Built for efficiency and run on an iPad: This is not your hippie father’s eco-friendly home

There was a time when living sustainably – and in harmony with nature – may have brought to mind earth-berm houses that looked like glorified Hobbit holes or conventional homes that were covered stem to stern in solar panels.

But Robin Pharo is out to change that image. The Healthy Homes and Treysta Group president (and author of You Don’t Have to Wear Hemp Underwear) is building The House of the Future, a technologically advanced and environmentally sustainable home whose ambitious motto is “Connected to Nature. Enhanced by Technology. Designed for All.”

That motto also serves as a set of guiding principles, signaling to skeptics that this is not a ‘60s hippie vision of sustainable living.

“We don’t want to live in little foam boxes or bermed houses or caves where you don’t have a connection to the outside world,” said Pharo. “So a huge piece of what we wanted to accomplish was to show people you can have big windows, you can have a house that looks like a traditional house, and then a really nice architectural house, but still be really, really efficient and sustainable.

“And the other piece is choosing technology that’s readily available. Not just technology, but making decisions that most people could repeat either on a small scale or a large scale, from affordable housing all the way up to multimillion-dollar housing.”

Indeed, Pharo’s goal is to make the house easy to imitate, suitable for any community, and appealing to the average homebuyer. Far from being a dank, primitive hole in the ground, it features open and light-filled living spaces, and many of its functions – such as heating and cooling; video, audio, and lighting; and the movement of internal and external blinds – will be run on an iPad.

But this smart house also promises to reflect the smarts – or at least good financial sense – of its owners.

“The projections to heat and cool this house, total heat and cooling bill, will be under $700 a year,” said Pharo. “We have three different types of fuel sources we can choose depending on where the cost of energy goes. … So we have a wood stove that is designed to heat the entire first level; we have geothermal, which is electric heat, high-efficiency electric heat; and then we also have an LP furnace, so depending on what time of day it is, how sunny it is, how expensive the fuel is that we’re buying, the house can make some decisions on what to do.”

“[A] huge piece of what we wanted to accomplish was to show people you can have big windows, you can have a house that looks like a traditional house, and then a really nice architectural house, but still be really, really efficient and sustainable.”

Pharo has also put an emphasis on sustainability and adaptability, taking care to build with a view toward modern environmental standards and what will likely be future home-building standards.

“We really wanted to do something different that would give people a view of where housing really should be going and what the next stage of the kind of houses we build are,” said Pharo. “So the idea is that we could build a house that is inherently sustainable, because we believe that sustainability and green building will just become what everyone does as a standard.”

To that end, Pharo is sourcing materials that are largely recycled and renewable.

“It’s respectful of the earth, so that means renewable resources when you can use them, so most of the insulation we’re using is cellulose …. The drywall we’re using is actually from 95% recycled content.”

And while the house will be technologically advanced, Pharo is mindful of the rapid advances in technology that continually occur.

“We also believe that people are going to want their houses to be as smart as their phones and their cars, and we believe that if we really want to be sustainable and use technology in our house, we have to figure out a way to, what we call, future-proof the house, be able to upgrade things in the house in an easy manner.”

Not just an experiment

While it would be tempting to build the house as a showcase and simply preserve it as a model for where the home-building industry is going, that would go against the project’s guiding philosophy. Indeed, Pharo is not just building the home as a showpiece – she intends to live in it. Located just outside of Mount Vernon on Highway 92, it will have 3,700 square feet of finished space, two and a half baths, three bedrooms, and a game room (read: man cave). The home is appraised at $550,000, but that includes land. Pharo estimates that people could re-create the home for between $300,000 and $400,000.

The costs could come down in the future, however, if some of the home’s features become more standard and developers are able to take advantage of more favorable economies of scale.

“We’re having to deal with kind of the learning curve of a lot of contractors, we’re having to bear the cost of that learning curve, which is fine – we think it was important,” said Pharo.

The house, which was designed by GMK Architecture and built by Encore Construction, is scheduled to be completed in October. On Dec. 10, it will be open to the public for a Habitat for Humanity fundraiser.

Whether people run out to build a similar house after seeing the prototype remains to be seen, but Pharo said GMK designed a smaller, scalable, less expensive version of the house to allow people to use the same concept on urban lots.

If nothing else, though, the open house could give folks a glimpse at what their future living spaces might look like, and how efficiently their homes might run. And that future is really not that far off, says Pharo:

“We say that within five to 10 years, many of the things we’re doing here will be standard, and some of the things should be standard right now – should be things people are considering.”

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