just feel better about themselves, form communities, spend more time with their kids and life partners.

F.L. Wright would probably have liked the e-House2000 future. And that can’t be all bad.

10 Things I Couldn’t Build Without

  1. Concrete. Not just any concrete, new concrete. From poured mixes with NewCem recycled slag, to Matrix PAAC lightweight aerated autoclaved block, to flowable fills, to recycled-content parges and stuccos, new concrete reduces the amount of ozone-depleting limestone, acts as thermal insulation, breathes, takes color better, and is stronger than the conventional stuff.
  2. Computer software for Design and Production. The e-House2000 team used MicroStation/J, a Java-compatible CAD software that takes you from concept to design, from 2-D planning and construction documents to 3-D renderings, from e-mail to Web site.
  3. Engineered lumber products. From Georgia-Pacific Wood-I-Beams to laminated veneer lumber, e-House2000 uses computer engineered, quick growth, sustainable forest products that are cost effective, uniform in quality, and easy to install.
  4. High-performance windows. Your R-factors are only as good as your doors and windows. The e-House2000 team chose Anderson wood doors and windows because they are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and the Energy Star Program.
  5. Smart House Networking. Hughes Network Systems satellite Internet access, Web site-based home controls and automation, and TV programming on demand will make e-House as efficient as a duel fuel automobile and as personalizable as your own home page and e-mail address.
  6. Metal roofing. Follansbee high-tech stainless steel outperforms in severe corrosive conditions on the exposed light- and view-catchers. Alternate-tech Revere copper offers flexibility for roof decks and roof stairs. Designed for disassembly, long life, and recycling, both age to beautiful patinas. Neither require painting.
  7. Photovoltaic products. Ushering in the age of clean, green electricity, BP Solar products offer uninterruptable power sources that protect from brownouts, blackouts, and heavy weather power outages while decentralizing power production and making everyone an energy producer.
  8. Radiant heating, cooling, and snowmelt systems. Fit into floors and ceilings, roofs and roof decks, and tied to multi-fuel geothermal loops, high-efficiency instant hot water heaters, radiant eliminate the need for large ducts, ensure good indoor air quality, and can be computer controlled. E-House uses Roth’s systems coupled with energy recover ventilators, evacuated heat pipe solar collectors, and super dehumidifiers in a revolutionary cooling system.
  9. Structural insulated panel products. Winter Panel SIPs can be designed on CAD software, e-mailed to production plants, and laser cut to exacting specifications, all the while delivering efficient building techniques and high insulation values. When teamed with SmartGuard borate-preserved framing lumber and insect-resistant panel products, they point the way to quick assembly/long lifespan buildings of the future.
  10. Valued-added thermal insulation. Designed for disassembly high-performance insulation is an integral part of building wall and roof assemblies. FOAMGLAS cellular glass offers uniquely high compressive strength and very long life span. E’NRG’Y 2 polyisocyanurate is recycled and recyclable plastic.

For names, addresses, and Web sites of the companies whose products are used in e-House click on “January Links” on the Builder Online home page at www.builderonline.com.

Author’s Biography

Michael McDonough is an award-winning architect and industrial designer based in New York. He has written numerous articles and consults worldwide on corporate futurism, personal environments, and product development.

Additional e-House online resources from Builder Magazine.