written by:
illustrated by:
January 8, 2009
Originally published in The Prefab Issue

We’re heading into an uncertain future, but two things are clear: Technology is getting better and the environment is getting worse. Fortunately, the former offers solutions for the latter, as zeroHouse sets out to prove. This prefab concept uses the tools of today to paint a digital picture of the house of tomorrow.

Prefab zerohouse concept drawing
In the rendering for the zeroHouse, the building appears to be both a harmonious addition to the landscape and a harbinger of future architectural forms.
1 / 4
Instead of a poured foundation, four helical anchors secure the structure to its site, keeping its footprint slight and making it easy to uproot and transport.
2 / 4
Spatial efficiency is key in this compact home. In the living room, built-ins maximize floor area.
3 / 4
Overhead the roof becomes a sundeck.
4 / 4
Prefab zerohouse concept drawing
In the rendering for the zeroHouse, the building appears to be both a harmonious addition to the landscape and a harbinger of future architectural forms.
Project 
zeroHouse
Architect 

When Le Corbusier famously introduced the idea of a house as a “machine for living” in the early 1920s, few people could have imagined just how high-tech home design would be less than a century later. Though humans will probably always have the upper hand in the creativity department, computers may make our houses smarter than we are when it comes to sensing conditions, regulating comfort, and doing the dirty work necessary to reduce the impact of our lifestyles.

About a decade ago, before “clean tech” and “carbon neutral” were household terms, architect Scott Specht began developing a farsighted concept for a house that would use new technologies as a way to untether itself from the grid. From manufactured structural components to a computer-coded “brain” that reads and responds to indoor conditions, the suitably named zeroHouse would be a completely self-sufficient home. “It was a self-as-client project (every architect seems to have one),” says Specht. “I would work on it in the bits of free time between income-producing work.”

A few years and many “expressionist” versions later, Specht was ready to make zeroHouse a full-fledged project of his firm Specht Harpman, which he runs with his partner, Louise Harpman. With the help of engineering consultants and some sleek marketing materials, they revealed the concept to the public. Though zeroHouse exists only in 3-D renderings and brochures, its striking appearance and “zero-impact” ambitions were enough to attract significant interest across the digital media world and beyond. The project was even noticed by DuPont, which made zeroHouse the poster child of a short-lived green ad campaign.

“They ran a series of ads in the Wall Street Journal featuring large pictures of the house,” Specht recounts. “There was a lot of discussion about building a full-scale version. Ultimately, DuPont’s campaign strategy changed, and they decided against pursuing the approach. Our belief in the project didn’t end there, however, and we decided to take it further on our own.”

Not surprisingly, the idea has retained the public’s curiosity, riding the swell of popular interest in sustainability and design and appealing to a futuristic sensibility. ZeroHouse does not conceal its high-tech features with a quaint residential facade. The structure looks just like what it is: a hybrid of house and machine. Two identical modules, measuring 36 feet long and 12 feet wide (the maximum width legally permitted for interstate truck transport), are stacked perpendicular to one another, forming a cross when viewed from above. A giant solar array stretches across the top of the upper unit like the blades of a helicopter, performing triple duty as a channel for rainwater collection and a shade canopy for the two roof terraces.

zero house living room
Spatial efficiency is key in this compact home. In the living room, built-ins maximize floor area.


This sort of integrated functionality is essential and intentional in the zeroHouse design, says Specht, who explains that most off-the-grid homes operate discrete systems to meet the various requirements of an independent structure. “Photovoltaic power generation, waste processing, water collection, and storage are not designed to work in conjunction with each other,” he explains. “We find huge benefits in merging these systems.”

Where possible, active features like heat-recovery technology are supplemented with passive approaches, such as gravity-fed water from overhead storage tanks, eliminating the need for pumps. In addition to rainwater collection, the house also captures, treats, and reuses graywater from sinks and washers. Food scraps and human waste go below the house into a composter that turns all but a small amount of “black water” into dry, nontoxic fertilizer that needs to be removed just twice each year.

In choosing to promote zeroHouse as a no-impact project, Specht Harpman had the challenge of considering not only the burden of the home’s construction and operations but its eventual end-of-life scenario. Though they have not performed a full life-cycle assessment on the design, they prioritized features that will ensure longevity. Specht says that the easy transportability of the house gives owners the flexibility to relocate without incurring the huge energy expenditure of building a new home. The panelized wall modules can be switched out individually, keeping material use to a minimum when making repairs, and the entire home is free of paints and finishes that would require maintenance or off-gas and pollute.

Considering the $350,000 price tag, any prospective buyer would certainly hope that the compact home makes up for its price through its exceptional efficiency. Many sustainable purchases are justified as upfront investments for long-term savings, and this is no exception. “We are gearing the house toward first-adopter clients who are interested in the potential of a fully self-sufficient, environmentally clean, yet extremely comfortable, residence,” says Specht.

“If the sales figures are high enough, the costs will inevitably come down with quantity efficiencies.” With its eco-cachet and forward-looking functionality, the zeroHouse aspires to become the Prius of prefab. Like a hybrid car, it is a tool for lifestyle change that anticipates challenges and arms owners with solutions before the problems have fully taken hold. Owners get to feel both responsible and stylistically bold—a perfect formula for setting a trend. 

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

45 dva 2270 persp1 cmyk 0
The prospect of retirement doesn’t just signal the end of a career; it offers the chance to recalibrate and re-prioritize in life.
July 25, 2016
18
You don’t have to choose between sustainable energy and curb appeal.
July 19, 2016
jakemagnus queensland 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
July 06, 2016
content delzresidence 013 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 29, 2016
abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
angular
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016