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This Zero-Energy Home Is Run By Machines And Costs A Lot Less Than A Regular House

Can the Axiom House create a new model for how we design houses–and how we build them?

A net-zero house–one that creates as much energy as it uses–is usually a pricey custom design. The cost is one reason that there are only around 600 of the homes in the U.S. today.

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But a new startup wants to make a house with no energy bills as cheap as buying a standard power-sucking McMansion. The Axiom House is ultra-efficient, runs on renewable power, and smart: Robots handle everything from lighting and security to mowing the lawn.

“We feel that on many levels, the typical home is terribly out of date,” says Andrew Dickson, cofounder of Acre Designs, which created the new house. “We view this as an opportunity to redefine what the American home is, and tailor for a lifestyle that is more focused on doing great things than having things.”

While almost every other product has evolved, typical homes haven’t changed much for generations, even though people have. At 2,600 square feet on average, they’re usually oversized for modern families. Over 30 years–with the cost of utilities, interest, taxes, and insurance–a $300,000 house ends up costing closer to a million dollars. Typical houses run on the equivalent of 11,000 pounds of coal. “And [they] don’t really serve people’s needs all that well,” Dickson says.

An 1,800-square-foot Axiom House costs around $220,000 (not including land), far less than most architect-designed homes. It’s cheaper because it’s a standard model; the designers compare it to buying a car. You can choose some features, but the basic layout is the same, so it can be mass-produced.

Careful design and prebuilt components help eliminate typical construction waste, while also making the house faster to assemble. The pre-engineered panels that make up the walls go up in less than half the time of a standard house, and the savings on labor help make the final product affordable. The house is even cheaper than a prefab net-zero house that is also aiming for affordability.

“The saying typically goes ‘fast, cheap, or good: pick two,'” Dickson says. “With modern manufacturing, we can have all three. That is what we enjoy in our devices and cars–continual design and functional improvements with costs going down and value going up. Time to bring that to housing.”

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Acre considers itself a tech company more than a homebuilder. “Thermostats were not a ‘tech’ thing until Nest showed how they could be treated like a consumer product and use a tech mentality to expand that throughout a market,” says Dickson.

As a product designer, Dickson took a product design approach. “We specifically divorced ourselves from the norm–processes, trends, designs, and materials–and approached the problem through the lens of industrial design, manufacturing, distribution, and UX,” he says.

Technology is built into every facet of the house, rather than “applying after-market add-ons like a Band-Aid,” he says. Forty sensors monitor things like weather, temperature, and occupancy, and automatically adjust window shades and heating. The first prototype will be built in Google’s new “Fiberhood” in Kansas City–fully connected to Google Fiber–and will exist on the cloud.

Super-efficient doors, windows, and appliances, along with a layout that takes advantage of heating and cooling from sun and shade, mean that the house automatically uses 90% less energy than a standard home. The little that’s left is covered with solar panels. A grid of pipes built in the ground under the floor provides renewably powered heat.

Even the process of buying a house through Acre will be different, with a web store instead of real estate agents. “[We’re] using technology and disruptive thinking to break analog, manual norms that are wasteful and difficult to ramp up,” Dickson says.

The designers are crowdfunding the first prototype home on Indiegogo now, and plan to live in it themselves temporarily next year to test it out. The first homes will be on sale in Kansas City, and designed for Kansas’s alternately hot and freezing weather. But they hope to quickly spread across the U.S., beginning with California, where all new homes will have to meet a net-zero energy standard in five years, and moving on to cities like Austin, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon.

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“By using a distributed manufacturing model, we can use the existing assets of builders across the country to scale very quickly,” says Dickson.

“We view this as our chance to use design and technology to make a dent in the world, replacing a product that is a burden on families, economies, and the environment with something that is uplifting and a place where the next generation can recharge in their journey to do great things.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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