Acre Designs is re-thinking the way houses are designed and built, creating energy-autonomous living spaces and reshaping the traditional value chain.

Zero Net Energy home an integral part of the smart city?

The housing construction sector in the United States, with thousands of local companies on the market, is “a fragmented landscape,” points out Jennifer Dickson, co-founder of Y Combinator-backed startup Acre Designs. This is “an industry long overdue for an update,” she argues.

Nevertheless the residential construction market is thriving, with the number of houses built on the rise for the last few years. Looking at figures from 1999 to 2014, 2011 was the low point for this industry, in the wake of the ‘sub-prime’ credit crisis. Since then however, things have been looking rosy, with 620,000 homes built in 2014, 8.3% more than in 2013 and 22.1% above the 2012 figure. Acre Designs is looking to ride the housing boom but is taking an approach that is radically different in this sector: ‟Very few houses are designed from scratch by an architect, and this has an impact on the quality of the space and makes it difficult to adopt new technologies and innovative materials. Our vision is about co-ordinating design and architecture within a single product and – in a way – approaching home design and construction from a startup perspective. We see a home as a technology entity in itself, rather than as just a framework to which you then attach technology. We also wanted to rethink the way people use and share the space where they live,” explains Jennifer Dickson. If this project sounds highly ambitious, the company started out with good cards in its hand: its multi-skilled team of co-founders consists of architect Jennifer Dickson, plus an industrial designer and a qualified builder.

Zero-net-energy home disrupting the traditional value chain

In addition to repositioning the design phase as the first step in building a new home, Acre Designs has set out to create zero net energy houses that disrupt the traditional value chain.

We’re offering both a product and a process,” stresses Jennifer Dickson. Both the house itself and the construction process are environmentally-friendly. ‟Firstly, because of the materials and the special design we use, our houses consume 90% less energy and around 70% less water than traditional houses. In addition, we use solar panels, so the house can be self-sufficient in energy terms, i.e. it will produce as much energy as it consumes. The sustainable materials we use create a healthier environment inside the home and our construction process keeps waste to a minimum.” And how do they work out these figures? The team has created a standardised design for a house prototype, which means they can guarantee faster construction times than rival companies, while also keeping the purchase price affordable for the future owner. The different components of the house are brought together in a central warehouse, packaged into a single shipping container and dispatched to the plot where the house is to be built. Acre takes on the job of contacting local contractors, who will put the pieces of the puzzle together. ‟The contractors are our partners, in the same way that car dealers partner with automobile manufacturers. They represent our brand on the market,” explains Dickson. 

In fact Acre Designs is looking to transform the entire value chain, including paying close attention to the customer’s purchasing experience. The company is aiming by end-2016 to offer potential buyers online ordering and configuration tools which purchasers will be able to use to put the final personal touches to their home design. Acre will also take care of the construction permit, so all the future homeowner has to do is to buy the land on which the house will stand.

So far Acre is offering three standard house models, ranging from $400,000 for a house measuring 110m2 with two bedrooms and one bathroom, to $500,000 for a dwelling offering 170m2 of living space with four bedrooms and two bathrooms. The company is thus targeting what you might call a high-end market segment. Explains Jennifer Dickson: “At the moment we’re in a test phase and it’s easier for us to start by focusing on a tech-savvy clientele, people who are interested in clean energy and have both the desire and the budget to invest in a second home.”

Interior of Acre Design's house

Part of the smart city of the future?

Going forward, Acre Designs intends to broaden its target market: “From early 2017 onwards we’ll be making our products accessible to a wider market by offering a more affordable design,” reveals Jennifer Dickson. However, the Acre team has no plans to create larger houses. “The environmental challenge encourages us to help people live in smaller spaces in order to reduce their impact to a minimum. When a space is well-designed, well-thought-out, it usually feels larger than it actually is!” she insists.

Originally based in Kansas City, the startup moved its headquarters to San Francisco so as to take part in last year’s Y Combinator season but for the additional reason that legislation in California favours eco-friendly homes.

The state has in fact made some serious commitments in terms of sustainable energy, decreeing that by 2020 all new residential construction must be zero net energy. And there appears to be enormous scope for Acre’s solution: figures published by the US Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy show that there are currently only 14,000 zero net energy homes in the entire country.

Technologies behind Acre Design's houses

Moreover, given that Acre houses come equipped with sensors to collect data both outside and inside the home – including light levels, temperature, humidity, etc – this solution would seem to have a place in the cities of tomorrow. All data collected becomes the property of the homeowner, who can decide whether to share it with the firm, which will then be able to use the information to improve the product, and/or with the neighbours, one of Acre’s aims being to create a real community around its products and services.

The goal for the coming months is to automate the data analysis and consequent actions in order to make the houses energy-self-sufficient. In the longer term, the Acre house should be able to run itself as a genuine smart home, one of the current projects being to ensure that it can automatically regulate the heating and air conditioning by drawing on weather data analysis.

All in all, Acre is offering a new approach to the smart home that takes account of the entire value chain, which could well have considerable impact on associated industries, such as banking for example. As Jennifer Dickson points out: “Building a house is usually the largest investment any person is going to make in his or her life. We’re bringing a different product on to the market and the way home construction is financed will have to evolve as well”.

By Lucie Jan & Pauline Canteneur

Photo Credits: Acre Designs