When a group of us students at Stanford set out to design and build the home of the future, I had to start by asking myself a seemingly simple question: what is home? I think that home is the foundation of our beliefs and values, that our earliest notions of how the world works are formed and shaped by the first worlds we know: the crib, the dining table, the front yard. In my search I’ve been able to trace back almost all of my values to experiences at home, like the importance of family and discipline and creativity. But while home opens up our world, it also obscures it in many ways. One thing I never learned to value was energy. I never knew how we got electricity or water, what wires and pipes ran behind walls. I left sinks running because I liked the sound of flowing water. Every time I turned on a light switch as a kid it was an act of Biblical proportions, and in all due respect to the Creator I often left them on. And when I stopped believing in a higher power I left the television on at night because sometimes it was the only company I had. Energy was free and unlimited; or so they say ignorance was bliss. I’m fortunate enough to have been graced with the value of education and to work hard enough to be at a place like Stanford, where now I finally understand how energy is tied to our environment and how we’re depleting our planet of the kinds that cannot be renewed, how the residential building sector accounts for almost a quarter of all primary energy consumption in the U.S., and the responsibilities we have as designers and engineers to switch to sustainable sources of energy, so we don’t take away energy from our children. I think we should be designing homes that not only use as little energy as possible, but also produce all the energy they need. Today we call this net-zero, and at Stanford we decided we wanted to build a net-zero home ourselves.
Our opportunity came in the form of the Solar Decathlon, which is an international competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Every two years the DOE challenges twenty collegiate teams to design and build solar-powered net-zero homes that are affordable, attractive, and easy to live in. This is the first time that Stanford’s ever participated, and we took it as an opportunity to bring together over a hundred students to collaborate on a real-life, interdisciplinary project. Because as great as new forms of learning like online education are, there’s nothing quite like just getting outside and trying to build your own house. And from the very start we decided our goal wasn’t to win the competition, but to come up with an idea that would actually spark change in industry.
Now here’s the problem: the residential homebuilding industry is one of slowest innovating industries in the country, and that’s because you have thousands of builders each with a different notion of how to build the same thing, and municipalities with different standards for the same thing, such that when we try to build the same energy-efficient home, it’s like learning it from scratch every single time. Meanwhile, every year we’re producing cars that are all around more energy efficient. So we looked all the way back to the days of Henry Ford and the Model T and we asked, why not build homes like cars in factories, where we can actually guarantee the level of quality we need in today’s high-performance homes, then ship them to their final location to save time, energy, and cost? But then people said, no that’s not what we want, we don’t want these mobile track homes coming out of factories, we want customized homes that are unique and spacious and comfortable and not ugly. So we said OK, if we were to build homes in factories we wouldn’t want to dictate what they looked like or how they were lived in, but we would want to dictate how they perform. When the Model T first came out it was really just an engine and chassis, so Ford was really just providing the horsepower, but offering customizable shells for different consumer needs. So we asked ourselves, if we can design an engine for homes with a standard modular framework, then could we give homeowners both efficient housepower, as well as the freedom to build any kind of home they want around it?
So this is how it would work. Let’s say this one day becomes a company, which is not saying much at Stanford. The company sells these cores, and they contain a kitchen counter, a bathroom or two, a laundry closet, and a mechanical room in a variety of configurations. Let’s say we’ve developed these cores to be customizable and affordable using assembly line techniques of fabrication. You want to build a green home for your family, so you go onto our website and size a CORE for your energy needs. Then like Amazon, your order is assembled in a factory and shipped to your plot of land, at which point you design and build a home around it. The core distributes electricity, water, and air efficiently into each living space, kind of like your own energy management center, it provides intelligence for various sensors and controls like switches and lights, and it seamlessly integrates into any kind of architecture. In short, the core is like the muscle, brain, and the heart of every new net zero home.
We wanted to prototype this concept, so for our Solar Decathlon entry we designed one example of a house built around the core for the Palo Alto climate. After about a year of developing this design, we finally got started with construction on campus over Spring Break. I’ve got to be honest: almost nobody on our team had any prior construction experience and we had no idea what we were doing, so we just sort of made up our own ways of doing things. For example, instead of using blueprints we created a virtual model, and used laptops and smart phones onsite to access a 3D virtual model that’s an exact replica of what we were building. Students have been working on construction for almost two months now, and we should be done by summer. After that we’ll disassemble the house into modules and truck them to Irvine for the competition in October. A few months ago we were lucky to find a permanent place for the house after the competition, actually right here on Stanford’s own Jasper Ridge Nature Preserve, where it will become the new home of the ranger and his wife and daughter. I remember thinking at that moment that finally this house was going to affect people’s lives.
But then I thought about this girl, and I thought about her growing up in this home we’d created for her. I thought about her playing with the faucets, turning on the lights. I asked myself whether she would care about energy. And I realized we’d gotten it all wrong. We were taking the typical Silicon Valley approach of using hidden technology in the background to make tasks in the foreground as easy and efficient as possible, but we were missing the point if people living in our home remained ignorant of their energy usage. Our goal was smart homes instead of smart people. So we went back to the drawing board and changed our approach from automation to agency. What happens when you design for automation? You get a sustainable building. You improve the energy efficiency of a couple thousand square feet. But what happens when you design for agency? You get sustainable people. They learn to take responsibility for their own energy usage, and they reap their own rewards. They take good habits like recycling and water conservation, and they take them to their friends’ homes, to school, to the workplace. They inspire others to share the same values. You get a sustainable community. We redesigned the CORE to not just power the house but to empower people to take charge of their causal role in the larger energy narrative.
The first thing we did was create a new kind of window into the residents’ energy usage. An electric bill at the end of the month is too far removed from the day to day choices that actually affect energy usage, and a kilowatt hour means very little to the average homeowner, so we knew we had to create some kind of feedback that was more frequent, salient, and meaningful. And the CORE was perfect for that because we could embed it with sensors and a database to record electricity and water use every single day from day one of living in the home. One of our biggest projects for the house is the web app that controls it, which is all about taking data that is typically invisible to the homeowner and making it a tool for goal-setting and personal improvement. We’re experimenting with a lot of ideas including turning the traditional linear graph into a radial clock to establish the notion of time being cyclical and layering onto itself for self-comparison, and energy use being a chain of causal events. With the CORE, we’re finally able to deliver the type of ubiquitous eco-feedback that allows people to value their energy footprint as part of their identity. Not just data mapping, but something like data portraiture.
In fact we reexamined all the points in the house at which the resident makes energy use decisions and we asked ourselves, how can we redesign these interaction points in a way that nudge people toward more efficient behavior while maintaining user agency? Take the light switch, for example, one of our multiple interaction design projects. We could have just designed an occupancy or infrared sensor into the switch that would completely automate the use of lights, but we saw this as a critical opportunity to increase awareness about electricity use. So we designed a gesture-based room switch tied to the CORE that also turns on and off outlets in the room, and we embedded a color-feedback mechanism that communicates the room’s power draw in real time, so users can see the immediate impact of turning outlets or lights off when they leave the room and actually feel satisfied instead of ignoring it. Again, it’s not the Silicon Valley approach we’re used to, but it’s a more human-centered approach, and that means giving people the tools to become architects of their own happiness.
Winston Churchill said it best: we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us. It took us over a year to figure it out, but as a future architect it’s a lesson I’ll never forget. I hope that my generation will be the one to finally say that the ignorance stops here and that it’s time to change our cultures and values around energy, and if one day something like this CORE goes to market, I think we’ll be able to do it from the comfort of our own homes.