Kennedy & Violich Architecture

The Challenge: How can prefabricated housing be energy efficient, even to the point of generating its own power?

The Solution: Kennedy & Violich Architecture took a radical first step in designing the Soft House, replacing many of the hard wall surfaces of a standard prefabricated house with movable curtains that contain embedded nanotechnology and thin-film photovoltaics. The research team found that these technologies would enable a 1,200-square-foot house to generate enough energy to meet fully half of its own daily requirements (as much as 16 kilowatts of direct current, or DC, power). By integrating specific household electronics (laptop computers, LED lighting, TVs, stereos, and some heating and cooling systems) with this DC power source, the prospective homeowners could have an extremely energy-efficient house that still offers the benefits of prefabricated construction, such as speedy construction and cost savings.

The house would be set on a foundation of poured concrete or prefabricated poles, accommodating different site characteristics. The flat, double-grid roof would be made out of sheet-molded wood material. Waste from the roof's finishing process could be reclaimed into the sheetmolding process. Wall panels would be locked together with jigsaw joints, and the photovoltaic curtains would hang in locations with the greatest possible access to direct sunlight. The structure is designed to be lightweight and durable, and the materials are 85 percent recyclable at the end of the house's life cycle.

  • Led by Frano Violich and Sheila Kenned, the project team conducted research on the properties and capabilities of photovoltaic (PV) cells.looking at how soft PV cells can be woven into a malleable fabric.
    Led by Frano Violich and Sheila Kenned, the project team conducted research on the properties and capabilities of photovoltaic (PV) cells.looking at how soft PV cells can be woven into a malleable fabric.

The jury praised the originality of the idea, as well as the comprehensive strategy of the design—down to specific details like how to transfer power from the movable curtains to a laptop and how to manufacture the energy-harvesting material for the curtains. “It's very thoroughly worked out,” said Reed Kroloff. “And the idea's really great.”

The project also includes possible means of water collection and distribution and several heating and cooling strategies to combat the effects of the necessary direct sunlight. “This insinuates that it can bring lighting into your space, that it can become an air conditioning/heating system—that it can become all those things,” said Victoria Meyers.

But it was how the team changed the total concept of a house that was of most interest to Eric Owen Moss. “In most buildings,” he said, “the pieces don't move and are more or less orthogonal and rectilinear. All of a sudden you've got this ethereal, almost transparent, ephemeral building. A lot of those qualities are very appealing.”

PROJECT Soft House

ARCHITECT Kennedy & Violich Architecture, Boston (Sheila Kennedy, Frano Violich, Veit Kugel, Tonya Ohnstad, Patricia Gruits, Sloan Kulper, Jason O'Mara, Ted Steinemann, Daniel Bonham, Skender Luarasi, and Isamu Kanda, project team)

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