Buying a home means investing in the future. But the house you’re in today won’t be entirely compatible with your needs tomorrow. Rising costs—and, in some cases, dwindling availability—of energy and water are changing how our dwellings function. Meanwhile, social trends dictate not only how we build homes, but also how we live in them. The industry is responding by developing construction methods and materials that outperform anything used in the past, while automated systems help homeowners do more with less. That may sound like we’re on the road to domestic austerity, but, well, we’re not. “We don’t have to choose between being responsible and keeping our quality of life,” homebuilder Ron Jones, of Placitas, N.M., says. “We can have both.” Here, PopMech explores emergent systems and anticipates how they’ll shape the house of tomorrow. Are you ready?
Smart homes monitor their own efficiency—and also make life easier and safer.
In smart homes a single device—often a smartphone—controls lights, appliances, heating, irrigation, and even door locks to better suit the home’s function at a given time. Smart thermostats, such as the Nest, study how you live and make adjustments to fit. The more sophisticated the automation, the more efficient and comfortable a home can be.
The home will be equipped with a central nervous system that will sense and analyze all appliances and systems, making adjustments when needed. It will send us messages to tell us we’re out of milk and even order it for us. Biometrics will replace the key: We’ll unlock doors via a handle that validates our thumbprint before activating the circuit.
Cheaper, faster, and more durable prefab systems will replace lumber framing.
Some stick-framed homes aren’t durable enough to survive the life of their mortgage. That’s partly due to cost-cutting construction methods that undermine quality. But whenever many parts, each with inherent flaws, combine to create a single structure, problems arise. One solution is to prefabricate whole exterior walls in a factory. Prefab homes aren’t a new idea, though they’re often associated with cheap, flimsy, or temporary structures. But high-quality modular systems that feature concrete-based panels, wood composites, or structural insulated panels are changing that perception. Insulated wall units arrive on-site with window cutouts and electrical and plumbing conduits in place. “This is cost-effective and reduces building-site errors,” says New Mexico builder Ron Jones, a National Association of Home Builders consultant.
Massive parts, including entire walls and roofs, will be poured from autoclaved aerated concrete, a porous, lightweight product with great strength and excellent insulating properties. These sections will be lifted into place on-site by cranes. The home’s window assembly will be prefabricated too. The receiver jamb will arrive preinstalled in a wall, and a sash assembly will be added using a weatherproof lever-lock mechanism. To change window styles or replace a damaged window, homeowners will simply unlock the levers on the interior jamb and put in new panes.
Echo boomers—the children of baby boomers—don’t want sprawling, suburban homes. Data collected by real estate consultants RCLCO show that two-thirds would rather live in a diverse, walkable community, while half would trade a large lot for closer proximity to work and shopping. “We’re changing this idea of location, location, location,” says urban designer Marianne Cusato.
Echo boomers will become not only the largest group of homeowners since their parents but homebuilders too. That shift could spell the end for stick-framed houses. “Echo boomers are going to be more open to the efficiencies of modular building,” Cusato says. They will also be far more likely to use plumbing and heating systems that help save water and energy.
Solar energy now turns roofs into power generators, but future homes will go one better, using less energy overall.
Our homes consume a quarter of the nation’s energy, and heating and cooling alone can guzzle up to 60 percent of a typical household’s $2200 annual energy bill. But modern temperature-control systems use a fraction of the energy they did a generation ago, and the appliances are downsizing. Some furnaces today are no bigger than a three-drawer cabinet. The number of homes with ultralow energy demands is also increasing, thanks to tight door seals, high-R insulation, and low-U windows, which can help reduce bills by up to 90 percent. (High-R and low-U factors indicate better insulation and greater resistance to heat conductivity, respectively.) Still, a third of the home’s energy is used to heat water. The roof can provide the solution: It’s a gigantic heat sink, absorbing solar energy from above and heat from rooms below. This energy can be used to heat water and rooms. A roof can also generate electricity via photovoltaic peel-and-stick film applied directly to a metal roof or with roofing shingles that contain solar arrays.
Sophisticated heating and cooling systems will monitor current weather forecasts to keep conditions comfortable. Heat-transport fluids developed by the University of Maryland contain heat-absorbing nano-size particles that move through tubing under the roof deck, transporting waste heat to a heat exchanger. Improved photovoltaic roof panels will become efficient enough to power separate circuits that feed LED lights, computers, and other electronics. Windows will help out as well. UCLA researchers have developed a transparent PV film that is applied directly to glass.
Rising rates and dwindling resources will encourage us to use less.
Water rates soar as municipalities grapple with economics, infrastructure upgrades, and droughts. But water usage—and bills—are slashed in half by installing low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators, fixing leaky pipes, and retrofitting toilets with low- or dual-flush devices. Outside, moisture meters and soaker hoses manage irrigation better. Rain collectors and drought-resistant plants complete the equation.
Local governments will relax restrictions on graywater systems that recycle non-sewage waste for nonpotable uses. The rising cost of municipality—supplied water will lead to sophisticated monitoring devices that track each and every drop—to the dollar. Suddenly, Caltech’s vision of a better toilet—a solar-powered unit that recycles water and turns waste into fuel—doesn’t seem so far-fetched.