A Problem for Residents of the Future: Powering Those Futuristic Residences

Science Not FictionBy Eric WolffOct 14, 2009 9:29 PM


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S.A.R.A.H. (Self-actuated Residential Automated Habitat), the talking, thinking, usually helpful house on Eureka is such a regular on the show that she could qualify as just another wacky genius in a town full of them. But though she's smarter than any smart house ever known, she has a bit of a problem: her power source. We're told that her radioisotope thermoelectric generator supplies plenty of power for energy independence, but these devices only output power at low levels, albeit for a long time, plus they depend on radioactive materials—which is why in real life they're used on long-lived unmanned probes and satellites. S.A.R.A.H.'s designer, Douglas Fargo, should take some cues from the Solar Decathlon, a biennial contest hosted by the U.S. Department of energy. This year, representatives from 20 teams have reconstructed their high-tech solar-powered houses on the National Mall in Washington D.C. for inspection by the public and judges alike. (See 80beats' gallery of some of the houses.) Houses are scored on 10 criteria, from efficient appliances to market-worthiness. Most of the houses share a few themes: They maximize the insulation to minimize heat and cool loss; they have large sections of walls that can be opened onto decks and patios to increase the amount of livable space in the house; they had ways to access appliances or climate controls remotely, whether from an iPhone app or an Internet connection; and all of them can, at the minimum, operate without electricity from the grid, though many generate excess power. Each house has been carefully designed to suit their own regional cultures. The team from University of Louisiana, Lafayette produced BeauSoleil, a Cajun-style home that combined energy efficiency with the ability to resist hurricane-strength winds. The Illinois team's Gable Home fits in with Midwestern farm architecture, and Team California's Refract House is designed to take full advantage of the sunny but typically mild climate in the southern part of the state.

's house is an austere cube (it is German, after all) with a single large living space on the inside, but covered in solar panels on the outside. Much like S.A.R.A.H., furniture and appliances fold in and out so the room can change function from eating space to social area to sleeping area. The house was designed to maximize the power generating possibilities, and it can pump out twice as much electricity as it needs to operate. The technology is pretty expensive, and the unit cost of the German house was projected to be between $650,000 to $850,000.

Team Germany

Naturally, some of the houses are a little ambitious. The University of Kentucky's

house maintains its internal environment by monitoring weather from a university feed that updates at the zip code-level resolution. The Iowa State house

has a vacuum-sealed door, which seems to me would make it challenging to open when salespeople or evangelicals come knocking unexpectedly (then again, maybe that's not such a bad thing). All of the houses will be on display through October 18, so Washingtonians and D.C. tourists might consider stopping by to see these would-be S.A.R.A.H.s in the, uh, flesh.

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