e-House 2000 - Lab for Living

e-House2000: Tomorrow's House Today

Whole Earth, Summer 2001

By Michael McDonough

e-House
e-House

Michael McDonough is an award-winning architect and industrial designer based in New York. He designs commercial and custom residential projects, and consults worldwide on corporate futurism and product development.

The idea occurred to me about two years ago. Everything required to build a perfect vision of the future was actually available now. Anything a forward-thinking architect could imagine was invented, manufactured, packaged, searchable on the Internet, purchasable with a credit card, and shippable overnight.

The green, sustainable technologies that could make for an energy-efficient future were there: photovoltaics, thermal-solar heaters, instant hot water heaters, radiant cooling systems with geothermal links. So were the smart building controls: the software, sensors, and networking capabilities to run an entire building and its green systems. Even arcane, nearly-lost products that would give character to the structure: high-efficiency fireplaces, bread ovens, real wood-siding and trim—they were there too. You could reinvent the contemporary dwelling—predict the future, as it were—with a search engine.

The problem was that all these wonderful things were unavailable in one coherent, marketable, understandable package. You might find great technologies at a dozen different sites, but the connective tissue was missing. If was as if you had stumbled across a ten-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Corn Flowers,” but the cover of the box was missing and the pieces were all over the floor. You could tell it meant something important, but it would be quite an exercise to form a clear picture.

I had seen this incoherency for decades. First, I studied and worked with environmental artists in the 1970s and they taught me about the lyrical, image-making power of nature and built-form’s response to it. They had sculpted the land, pushed objects around as if the sun or sea had moved them, and wove natural objects into their art. Forests had been restored as living monuments; recycled mine trailings and lake tides were used as sculpture; even the sky had been with filled with wind-powered objects…all this while the rest of the world was dancing to disco.

Cultural heroes all, these “green artists” prided themselves on the fact that their work was too ephemeral or vast in scale to be co-opted and commodified. An unnoticed avant-garde, they demanded that nature be part of any notion of modern art, and modern life. Whether their names are known today or not, the echoes of their work are present in the energy that drives a lot of environmentalism today: nature can be the basis for the images and systems through which we define ourselves. On the other hand, their work, being unsalable, never sold. And disco probably had a more powerful lock on the popular imagination for decades.

I also saw the same short-of the-mark efforts of enlightened businesspersons and manufacturers throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Small companies offered amazing recycled content, energy-efficient, or non-polluting products. Soybean wall tiles, high-strength cellular recycled paper construction panels, hemp particle board, bamboo printing paper. As often as not, these products would start in someone’s garage, and be withdrawn from the market with the company in bankruptcy, just after the product literature was finally distributed. Some large companies offered green products, but didn’t market them as such, often because they believed that talking about sustainable technologies was irrelevant, and that it would have no impact on sales. I remember contacting one enlightened manufacturer about ten years ago, requesting samples of a particularly good product: fiberboard panels made without the arguably carcinogenic formaldehyde. “Oh we don’t actually make that,” a salesperson told me. “It’s just in the catalog, but nobody buys it. It costs a dollar or two more….”

Green industries were not integrated. Their markets were fragmented. Their marketing was abysmal. Lacking demonstrated successes and established sales, their financing was made more difficult and their costs were higher. All in all, the movement had never achieved what is known in the computer industry as “confluence.” In the parlance of the time, they didn’t have it together.

Fast forward to the turn of the twenty-first century and, amazingly, a lot of green technologies have somehow survived. And new ones keep popping up all the time: new concretes, recycled fabric insulations, sustainable forestry lumber, healthier paints, hydrogen powered fuel cells, formaldehyde-free building panels (finally), and so forth.

Traditional building techniques (so-called “alternative” technologies) are now recognized as having value in terms of energy efficiency, local materials sourcing, and cultural identity. Operable windows and high-efficiency fireplaces have a place in the future, only now they are “fresh-air delivery systems” and “renewable-resource-fueled equipment.”

Importantly, the “smart house” concept has provided us with sophisticated decision-making capabilities that allow the buildings themselves to act for energy efficiency.

Just type-in a word or two on your laptop’s search engine, and the future is there. The question is, why after all these years has no one gathered-up these things and designed a house around them? A building that employs all of these products, that can achieve the elusive “confluence,” embodying the passion, inventiveness, and optimism that has fueled the environmental movement for decades?

Such a building would be equal parts pragmatics and aestheticized glamour. It would learn from last 30 years. It would solve real problems: energy conservation, sick building syndrome, resource depletion. It would reflect nature, derive its shapes from nature. The angles and torques of the building’s form would actually perform a function: capture light, or view, or solar heat, or provide shade. It would embody an architect’s response to nature as harvestable resource. It would celebrate health and well-being, reflecting the idea of a healthy-house, but with panache. The design would have green, high-tech, and alternative technologies all at once. It would be an e-commute/work-live/Internet controllable/future oriented/upgradeable/designed-for-disassembly/think-tank of a house.

Like a hand-woven carpet or patchwork quilt, even its imperfections would ennoble it. It would propose a process, open-ended and inclusive, so that if something better came along, that too could be incorporated. Even its failings would be evocative, because they would be so earnest.

“What the heck,” I thought. “I know all those artists, and all those businesspersons, and I try to keep up with the new products and computer technologies. I’ll give it a try.” So I designed and am building a house that aspires to perfection. I call it e-House2000; “e-” for “electronic” and “e-” for “environmental”—the first such house of the new millennium.

The e-House2000 looks like no other. It is simultaneously contemporary and traditional, and designed with a bit of edgy glamour. It is green, of course. And it is controlled from the Web. It was created as a website first, and is now being morphed into existence.

The best of sustainable technologies and the best of the Internet, it proposes a whole new building type. Sculptural in its response to nature, jammed with technology, embodying craft; it is a model for the future of housing.

The main block of the house is made of special concretes and surfaced with site-sourced stone. Big, sculptural trapezoids are cantilevered off this block. One leans out to capture the best views (the “view catcher”), another shifted to gather the first light of day, and provide passive solar heating (the “light catcher”). The roof has a viewing deck and a monumental stair, recalling a beautiful house in Italy where I lived for a while, and wrote my first book.

I also gathered a group of scientists, engineers, and code hackers, and we researched every house building category we could find. From that, the Website was born—a three-dimensional virtual reality rendering of the house, from digitized aerial surveys right down to the bamboo flooring and sustainable wood window trim. I then enlisted manufacturers, suppliers, and builders, and—based on the website—began the construction process.

As of this writing, e-House2000 is very close to becoming a reality in the rural woodlands of Upstate New York. The recycled slag grade-beams have been formed over their rubble trench future-proofed foundations, the aerated autoclaved concrete block walls are in place, and the engineered Wood-I-Beams, formaldehyde-free building panel floors, and super-insulated structural insulated panels are on site. The e-House2000 is scheduled for completion within a year.

I have listed “The 10 Things I Could Not Have Built e-House2000 Without” and included product categories with noteworthy brand names, websites, and phone numbers, these in the hope that you, dear WHOLE EARTH reader, might want to build (or renovate) your own perfect house, and that, in doing so, you will use the most powerful weapon available to you in influencing global resource allocation and technological deployment: your wallet.