Michael McDonough | Architect

Labs for Living

Architecture, May 2000

By Nina Rappaport

With help from industry and academe, home pioneers try building the houses of the future—now.

Architects have been investigating mass-produced houses since Walter Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann attempted to design an industrialized, modular “packaged house” in 1941. But designers have yet to infiltrate the construction industry. Now, solo architects and university architecture programs are trying to break that impasse by collaborating with the building industry to create the house of the future. They’re reaping obvious benefits by partnering with such manufacturing giants as Georgia Pacific and Procter & Gamble and software companies such as Compaq and Bentley Systems to create flexible, quick-to-build, environmentally responsible houses with the latest digital and material technologies. Following are reports on three experiments in housing of the future: House_n; NTM; and e-House2000. These projects humanize the machine for living-and expand the architect’s role in its creation.

e-House floorplan
“The time is right to rethink standard shelter. Builders can’t get skilled labor, there are new high-tech appliances out there, and untraditional households need flexible homes.”

New York City architect Michael McDonough just broke ground on an experiment he calls “e-House2OOO,” located in Ulster County, New York. Developed in conjunction with big-name corporate partners Andersen Windows, Georgia Pacific, Plyboo Bamboo Products, and Winter Panel Corporation. McDonough used the name “e-House” because he signed on sponsors and specified products electronically; that is, entirely over the Internet.

e-House
e-House

McDonough’s venture, he says, “developed out of an entrepreneurial spirit, like the proverbial inventor tinkering in his garage.” Frustrated that university projects often take a long time to get off the ground, McDonough decided to build the house of the future by himself, with a focus on environmentally efficient materials and building systems. The project is a test not only for the architect but for the manufacturers as well: They are contributing expertise and actual products in exchange for links from McDonough’s website to their own, and they plan to capitalize on the research being done with their products.

New materials and building systems will be installed throughout the 2,000-square-foot house, which will be completed this summer. The primary structure, for instance, is a new wooden truss system made of cheaper, often unused low-end lumber, developed by Georgia Pacific; the flooring is made of sustainable bamboo. Photovoltaic panels will power yard lighting and a water pump, though the home’s primary power system will be hydroelectric. A hydroponic garden (one that grows in gravel or liquid, rather than soil) and bamboo grove will oxygenate the air.

Computer chips embedded in thermostat controls will monitor e-House2OOO’s temperature, air quality, energy use, and the status of the radiant cooling system and heating equipment. Serial ports will feed this information to a website, where McDonough and others can monitor the house’s performance.