• The Soft House, an innovative work/live row housing project, is demonstrating novel concepts in energy and architecture at the International Building Exhibition in Hamburg, Germany.

    The Soft House, an innovative work/live row housing project, is demonstrating novel concepts in energy and architecture at the International Building Exhibition in Hamburg, Germany.

    Photo: Sheila Kennedy

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  • A close-up view of the solar façade.

    A close-up view of the solar façade.

    Photo: Sheila Kennedy

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  • A view of the interior showing 'smart' curtain and LED lights.

    A view of the interior showing 'smart' curtain and LED lights.

    Photo: Sheila Kennedy

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  • The simple, open Soft House floor plan provides flexible space for living and working. Plumbing cores are designed to let homeowners choose the number of bedrooms and the kitchen location they prefer. A separate entry off the garden level supports work/office activities on the ground floor, and the garage space can be used as a workshop area.

    The simple, open Soft House floor plan provides flexible space for living and working. Plumbing cores are designed to let homeowners choose the number of bedrooms and the kitchen location they prefer. A separate entry off the garden level supports work/office activities on the ground floor, and the garage space can be used as a workshop area.

    Illustration: Sheila Kennedy

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  • A pop-apart drawing of the Soft House, with the PV- and LED-embedded textile installations highlighted. The individual strips of the façade change position to track the daily and seasonal movement of the sun. From top (winter): The façade is fully raised to capture lower winter sunlight, and many strips are twisted to let in sunshine. Autumn: Some strips are raised and twisted. Summer: The façade is lowered to capture the higher summer sun, and the strips are fully closed to provide shade. Bottom: The façade retracts flat against the roof during a storm.

    A pop-apart drawing of the Soft House, with the PV- and LED-embedded textile installations highlighted. The individual strips of the façade change position to track the daily and seasonal movement of the sun. From top (winter): The façade is fully raised to capture lower winter sunlight, and many strips are twisted to let in sunshine. Autumn: Some strips are raised and twisted. Summer: The façade is lowered to capture the higher summer sun, and the strips are fully closed to provide shade. Bottom: The façade retracts flat against the roof during a storm.

    Illustration: Sheila Kennedy

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Creating tomorrow's home: 'Soft' but resilient

The Soft House, an innovative work/live row housing project, is demonstrating novel concepts in energy and architecture at the International Building Exhibition in Hamburg, Germany.

MIT-led team’s award-winning housing design unveiled as part of 21st-century model for sustainable urban development


Most consider the architecture of housing to be hard, fixed and permanent. But Sheila Kennedy, MIT professor of the practice of architecture and a founding principal of the architectural firm KVA Matx, has a different idea.  Kennedy and her team won first place in the International Building Exhibition (IBA) design competition for their “Soft House,” which opened for public viewing this weekend as part of a 21st-century model for sustainable urban development in Germany.

“Architecture is a vehicle to bring new ideas to our culture.” Kennedy says. “Urban housing and cities need to become more enduring and resilient, responding to changes over time.”

The Soft House, a design for adaptable live/work row housing, is an example of what Kennedy calls soft architecture. The key idea, Kennedy says, is to think of energy infrastructure not as a technology that is distinct from architecture, but rather as a new set of materials with which architecture can be made.

A perfect example is the building’s flexible energy-harvesting façade — technology developed with the help of a grant from the MIT Energy Initiative. Made of a network of textile strips integrated with photovoltaic cells, the façade is a responsive two axis solar tracking system. Just as a sunflower moves with the sun, the façade moves to capture the maximum amount of clean energy to power the housing units. At the same time, it casts shade in the summer and allows light to penetrate deep into the homes during the winter — saving the household energy year round. As it changes position, the responsive façade creates different shade patterns and views that become part of the architecture.

The Soft House façade demonstrates how historically “hard” energy infrastructure — such as nonrenewable energy, glass-based solar panels and sun-tracking machinery — can be transformed by design that uses soft, lighter-weight, low-carbon materials linked by energy and information networks.

With its solid soft-wood structure and movable soft layers, the Soft House transforms the thick, opaque perimeter walls used in German Passivehaus buildings and creates instead an open and  flexible living space that meets Passivehaus environmental standards.

“We need to have the conceptual flexibility and creativity to see where the new materials can take us,” Kennedy says. “The most interesting applications for new materials are those that work at many levels. If we can demonstrate these ideas, we can get them out into the marketplace — where they can start doing good in the world.”

The Soft House joins a sustainable, model community built on Wilhelmsburg Island in Germany’s River Elbe. There, about 74 acres of new housing, work and leisure space will be monitored, visited and ultimately occupied. If the real-world implementation goes as planned, the Soft House project can be replicated as a model for conditions anywhere in the world.

“The real impact and excitement of the Soft House comes with the idea of what can happen with this new model going forward,” Kennedy says.


Topics: Architecture, Building, Cities, MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), Renewable, Solar, Sustainability

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