e-House 2000 - Lab for Living

Blobs, Pods and People

Washington Post, March 25, 2001; Page W34

By Linda Hales

Michael McDonough’s plans for his environmentally friendly E-House2000 show rooms that jut out to bring daylight inside. (Michael McDonough)

Architecture is changing. Building materials are changing. Demographics are changing. But the house of the future will also be shaped by tradition.

Cities of the future may be inhabited not by Jetsons, but by Pod People. This new breed would not buy homes so much as occupy compartments. Their custom-manufactured living units would be slotted into vacancies in vaguely mutant skyscrapers. Each building—picture a vertical neighborhood of shops, restaurants and abodes—would be made of exotic advanced materials capable of flexing the building to maximize the view. The pods themselves would roll off assembly lines like customized luxury sedans. Options would be factory-installed, along with plumbing, ventilation and communications systems. And after the owners departed, these new-wave modular homes could be recycled.

In the suburbs, people might reside in three-bedroom, two-bath “blobs” instead of quaint colonials and bungalows. Where gables and front porches once defined style, the dream home could be as playful in shape and colorful as jelly beans.

In this new age of free-form housing, circa 2025, the houses’ interiors would be as flexible as Silly Putty.

A new design aesthetic of amorphous computer-generated forms and new materials is liberating architecture from its traditional building blocks. Innovative designers are trading in the basic box for fluid curves. Walls look like waves. If this trend continues, a blueprint won’t necessarily suggest how the house should be inhabited or even, in some cases, which end is up. And a few architects, including Sulan Kolatan and William MacDonald, a New York team who teach at Columbia University and who dreamed up those pod apartments and blob houses, are poised for the next step, taking their visions of shelter from concept to reality.

One of their real-life laboratories is an apartment in Manhattan that has been converted into a seamless landscape of glossy orange fiberglass walls. Surfaces merge from bed to bathtub, counter to closet. In another project for the same clients, the architects are building an addition to a house in Connecticut, in which undefined spaces and spiraling steps will let people and activities flow, unconfined by conventional rooms. The exterior will resemble a fuselage of plywood, whose dynamic curves can be cut only by using advanced robotics.

Radical visions like these are intriguing, and often beautiful. But whether they’ll transform housing as we know it is a different matter. Trend forecaster Michael Dickens, a consultant for the consumer-products giant General Electric, is skeptical. He believes the appearance of the house, other than looking more traditional, more nostalgic, isn’t about to change. Projecting 20 years into the future, he sees an endless supply of cozy but spacious Arts and Crafts-inspired bungalows, with familiar peaked roofs and porches. “It’s human nature,” he said. “That’s fundamental.”

Avant-garde architecture, like couture fashion, has always suggested what’s possible, not necessarily what will filter through to the mass market. There is only one Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1935 masterpiece, cantilevered magically over a stream in Pennsylvania. Monsanto constructed just one all-plastic house, at Disneyland in 1957. Like other innovative models, it served as a curiosity rather than a catalyst for radical change. Even R. Buckminster Fuller’s circular aluminum Dymaxion house of 1929, intended as an affordable, factory-built dwelling, ran up against the complex economics of the housing market, as well as buyers’ tastes. The only one ever built will go on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., this fall.

But that hasn’t kept designers from dreaming. Tantalizing new ideas are flowing across computer screens as architects, Web companies and the housing industry power up. An extended period of economic prosperity has provided much of the fuel. By the end of the 20th century, the National Association of Home Builders reported that a record 67 percent of Americans had purchased their own homes, up from 55 percent in 1949. Today’s visionaries are also taking into account significant demographic change. The baby boomers are the largest purchasers of new homes and for now the wealthiest slice of the population. Moreover, they are aging: The number of Americans over age 60 will grow from 34.8 million today to 62 million in 2025. With this in mind, the home builders’ association recently set up a National Center for Seniors’ Housing Research in Upper Marlboro. The idea is to spark new thinking about how a house’s design can enhance an aging person’s ability to live there comfortably. Among the issues: As these seniors live longer, they will place vastly different demands on ordinary dwellings, from the arrangement of rooms and the design of kitchens and baths to lighting and, ultimately, connections with the outside world.

Another catalyst for dramatic change is technology. No expert can predict with certainty which transformations will be permanent, or how fast technologies will evolve. But thanks to computer-aided design and a host of information age innovations, far-out fantasy houses are coming closer to reality. The fusion of technology and materials is making new forms possible. Add the potential of artificial intelligence, biometric sensing, robotics and mass customization, and it’s little wonder that designers are imagining a new generation of houses in which people rule their environments, rather than submit to them.

The Fun House

Web-linked companies already are rolling out model homes with all the click-and-drag amenities available today. They trumpet a lifestyle in which work, play and shopping are only a palm-held device away. It’s the profusion of gadgets, and the dependence on them and the linkages among them, that will define the future of this house.

In the most recent “home of the future” sponsored by Excite@Home, in a loft in New York’s SoHo, tiny touch-screen devices in fruit colors controlled the heating, air conditioning, burglar alarm, stereo, television, even the curtains. “It’s really fun to sit around on your couch and pick up this Chiclet device and make things happen,” said Susan Bratton, a company vice president.

The energy crisis in California notwithstanding, Silicon Valley’s premise is that televisions, movies, music and games, phones and cameras need to be omnipresent. Last year, in their own well-wired home, Bratton and her husband downloaded 15 versions of “Auld Lang Syne” to make a soundtrack for their New Year’s Eve party. “What I’d like to see,” she said, “are homes built with the Internet connection, so you don’t have to have stereos, TVs and hand-held devices.” In the kitchen, she sees a definite need for instant Net access—to check the weather before flying to a distant city, to order pizza or to download “that Bisquick recipe for impossibly easy quiche.” There’s no question in her mind: “Having a networked home makes your life more rich, more fun.”

At the Internet Home, set up by Cisco Systems in an office building in San Jose, Calif., accessories include a modernist Arne Jacobsen Ant chair and a photographic print of the Eiffel Tower. But decorating and architectural details are not the point. What you can’t see is. “We believe the Internet is the next utility,” said Mike Moone, until recently a Cisco vice president. “We believe it will be as pervasive as water, gas, electricity, always on at the touch of a button.”

After a tour of the model home, in which the focal point is an entertainment center containing the ubiquitous glowing monitor, a spokesman thrilled to the idea of a new gadget for transmitting digital photos. Moone was more excited by the remote control that allows you to be home when you’re not. Webcams have been stationed by the front door, out by the swimming pool—although not in the master bedroom—so you can watch who’s coming and going from, say, your hotel room in Pittsburgh. If you’re late for your own party, you can give your guests a temporary electronic passkey. If the kids want a movie, you can download it from your office workstation—while the boss isn’t watching.

For now, it may be enough that the Cisco alarm clock will surf the Web for weather and traffic reports while you sleep—and reset your wake time accordingly. Not present at the Cisco home, but conceivable in the future, are chips implanted in the body that could cue your stereo to respond to your moods.

The Helpful House

On the edge of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge, Mass., an experimental—and likely very influential—house of the future is about to be built. Its mastermind, architect Kent Larson, hopes to take whiz-bang notions to the next level. Using advanced materials and technologies in new ways, he intends to create an intelligent house that may or may not be entertaining. Its essential point is serious: The house must add to the well-being of its occupants, from the very young to the very old.

Larson envisions a house so wise and helpful that it would know whether an elderly resident living alone was staying in bed too long, or walking differently, or having trouble cooking, or going out of the house less frequently. With microchips embedded in walls, ceilings, floors and appliances, the house could help counter isolation or even save a frail resident from breaking a hip. “That’s for me where these new technologies are exciting,” Larson said, “not the latest on ‘How can your TV talk to your radio?’ I don’t care about that at all. Entertainment isn’t even on our radar screen.”

Larson has named the project House_n, using a mathematical symbol for the unknown. Participants include researchers from MIT’s school of architecture and planning, Media Lab and engineering departments, as well as Harvard Medical School and AARP. The list of corporate partners is growing.

The goal is to figure out “how to use a combination of good design and new materials to keep people creatively and productively involved in life as they age,” said Larson, who at 47 has designed enough “pleasure palaces for wealthy people” to be in Architectural Digest magazine’s directory of 100 top international architects. “What’s exciting to me about this project—and what was frustrating about that—was the opportunity to step back and rethink basic values—what the role of the architect could be in society.”

If Larson can raise the $5 million the project needs before breaking ground, the modular house will be constructed this year. Occupants will follow later. “It won’t look like it landed from the moon,” he promised. “But it’s not by any means a traditional house.”

New and experimental materials will be tried in as-yet-unknown ways. As a “case study” house, the project will be short on decorative elements and long on research. For instance, such curiosities as semitransparent photovoltaic cells on the house’s exterior surfaces, or a gel-filled roof, or even a super-insulated ceiling made of luminous electro-chromic glass could let researchers test energy efficiencies, possible health benefits and more. And, in the tradition of Buckminster Fuller, they’re also trying to achieve eventual affordability through mass production of components, if not an entire house.

“Entertainment is a big driver of all this technology, but that’s like the low-hanging fruit,” said Larson. “It’s just not enough to drive a revolution in technology used in the home. People are pretty happy staring at their TVs the way they are. That’s not going to do it. If you can figure out a way to improve people’s lives in some fundamental way, then you’ve got something.”
The Green House

Drive a hundred miles north of New York City, up the Hudson River Valley to Stone Ridge, N.Y., and you’ll find the rural refuge where environmental architect Michael McDonough is escaping to a dwelling of the future.

E-House2000, as he calls it, is part techno-wizardry, part old-fashioned craftsmanship.

“Energy is the issue,” McDonough said. “How healthy can you be if you’re sitting in the dark and cold?” The house is designed to use less energy in part by being linked to the Web. “While you’re watching a movie,” he explained, “the house can be monitoring fuel efficiency.”

McDonough is widely known in architectural circles. His e-House project started with a science fiction article, written with Bruce Sterling for Wired magazine, about the demise of New York, circa 2015. Heat waves, power consumption and failing infrastructure turned the city into a “Blade Runner”-esque scene of devastation. A fantasy alliance with a fictional Bill Gates led to the design of a new, smart, luxurious and sustainable built environment called Newer York, New York. That set the architect to thinking.

“It’s much easier to sell entertainment,” he said, than to get people excited about “green” technology. So, for a prototype of the house he thinks people should be striving for—modest in size, adaptable, pared down and designed for casual living far from the urban nexus—he designed the glamorous, barnlike e-House.

He broke ground before the winter snows set in. When completed, the house will measure about 2,000 square feet (the average new home is about 2,200 square feet, up from 1,500 square feet 30 years ago, according to the NAHB). It will serve as McDonough’s home and architectural studio as well as his working laboratory for new housing technologies. His company is funding the $200,000 to $300,000 in development costs. And like the MIT proj-ect, McDonough has developed partnerships with product suppliers.

Drawings of the e-House suggest an old red barn tweaked by a modernist. Wings cantilever under stainless steel, zinc and copper roofing. Native stone veneers anchor the house to the site. “We’ve incorporated stone walls and hyper-efficient radiant fireplaces, copper roofing, bread ovens—things people love and connect to in buildings,” McDonough said.

The first floor is devoted to a “great room” with a kitchen, overlooking a circular terrace. An office is tucked to one side, a “light catcher” stairwell fills a corner. Upstairs, spaces are scooped out for a master bedroom and bath, plus two unassigned areas, which traditionalists might count as bedrooms. A balcony and roof deck lead to the outdoors. In the summer, windows will open and close automatically to maximize breeze and minimize humidity and temperature.

McDonough will use some “green” building materials, including bamboo and recycled newspaper panels. Vacuums, energy recovery ventilators, dehumidifiers, and air intake and outflow management will be built into the baseboards and wall partitions. The house itself will run on a combination of liquid petroleum gas, solar hot water, firewood from the site, and fuel cell or photovoltaic-generated electricity. The heating system is about the size of a suitcase—“so you get the utility room back for wine storage,” he joked.

The Model 2025

From these disparate visions—urban pods and blobs, an Internet playhouse, MIT’s helping house, the “green” cottage in the country—a blurry picture of a house of the future begins to emerge. Trend forecaster Michael Dickens was surely onto something when he said, “We haven’t come a long way.” Twenty-five years in the future, houses may look much the same as they do now—and as they did 25 years ago.

Yet none of the futurists’ houses relies on traditional amenities or definitions of luxury. There is no discussion of trophy kitchens with acres of granite, no totting up of bedrooms and spa baths, no circular driveways or garages sized for the fleet. The new perquisites of luxury instead are: safe rather than sprawling, comfortable rather than grand, easy to live in rather than hard to maintain.

Even if the most far-fetched designs don’t catch on widely (neighborhood associations could vote to ban three-bedroom blobs), some elements of them will surely survive. People will live closer together, if not in pods. And even if houses aren’t built with materials that have a mind of their own, they’ll be wired with ever more advanced technology.

Undoubtedly the technology will supply amusements, and possibly more practical benefits as well. Still, like the more exotic designs, the new technology may bump up against homeowners’ natural resistance: If the introduction of computers so far is any guide, the electronic cottage will become more complicated before it becomes user-friendly.

There’s also the possibility that the technology could turn unfriendly, even hostile. Rich Gold has spent a lot of time thinking about so-called smart houses in his study of technology and human behavior at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in California. He worries that too much control can be given over to software programmers in the interest of putting a house on “automatic” pilot. He wonders who—or which intelligent machines—will be monitoring all the data our houses generate about us. “Control is put in the hands of who knows who?” he said. “You don’t even know if things are right or wrong.”

After all, he asked, “How smart does your bed have to be before you are afraid to go to sleep at night?”

© 2001 The Washington Post Company