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Home Smart Home

Electronic controllers are creating high-tech houses that do everything but tuck you in at night (though they will turn off the lights)
Daren Fonda
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, Jan/Feb 00

(continued from page 2)

One solution would be for manufacturers to adopt a universal standard so all of your house's appliances and subsystems could communicate. But that hasn't happened, despite the development of several promising technologies. The so-called CEBus standard, developed by a consortium of consumer electronic companies, and its rival, LonWorks, made by the Echelon company, are locked in a VHS-versus-Betamax-type pre-market war. "They're both good systems," says industry analyst Tricia Parks. "But neither one has reached a critical mass." When that happens, she says, houses will really get smart.  

"The degree of external information waiting to get into our homes is immense," Parks says. Imagine, she says, that your house could receive local weather broadcasts. The sprinklers would know not to turn on if it's raining. If there's a fire, thermostats will sense excess heat, but instead of activating the air conditioners or fans, it will shut them down. Your house will also know how to manage energy. Utility companies are already experimenting with "real-time" pricing--offering discounts for power use during nonpeak hours. When energy prices are lowest, your electricity meter will instruct your washing machine that it's time to turn on.  

"Homes of the future will have a neurological system with distributed nerves like our bodies," predicts Chris Luebkeman, professor of architecture and building technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The home will react in ways which are completely subconscious." Along with Kent Larson, a research scientist with the school's architecture department, Luebkeman and a team of MIT designers are already designing prototypes. In these homes, he explains, "walls will know they're walls; the house will know if it has a leak, just like your body knows when it's wounded." Microprocessors and sensors will be embedded in structural elements from the foundation to the roof shingles, distributing intelligence throughout the home. You might wear sensors like jewelry that can monitor your body temperature and communicate with the home's climate control system to maintain a certain comfort level.

The house could also be linked to the National Weather Service. If a storm is forecast, the home could automatically close the shutters to protect itself. It would check all the windows and doors to make sure they're shut and send you a signal at work, notifying you to stock up on candles and other provisions. In the kitchen, flat screens will be embedded in cabinets and connected to the Internet. Sensors might tell the computer what groceries you have and send the information to a recipes Web site; you'll then see a video showing five meals to make with the food you've got at home.   Your house will be plugged in, turned on and wired like a finely calibrated machine. "This will be as radical a change to American living as the introduction of the automobile," predicts Luebkeman.  

No one knows when we'll move into these computerized pods. Technological advances found in futuristic houses of the past have had a hit or miss track record of acceptance by the American public. Still, the idea of the smart home is nothing new. Architectural historians date it to the nineteenth century, citing Thomas Jefferson's 33-room mansion, Monticello, as the nation's first "intelligent home."   Completed in 1809, the house was designed by Jefferson "with an eye toward convenience," integrating a number of then-cutting edge technologies. A chain beneath the floor operates automatic double doors opening onto the parlor. Double-glazed storm windows were installed for insulation.

There are light-maximizing mirrors and space-saving alcove beds. Dumbwaiters, built into the fireplace, connect the wine cellar to the dining room directly above it. Slaves could bring in food through underground passageways and place hot plates on shelves built on a revolving door. In his bedroom, Jefferson installed a "turning machine," a device for hanging clothes. He placed a weather vane atop the east portico and connected it to a compass, enabling him to gauge wind direction from the entrance halls. His dual-faced calendar clock, hanging above the main entrance from an 18 1/2-foot-high ceiling, chimed a gong on the roof every hour, while its cannonball-sized weights along the wall served as markers for the days of the week.  

This century's visionary dwellings expanded Jefferson's ideal of comfort and convenience, sometimes to comical effect. In 1922, Buster Keaton tapped the idea for his two-reel film The Electric House. Asked to install electricity in his college dean's home, Keaton winds up in a house with a will of its own: stairs move uncontrollably, a tub slides on tracks from the bathroom to the bedroom, and double doors nearly decapitate him. The kitchen features machines that are supposed to wash, rinse, dry and put dishes back on the shelf but predictably go haywire. Outside, a pool drains and fills seemingly at will.  

Hollywood aside, by the 1930s American companies were designing futuristic homes to showcase new products. In 1934, Westinghouse Electric's Home of Tomorrow featured a host of conveniences--central air conditioning, an intercom system and electric garage door opener--that heralded the domestic technology revolution of the 1950s. Not all the home's gadgetry, though, was successful. Its automatic double doors, which connected the pantry and dining room, never found a market. Its kitchen, with an electrically heated serving wagon and a self-cleaning garbage disposal, would remain an oddity.

That same year at the Century of Progress Exhibition, another house of tomorrow featured a hangar (one of the architects, George Keck, believed that everyone would fly personal planes in the future). The house also had living room walls made of polished plate glass for easy cleaning and a built-in aquarium in the children's room--a hit at the exhibition.  

More techno-homes followed after the Second World War, though few would be considered livable. Some, like Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Dwelling Machine, resembled tinny space pods, with Plexiglass windows, aluminum walls and a rooftop ventilator whose rotating fins supplied a continuous stream of fresh air. As Fortune magazine observed at the time: "When you go into the house it feels as if you had walked into the twentieth century." There were a few old-time holdovers, however. In a nod to Jefferson's clothes-turning machine, the Dymaxion's closets featured rotating clothing and shoe racks.  

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