HVAC in the House of the Future

Futurists have a poor track record when it comes to actually predicting the future. An aerocar in every garage, jet back-packs, and free, unlimited nuclear power were all promised to us in an exciting, clean future. Yet, 50 years later, we’re still waiting for each of them to arrive.

The same goes for houses. In the early part of the century, Buckminster Fuller created the Dymaxion house, which was updated and sat on top of a pylon for the Jetsen cartoon family. While we were excited about the idea of cheap, factory-made houses, when it was time to purchase them, we voted with our pocketbooks to stay with traditional designs made with wood and stone.

This is why today’s future is much more grounded in reality. The house of the future isn’t going to look any different than the house you live in today, but it will be much more energy efficient through the use of technology.

One of the leading proponents of this concept is Professor Carlo Ratti, of MIT. He directs the SENSEable City Lab, a team of architects, engineers, economists, sociologists and physicists who look for ways to re-imagine cities in the future.

“There is no need to redesign our cities,” Professor Ratti explains. “They can easily adapt to the new, light and invisible technologies brought about by the digital revolution. From an architectural point of view, the city of tomorrow will not look dramatically different from the city of today.”

“What will change will be our way of living in the city, at the convergence of the digital and physical world,” he says.

One of their recent projects was to refurbish a century-old building with sensors that monitor occupancy levels, temperature, CO2 concentrations, and the status of meeting rooms.

The HVAC system responds by adjusting lighting, heating, air-conditioning, and room booking in real-time. Building occupants can set their preferred temperature via a smartphone app, and a thermal bubble follows them throughout the building. The fan coil units, situated in the false ceilings, are activated by each occupant’s presence. When they leave a room, it returns to a low-energy mode. This re-fitted building is estimated to cut energy consumption by up to 40%.

One of the technologies that makes buildings like this possible is the next generation of low power CO2 sensors like the LP8. These low-power sensors are already being mated with long-life batteries and Wifi so they can easily be installed in every room. They can report back to the HVAC system to modify the environment in real time.

Of course, there are other ideas as well. For example, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is a DARPA-like part of the US Department of Energy that funds energy-related high-risk, high-reward projects.

One example is ARPA-E's DELTA Program, short for "Delivering Efficient Local Thermal Amenities." The goal is to reduce the costs for heating and cooling buildings by modifying the physical space around the human body rather than the entire building. Projects range from on-body wearable devices to new fabrics to heating and cooling robots that follow you around the home. They have calculated these projects could produce enable energy savings of upwards of 2% of the total domestic energy supply.

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