Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies school has brought together groups of students to help build sustainable solar homes in the Middle East. They earned the accomplishment of coming in first place out of the 14 teams that were selected to participate.
After years of research and development contributed by over 100 Virginia Tech students and faculty, the FutureHAUS Dubai team has officially built the world’s best solar home.
The lone American team earned a first-place victory over 14 other selected teams and more than 60 total entrants of the 2018 Solar Decathlon Middle East, a competition launched by theUnited States Department of Energy and the United Arab Emirates’Dubai Electricity & Water Authority. The global competition aimed to accelerate research on building sustainable, grid-connected, solar homes.
The win follows nearly two decades of research and two years of accelerated development, overcoming a fire that burned down a previous iteration of the house, and more than a month spent in a desert in the outskirts of Dubai, where two dozen students and faculty erected the entire house.
The concept of FutureHAUS Dubai was brought to life through a university-wide effort, combining talents and research from Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies, College of Engineering, Myers-Lawson School of Construction, Pamplin College of Business, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, College of Science, and various centers and labs within.
“We have the most interdisciplinary team that we’ve ever had around any research project, and that’s what it takes. That’s the secret,” said Joe Wheeler, architecture professor and lead faculty of FutureHAUS Dubai. “That’s the formula to making something this amazing.” The Solar Decathlon Middle East juries agreed. In addition to winning first place overall, the team earned top three in nearly all sub-contests: first place in architecture, first place in creative solutions, second place in energy efficiency, second place in interior design, third place in sustainability, and third place in engineering and construction.
According to team members, this success was largely due to a reliance on interdisciplinary knowledge. Each member contributed their unique set of skills, expertise, and life experience, filling in smaller parts of a bigger picture.
Josh Delaney, a first-year master’s student in architecture from Richmond, Virginia, said the team went out of their way to bring in as many disciplines to the project as possible.
“It’s the reason why we have computer science, engineering, landscape architecture, interior design, architecture — we have people from all different backgrounds. My background is in construction and construction management,” Delaney said, citing his years of professional experience in the construction industry and his recent entry to the architecture program. “I bring the real-world building experience.”
Between the team members on the ground in Dubai and those in Blacksburg, navigating so many involved disciplines was a learning experience for the team members.
“I have never experienced this much interdisciplinary knowledge going back and forth every single day to get something done,” said Michelle Le, a recent architecture graduate and student architectural design leader on the team from Herndon, Virginia. “Learning how to work as a team and working almost as a big family to get something like this into fruition is — I think it was just incredible.”
Beyond the competition, FutureHAUS looks to revolutionize homebuilding
For a team that built the home, not just for the inaugural Middle Eastern competition, but to challenge the status quo of traditional homebuilding, the accolades validate what Wheeler calls “the new way to build and a new way to live” that FutureHAUS Dubai proposes.
Aspirationally, the concepts behind the home will, in the near future, address real, impending problems awaiting an increasingly crowded world with finite resources. The hurdle, Wheeler said, is overcoming a revenue-driven homebuilding industry that has little room for innovation and change.
Recently-graduated industrial and systems engineering student Kunal Gandhi of Lexington, Virginia (left), and fifth-year architecture student Philip Kistler of Fayetteville, West Virginia, work on moving bags of rocks from a truck. The white rocks helped reflect heat from the plants in the garden and added to the house’s aesthetic.
At Virginia Tech, Wheeler said, the team was given the space to innovate, without the pressure of turning an immediate profit. In turn, companies have been able to partner with and provide funding and gifts-in-kind for the team to use the house as a test bed for new ideas that they may not otherwise be able to explore.
“At the university, we cannot propose the future of building without collaboration with industry,” said Wheeler, also a co-director of the Center for Design Research in the School of Architecture + Design. “At the same time, the industry is going to have a hard time proposing what the house of the future is because they’re kind of stuck into a business model that has to generate profit.”
With the full support of the team’s industry partners, including such top sponsors as Dupont, Dominion Energy, and Kohler, the team sought solutions to save water and energy, eliminate waste in the homebuilding process, and ensure house inhabitants can age in place using smart and accessible technology.
It’s what attracted Dominion Energy’s now-retired executive vice president and chief innovation officer David Christian, a Virginia Tech mechanical engineering alumnus from the class of 1976 who spent the last week of the competition with the team in Dubai.
“The house reflects a tremendous amount of thought and work, all kinds of details and all kinds of innovations,” Christian said. “Dominion is an innovative company, and becoming even more innovative as we speak, so participating in a project like this — it’s just a double benefit. It’s win-win.”