8:15 AM: "You left my lights on"
An digital, interactive system for homes to encourage sustainable living by communicating with the homeowner.

Created as part of a student entry into Solar Decathlon, a competition to design, engineer, and build a solar powered home. The system scored full-marks in "technology" portion of competition, helping the home secure Third Place in Engineering and Fourth Place Overall



Aug- Dec 2015

My role:

Student Design Leader

Design and Research

Team members:

Alex Best

Abhishek Pratapa

Luca Scubbi

Tools used:

-Revit Architecture

-Adobe Suite

-Physical fabrication

-Soldering, circuit building



I was the lead designer of a small team composed of electrical engineers, programmers, and designers who decided to custom build a smart home for the Solar Decathlon 2015 project. Originally, I had joined the Solar Decathlon 2015 project as an architectural engineer, working on designing the technical details of the building 'skin,' implementing advanced detailing to ensure better thermal and energy performance from the walls, ceiling, and flooring. This might seem trivial to most, but proper engineering of the building's "skin" determines if the mechanical heating and cooling system works as intended.


At the time that I joined, buildings consumed 40% of U.S. energy.

However, I couldn't stop wondering why the design of our solar powered home revolved around the concept of the BUILDING being the sustainable thing rather than the homeowner. Why couldn't our home actually shape the homeowner's behavior through building a relationship with her?

Modern day living incorporates digital data into every facet of our lives: our work, our cars, our means of communication, etc. But what does this mean for the ancient notion of ‘shelter'?


For the Nexus, we believed that a home can be a true ‘Smart Home.’ One that can grow, morph, and educate. For us, it will be important that our home not only facilitates sustainable living, but educates the users, teaching them how to live more sustain-ably.


Therefore, the goal was to design and build a smart system for the home that encourages sustainable living - this was fundamentally different from existing smart home products which really only focused on consumer comfort ("turn on lights from your smart phone!"). This could be achieved by informing and educating the user about the energy that the house is both producing and consuming through the use of sensors, data collectors, etc. which collected information in a central database.



As I began looking into "smart homes" on the market, I noticed that most of the existing products didn't truly integrate with the architecture or mechanical systems of the home - they were mostly focused on improving convenience such as remote security monitoring through one's phone. In other words, the systems were 'add-ons' to the home itself. I wasn't interested in replicating these systems, as I was more interested in creating a system that developed a "relationship" with the owner and was able to encourage sustainable behavior and give the impression as if the building itself were a living creature that uses energy.

I conducted some basic user research (this was before I was aware of UX practices so my user inquiry was limited to polling and basic interviewing).



1) People don't necessarily have an interest in automating every feature of their home - there is some value in feeling like you have control over the house

2) People want to reduce their home's energy consumption (particularly A/C), but aren't often aware when opening windows/door would negatively affect in indoor air temperature.

3) During certain times or events at the home, there are distinct regions of the home that are predictably 'active' and others that are 'not'

4) Smart home systems are 'band-aid' solutions to superficially make users feel connected with their home


DESIGN CONCEPT 1: Monitor status of home by using sensors to look for opportunities to reduce energy footprint


Some examples include:

-"Turn off A/C and open your windows -  it's already about the same temperature outside"

-"No one is in the bedroom but you left my light on for the last two hours"

DESIGN CONCEPT 2: Focus on designing an information system to help users become aware of these opportunities and make smart decisions


A simple information display for the user


Pre-set settings for usage settings that would ensure all dead and live load in 'inactive' areas would be disconnected


DESIGN CONCEPT 3: Embedding the smart home within the architecture of the home

Digital text display on window to relate visual connection to outside with subtle reminders about environmental data

Embedded smart home system (this is a rendering of  the end goal)


All three design concepts were to be embodied by a physical interface with an ambient information system display called a "sense bar."

sense bar.jpg

The "sense bar" was an integrated bar that was to be built into the wall and was the main way to 'speak' to the home. It contained a touch screen tablet and a custom-designed UI (my first attempt ever at designing a 2D interface!).


While I was the lead designer and team manager, I helped with figuring out what devices we would need to help measure electrical load and compare that to the solar panel generation. The electrical engineering student in my team was the main technical lead in designing the backend system


It was when we began working on the implementation that we realized that the entire, grandiose design vision we had in mind was not going to be possible by the competition deadline. So, we had to REALLY narrow our scope to convey the main concept, which was an ambient information system intended to bring awareness of sustainability to the homeowner. Due to many technical limitations, we could only include the components shown in the diagram above - yet we were able to pull together a system that was still able to convey our concept and secure full marks in the technology/innovation category.


Lo-fidelity mock-ups not shown. Interface was implemented using HTML and was accessed via a tablet built into the wall.




I was main lead in physical prototyping and helped with building the circuit - but the actual circuit was designed by an electrical engineer. I had to work with him a lot on several points, such as:

1) How to manage heat output of the sense-bar when it's built into the wall and into insulation

2) How to make sure the components are accessible post installation (see installed hinges on faceplate)


I was on-site during construction to actually install the sense bar. I was in charge of figuring out the technical details of how to install the sense-bar into the framed wall and how to connect it to a power source.

Interior of the Finished Solar Powered Home


Unfortunately, the last day of installation I had to leave the construction site. I reached out to several teammates but no one seems to have a photo of the finished installation!

The bar is on the left wall in this photo, but it's covered.

Lessons Learned


Lessons learned? Oh geez, where do I begin?!

I think the biggest lesson learned was that my team and I should have considered the technical feasibility from the onset of the project. Our design goals were simply too big and too complicated for the size of our team and our timeline.

The other main lesson was learning how to delegate tasks and trust in my teammates.