As a 100-ton crane helped students hoist the last solar roof panels for Virginia Tech’s FutureHAUS Dubai into place, Thanhthao “Michelle” Le beamed like a proud parent.

“I’ve spent three years of my life on this,” said Le, of Herndon, Virginia, who graduated last month from the School of Architecture + Design. “Concepting, researching, designing, presenting, collaborating, building. To see it come to life is almost beyond words.”

Over two days last week, Le joined 20 students, two architecture faculty, and a crane to assemble FutureHAUS Dubai for the first time behind the College of Architecture and Urban Studies’ Research + Demonstration Facility.

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With all 18 of the house’s signature prefabricated “cartridges” now connected, the team will transform it into a solar home showcasing new methods of construction, technology, and sustainability for the Solar Decathlon Middle East as the competition’s only U.S.-based team. The 10-day global challenge takes place Nov. 14–28 in Dubai, where 21 universities will compete to win the distinction of designing and building the world’s best net-positive-energy home. 

This year’s competition – launched by the United States Department of Energy and the United Arab Emirates’ Dubai Electricity & Water Authority – tasks teams with building a grid-connected solar home that performs optimally in Dubai’s harsh desert climate and also supports the city’s bid to have the world’s smallest carbon footprint by 2050. In a series of 10 contests, the students must prove their home exceeds stringent criteria – ranging from the innovation and efficiency of its architectural design, electrical, mechanical, and plumbing systems, to how well it generates the energy required to execute everyday tasks like cooling, charging an electric car, doing laundry, maintaining a consistent refrigerator temperature, and cooking meals.

FutureHAUS Dubai roof assembly

A crane helps lift a roof panel onto FutureHAUS Dubai.
A crane helps lift a roof panel onto FutureHAUS Dubai.

“FutureHAUS Dubai is like no other solar home the world has ever seen,” said Professor of Architecture Joseph Wheeler, lead faculty on FutureHAUS and co-director of the Center for Design Research. “It’s a research prototype for the future of smart, sustainable housing – designed to meet the demands of an exploding world population. In a compact 900-square-foot house, we’re presenting a home that’s elegant and efficient. It’s adaptable to varied space needs, generations, families, budgets, and climates; loaded with responsive technology; and revolutionizes the homebuilding industry through a streamlined prefabricated building process.”

FutureHAUS Dubai builds on years of Virginia Tech housing research expertise. After winning the 2010 Solar Decathlon with LumenHAUS – which garnered the first-ever American Institute of Architects Honor Award for a collegiate team in 2012 – Virginia Tech explored how factory manufacturing processes could enhance construction efficiency and technology integration in homebuilding. The resulting FutureHAUS prototype, unveiled room by room over five years in international trade shows, burned in a fire in February – just one month after the team completed the home.

Wheeler said FutureHAUS Dubai is the next generation of FutureHAUS and LumenHAUS, merging the best features of both. Interior rooms and walls are factory-built from the inside-out in “plug-and-play cartridges,” allowing better customization, technology, adaptability, cost, efficiency, and safety than conventional “stick-built” homes. Cartridges are delivered by truck to a job site, where the homebuilding process is completed in a fraction of the typical time. Remodeling and upgrades can be accomplished by simply swapping out old cartridges for new ones.

Team lead electrician Carlos Tarabillo

Students installing solar panels.
Installing the roof's 50 solar panels Thursday, the team's lead electrician, Carlos Tarabillo, called FutureHAUS Dubai's individually wired plug-and-play cartridges "an innovative way of building."

“You don’t get to do this every day,” said Carlos Tarabillo, the team’s lead electrical engineer, a former electrician who earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in May. “This is such an innovative way of building. We’ve designed each cartridge to be individually pre-wired to connect to the house’s electrical room in plug-and-play sections. … It’s been a dream come true to participate in a project like this from design through implementation – and then to present it to the world on behalf of Virginia Tech.”

This year’s Solar Decathlon team is a diverse, interdisciplinary group, representing 65 students and 15 faculty from five colleges, 14 disciplines, and seven countries. Led by the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, it also is composed of students and faculty from the College of Engineering, Pamplin College of Business, College of Science, and College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. Each team member has brought a unique skill set to the project – from designing and testing mechanical systems to 3D modeling and social media promotion.

FutureHAUS team members haul components of the FutureHAUS for assembly at RDF.

FutureHAUS team hauling cartridges.
FutureHAUS team members haul components of the house's 18 prefabricated cartridges for assembly at RDF.

Joining in the FutureHAUS Dubai are dozens of industry partners who are using it as a test lab for new product innovation. For example, the team is working with Kohler on smart fixtures for kitchens and bathrooms, DuPont Performance Building Solutions on high-performance walls, and LINAK on making fixtures accessible and responsive to the needs of individual users.

“FutureHAUS is a testbed where our industry sponsors can experiment with forward-thinking conceptual ideas,” Wheeler said. “We’re providing a smart home environment to test their products.”

Students have played key roles in the home’s fundraising, publicity, and education outreach. Le and other teammates have met with corporate research and development partners, presented at international tradeshows, and traveled domestically and internationally for the project.

The FutureHAUS Dubai team shows their muscle after completing the home's assembly in two days at RDF last week.

FutureHAUS team posed shot.
The FutureHAUS Dubai team shows their muscle after assembling the smart, modular solar home at RDF last week.

With the home’s cartridges now in place behind RDF, students and faculty have approximately three months to complete FutureHAUS Dubai. The prototype promises a long list of innovative features that are a homeowner’s dream, including responsive, voice-activated lighting and appliances; adjustable “flex spaces” that adapt to occupants’ needs; and smart audiovisual walls that integrate a wide range of entertainment and interactive systems and controls.

The finished product will debut in a public preview event, held in late August in Blacksburg. In mid-September, the team will load the home’s cartridges onto five tractor-trailers, and ship them from the Port of Baltimore on a five-week sea voyage to Dubai.

“This is our baby,” said Marquis Reynolds, a recent architecture graduate from Martinsville. “We can’t wait to show it to the world. To step back and look at a finished product that we brainstormed, researched, and created is incredible. I’ve sharpened my skills and had so much fun working with this diverse group of specialists. We’ve come together as a family.”


Wide shot of crane assembly for FutureHAUS Dubai.

Wide shot of crane assembling FutureHAUS Dubai.
FutureHAUS Dubai will leave its temporary home at the Virginia Tech Research + Demonstration Facility in September to make a five-week trip by boat to compete in the Solar Decathlon Middle East .
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