Remember those great “home of the future” demonstrations from days past? If you’re not old enough to remember them from world fairs, Disneyland, or movie newsreels, you’ve probably seen the cartoons parodying them: Robotic maids, self-cleaning kitchens, futuristic-looking plastic furniture, dehydrated food; everything white, round, and sparkling. Well, it’s the future now, and it didn’t exactly turn out the way they thought it would, but thanks to ubiquitous computer technology, today’s home can have capabilities that futurists 50 years ago would never have imagined.
The home of the future as envisioned in the fifties and sixties is now an amusing mixture of ideas that would never really work mixed with design that’s firmly stuck in the fifties and sixties. A home built right now won’t look much like “the future,” and, in fact, by outward appearances, it might look a lot like a home from the 1770s, 1850s or 1930s, but under the skin, it will be all 21st century. The real home of the future isn’t a gleaming plastic and stainless steel sci-fi utopia filled with anthropomorphic robots, conveyor belts, and furniture popping out of the floor everywhere. It’s a home that looks a lot like the homes we grew up in, but one that’s been radically changed under the surface.
The world we live in is much different than the one our grandparents inhabited, and though the homes may look alike, the way they’re built and used today reflect our changed reality, and at the root of virtually every change that our homes have undergone is the technological revolution. Technology has changed the materials we use to build with, the way we spend our time, the kind of work we do at home, and what we do for leisure.
The Modern World
The technological sea-change that’s probably most affected our daily home lives is probably the one you’d think of last. Revolutions in telecommunications, logistics, and navigation have made the shipping industry dramatically more efficient, and this, mixed with political and economic changes, have fostered an era of massive global trade. A hundred, or even fifty years ago, most of the goods in your home, and certainly most of the materials used to build your home, would have been produced locally, usually using raw materials obtained locally. Nowadays, manufactured goods and raw materials will come from all over the world, and even the most mundane items, from the apples in your refrigerator to the wood in your floor may have come half way around the world.
In a very real way, the biggest technological change that affects our daily lives isn’t the gadgets we use, but the fact that for virtually everything we buy, modern technology has enabled the global market to produce it and deliver it less expensively than ever before. Because of modern logistical software, GPS technology, and sophisticated automation, a gigantic cargo ship can travel from China to California with a crew no bigger than that of a racing yacht. Thanks to the internet, the design, marketing, manufacturing, support, and finance divisions of a multinational firm can collaborate on the creation of a new product and it can be manufactured cheaper than ever.
Because of this new era of globalization, not only does a child’s teddy bear now cost fewer dollars than it did thirty years ago, but that same toy might now contain more processing power than the computers NASA used to put people on the moon in 1969. So let’s talk about that computerized $5 child’s teddy bear and the other technological wonders that make up the house of the future.
The kitchen was always a favorite of those newsreel demonstrations. How is today’s kitchen like the one envisioned in the fifties? Well, some of the futuristic time-saving devices that were popularized then have become commonplace in the modern household, such as the microwave oven and the automatic dishwasher (though it still uses plain old water to clean the pots, not ultrasonic waves or nuclear radiation). They’ve seen incremental improvements, but they never lived up to the sci-fi hype that we might have hoped for. The dining room table still doesn’t clear itself, and attempts at delicious complete meals reconstituted from pills, tubes, or frozen blocks have largely ended in failure. Nevertheless, though the promise of the delicious, instant meal has only yielded “mostly OK” food, we’ve certainly become accustomed to packaged, processed, quick-to-prepare food, even if it isn’t as good as home made.
On the other hand, there’s been a kind of counter-revolution in the past decade: a revolt against processed, factory food, and a desire for healthy, organically-grown food prepared in the home from fresh ingredients and a deep distrust for the genetically-modified fruits of industrial agriculture’s laboratories. Take that, George Jetson!
Refrigerators, the 20th century kitchen’s first great technological marvel, today are better at what they do: keeping food at the desired, cool temperature with a minimum of fuss, and they’re much more energy efficient; but other than the automatic ice maker, attempts at gussying them up with technology have been mere curiosities. You can buy a fridge today with a TV screen and internet access, and while I can think of reasons why you might want to watch TV or use the internet in the kitchen, doing it on the fridge doesn’t make much sense to me.
Now, there has been talk of having a fridge that monitors the age and condition of the food inside, and that can use the bar codes (or soon, RFID tags) on packages to maintain electronic shopping lists or even reorder food automatically over the Net, but that hasn’t really happened yet. And it may never happen, unless the technology that’s eventually available solves a pressing-enough problem that people will be willing to pay for it.
The kitchen being the center of the household, there has been talk of making some kitchen-based technology available for tracking family calendars and events, much as notes, invitations, and fliers stuck to the fridge with magnets might in a common home today. Usually this discussion comes up in the marketing materials for a fancy overpriced refrigerator with a TV screen in it. In reality, while these kinds of calendaring and planning tools could be of value for the modern family, it’s a problem much more likely to be tackled effectively in the software sphere, with the various phones, handhelds, and personal computers in the family all being able to tap into a database of family events stored on the network.
All of the software pieces exist for a connected family of that type. Many people use shared calendaring today through Outlook or other programs, and Apple’s iCal paired with the .Mac service has nice shared-calendaring suitable for families that’s really easy to set up, but it’s tied to PCs. Some companies even have calendaring features integrated with mobile devices, but it requires expensive equipment, software, and expertise. For now, the low-tech alternative is still good enough for all but the geekiest households. If shared calendaring for families, with support for all the various devices family members might use were available, I think a lot of families would be interested. Today, however, it’s just a dream, even though there are no technological hurdles at all, just platform interoperability problems.
The other major kitchen appliances, if they have changed at all, have simply become more refined. Dishwashers are more efficient and quieter, and some now have two drawers which allow you to procrastinate unloading one area while you load the other. Toasters are safer, hand mixers are lighter, and everything is cheaper, both in price and in quality, than in days past.
As far as cooking goes, very little technological advancement has been made on this front since the microwave. There are now ovens that mix microwave and conventional cooking, ovens that mix infrared and radiant heat, ones that employ fans to spread the heat out, and even ones that use steam, but it’s still mostly about heating up a little box. On the stovetop, it’s the same old electrical resistance coils or gas burners, and recent trends have focused mainly on ultra-expensive home stoves that look like commercial stoves.
There is one stovetop advance that’s just on the cusp of wider adoption, though: the induction range. It’s an electric range that uses a conductive coil called an inductor to create a pulsing magnetic field above each “burner.” Even on full-blast, the cooktop would feel cool to the touch, but the magnetic field rapidly excites the electrons in magnetic metal pans, heating the pan from the inside.
Induction ranges are extremely efficient and heat more quickly and with more precision than gas or electric resistance ranges, so they have been very well-received in commercial kitchens and have been available in in Europe and Asia for several years. The first residential induction ranges are just now being introduced to North American households.
All this aside, most of the promises of the “kitchen of the future” have gone unfulfilled. Dining room tables don’t clear themselves, there are no robots to do the cooking, we don’t use conveyor belts to take the food to the table. It’s all very boring, really.
The biggest change in the modern kitchen isn’t a technological one: it’s an architectural and social one. For the first seventy years of the 20th century, the kitchen was a relatively small room, separated from the rest of the house, where, seemingly, the women were expected to do their mysterious toil and emerge into the house’s living quarters with prepared meals. In a way, the middle class home retained a slimmed-down version of the Victorian ideal, with the household servants replaced by the dutiful wife. But the reality of American family life had always been that the kitchen had been a kind of social center for the home, from the days when the kitchen and family hearth were one and the same. About twenty-five years ago, architecture finally started catching up with reality, and since then, kitchens have become larger, more comfortable, and located more centrally in the home’s living space. The real “kitchen of the future” is one that in some cases is more like a mashup of a family room and a posh restaurant, with comfortable seating, televisions, and “homework areas” with PCs mixed with stainless steel appliances, stone countertops, halogen lighting, and multiple cookstations.
The Living Room
Households have always gathered around a source of entertainment in the evenings. For millennia it was a fire: a source of warmth and light where conversation, stories, and maybe some music were the evening’s entertainment. From a social standpoint, not much has changed. The warmth is now supplied by central heating, and we’ve got as much light as we want, but in the evenings, most families just want to relax and be entertained. The campfire became the fireplace, then books and newspapers came on the scene to augment the oral tradition, then printed sheet music for the piano, then radio, then television, then the internet, but we just exchanged our village storyteller or musician for one across town or across the world.
Modern technology hasn’t changed the desire for leisure or entertainment, but it has certainly expanded the breadth of what’s available, and, in recent decades, seen a marked improvement in the quality of the media by which this entertainment is delivered. Today it’s easier and cheaper to get whatever kind of written story, song, play, or movie you’d like, and the kind of quality that’s available at home today is something new. Digital quality, big screens, and surround sound are the order of the day. But the biggest change that technology has brought to the living room is that the receiver is more in control than ever. We now have the technical ability to be able to almost instantaneously receive virtually any recorded work we might desire. But although this is technically possible, the reality is a bit more limited.
Leaving aside the vast quantities of written material, music, games, movies and other media that are self-published on the internet today, the majority of the mainstream commercial content is still under the control of traditional distribution channels, and the ease with with digitized versions of their books, songs, and movies can be re-distributed has made them very wary of making these works available on-demand. As always, the black market has been happy to take up the slack, and ebooks, songs, movies, and TV shows are readily available for anyone willing to deal with the sometimes spotty quality, playback difficulty, and, of course, legal issues involved. But technology has also been applied to making the best of a less-than-ideal situation, providing legal (or semi-legal) workarounds that are good enough for most people today. A lot of these workarounds involve hooking up computers to our TVs.
More and more living rooms today have computers hooked up to their TVs, even if their owners don’t really realize it. Of course, game consoles and general-purpose computers seem to become more alike each year, and they even take on roles, like video playback, that we used to have standalone appliances for. TiVo and other Digital Video Recorders are just purpose-specific computers that search for and record the TV shows you want and store them on a hard drive. Using your TV to browse the web never really caught on, but as more of these devices are hooked to the network, we’ll find that once the tools are in place, it will be handy to click a few buttons on the remote to find out where is was we saw that familiar-looking actor before, or whether it’s going to rain tomorrow.
Where are we headed? The peculiarities of intellectual property mean that the owners of the books, movies, and music will probably make a consumer-friendly entertainment utopia quite difficult to achieve, but I can speculate on the kind of technology that we consumers would like to have: Every TV screen and monitor in the home would be connected to a server that would contain all of the family’s digital library of songs, personal photographs, movies, and video games. This whole library would be kept organized with easy-to-use software, and backed up regularly, off site, via the network. Any work that they would like to have could be purchased with a few clicks, and would be available within a few minutes. Any of these works could be accessed from any of the terminals around the house, though some of the terminals would certainly be specialized for certain kinds of media (big screen and hi-fi surround sound for movies), specialized video hardware and hand-held controllers for games, a light hand-held unit for printed content, etc). New devices could be added to the network in a plug-and-play fashion, and new display, rendering, and audio technologies could be added to the mix by swapping out obsolete equipment, but the older media would continue to be used at their originally-intended quality forever.
Everything I just described is 100% feasible today. In fact, a dedicated hobbyist today could build a system that does most of what I’d described, if they were willing to flout common conceptions of copyright law. It would need to have the capability to record TV from Satellite or cable, and burn purchased DVDs and CDs, since most desired content wouldn’t be downloadable, but the rest of it would just involve hacking together a bunch of readily-available hardware and software.
The living room of the future is here today. We just need to work out the legal issues, to make sure that the storytellers and musicians of today will be paid for their work, and show the outmoded gatekeepers the door. We don’t even need to get rid of gatekeepers. We just need to find some new ones who will embrace today’s technology to give us all what we want. If we could trade Sony and Viacom for TiVo, Netflix, and iTunes maybe we’d be in better shape.
If a geek from the fifties were to visit the home theater of today, he would certainly be impressed with the cinematic resolution and astounded at the availability of media, but disappointed that everything is in 2D.
One of the interesting aspects of the home of tomorrow is a moderate reversal of a trend that started in the industrial revolution. For centuries, most people worked at home, plying their trade or working their land. Those who needed to work where their customers could meet with them, like blacksmiths or shopkeepers, merely made their homes out back or upstairs. As commerce became more sophisticated and interdependent, cities flourished. And as commerce became more centralized with the advent of heavy industry, people began to leave their homes in greateer numbers to work in the factories and mines. Shops became larger, and were no longer family-owned. People left their homes to work. In more-industrialized nations today, there’s been a partial reversal of that trend. As industry is less dependent on machinery, and commerce less dependent on location, work is becoming less centralized. Technology has been a great driver of this trend, and now, technology that’s available in the home, or even the pocket, makes it possible for more people to work from home or from anywhere.
None of the fifties futuristic visions even came close to anticipating the home office of the future. In those, typically the man of the house would grab his hat and briefcase and jump in his flying car to go to an office somewhere in the city. Shuffling over to your home office in your pajamas with a toothbrush in your mouth to check the morning’s email never played into the futurists’ visions, but it’s as common today as flying cars aren’t.
One of the business world’s greatest technological boons of the 20th century, the fax machine, built upon the 19th century’s great business invention, the telephone, to help make distance irrelevant. It also acted as a baby step for the home office, enabling legions of individuals and small businesses to interact with customers instantaneously, regardless of their location. Add to that the affordable personal computer, and by the 80s the home office was a real possibility for many people. Remember that in the fifties, very few people really anticipated the advent of small, inexpensive computers. Their visions of computer technology were either vastly over-optimistic (anthropomorphic robots) or woefully conservative (wall-sized home computers with punch cards).
One thing that most futurists foresaw were video telephones. Even in the thirties, Dick Tracy had a wrist-mounted videophone. It’s been an ongoing obsession among geeks and industry types ever since. There have been commercially available video phones for decades, and most haven’t worked well, though businesses have been enjoying relatively workable video conferencing for 15 years or so. Now, in the era of home broadband, with a few dollars’ worth of hardware and free software we all have the capability to partake in video calls. And for the most part, we’re not really interested. Even people like me who have partaken in high quality video telephony still prefer voice only calls in almost all circumstances. Who would have thought?
But as much as the video phone has failed to take off, there are dozens of other communications methods that the internet have opened up that have profoundly affected the way that we work and communicate. And the internet has not only made them available, it’s made them available very, very cheaply. I remember back in the stone age, 1989, I was carrying on a long distance relationship, and my obsessive, chatty girlfriend racked up a $1000 phone bill. Today, I use Voice-over-IP and get local service, all the snazzy features, and unlimited long distance for under $10 per month. If I were stingier, I could probably get that down to $7. Email, the Web, IM, text/photo/video messaging, mp3, RSS, P2P, fax-to-email services, voicemail-to-email services, the Blackberry, wireless networking: these have all had a huge impact on the way we live and work, and many of them were largely unanticipated by futurists.
The Cell Phone
We love our cell phones. They have transformed not only our ability to be away from the office, but also the way that we communicate as families. Today, Mom doesn’t need to ring a dinner bell or holler out the back door that dinner’s ready. She just calls everyone’s cell phone. And that’s no joke: we use our cell phones not only to communicate with each other across the mall or the supermarket, but from upstairs to downstairs inside the house. Starting in the 80s, in-home intercoms became common in model homes and high-end applications. Today, most people would consider it the height of inconvenience to have to get up and push a button on the wall when they could just use their cell phone from the sofa.
Strangely enough, people in the fifties and sixties would not be surprised in the least by our love affair with the mobile phone today. They were well-aware of the marvels of wireless radio communications back then, and portable personal telephones are merely a logical extension of that. I think they’d be impressed by our ability to send messages, check the weather, listen to music, read novels, and play games on our phones, and I think they’d be amused at some of the silliness like flashing lights, musical ring tones, and animated screen savers, but if a geek from the fifties were to see where the mobile phone is today, I think his primary reaction would be surprise that it’s not wrist-mounted.
The home of the future was always all about “push-button living.” The industrial age’s hallmark was a steady progression of labor-saving devices that let machines take over the toil and drudgery. In the future, we could luxuriate in our egg-shaped luminous plastic easy chair while meals were prepared, the house was cleaned, the dog walked, a cool drink was fetched, and the kids were entertained by marvelous machines that operate at the press of a button.
In some ways, this bright future was realized. Can you imagine actually getting up to change the channel on the TV or getting out of your car to open your garage door in the rain? In other cases, push-button living was never fully possible, or was, but only interesting for a small subset of consumers. Nevertheless, as automation technology has become cheaper and more effective, it’s being installed more often, especially in high-end homes.
Today, many homeowners enjoy the ability to manage their lighting through automated scripts or by remote control. They can even set up “scenes,” controlling several lights at once, and specifying individual dimness settings. You can even set your home’s lights to “all off” for bedtime or “all on” if you hear a noise in the night. All this can be done either with inexpensive add-on hardware that communicates by piggybacking over your home’s electrical wiring, or with much more sophisticated and expensive centralized lighting control systems. In the near future, the cheap option will certainly become better, and the more expensive option will become cheaper, so we’re likely to see more “push button living” as time goes on.
Lighting isn’t the only thing that can be automated. The home’s thermostat can be connected to the same PC-based home automation system that manages the lighting scenes, and temperature can be adjusted according to your personal preferences as they relate to outdoor temperature and time of year. Various appliances can also be hooked up to this system, with the garage doors making sure they’re closed each evening, the kids’ TV being deactivated at eight each evening, or the coffee maker turned on each morning at seven.
It’s not just about pushing buttons or writing scripts, either. Bill Gates’ house is famous for recognizing occupants via a Radio Frequency ID system (think: EZ-pass) that they carry with them, and lights, music, even the artwork can be personalized for them in each room. This technology isn’t readily available for normal folks, but there are some interesting hacks today that do similar things. For example, Mac users can download software called Salling Clicker that recognizes when you come near your computer by the Bluetooth signal from your cellphone, and might perform a series of tasks (check email, turn on music, log onto IM networks) when you arrive, and turn them all off when you leave. Whether it’s Bluetooth from your phone or RFID tags embedded under your skin, many of today’s futurists think that very soon many of our machines will be able to identify and authenticate us at short distances.
Of course, one of the favorite user interfaces from science fiction has always been voice control. On Star Trek, they just say “computer,” and the ship does whatever they ask. Interestingly enough, voice recognition technology is now good enough and inexpensive enough that we’re pretty far along in that area. There is even PC-based home automation software that can be completely controlled with voice commands, assuming that you have microphones and speakers set up in the rooms. If you don’t, you can use any telephone in the home to talk to the system and tell it to heat up the hot tub, dim the lights to 30%, and put some Barry White on the sound system. Alternately, you could script all of those things to happen together by saying: “Computer – oooh yeah!”
Let’s not forget the pinnacle of our modern era’s realization of the fifties house-of-the-future dream: the personal housekeeping robot. Okay, so the Roomba isn’t exactly Rosie from the Jetsons. But it’s a start.
Home Monitoring and Protection
If, in the fifties, the future was to be all gleaming and robotic; by the seventies, we were a little more afraid it was going to look more like Soylent Green or the Omega Man. To protect your family and your possessions from food rioters and homicidal zombies, you’d need sophisticated technology in your home to secure it from thieves and intruders, and the rich would abscond themselves in exclusive guarded compounds. Well, I think we’ll have to give the pessimists and the cyberpunks some credit: absence of zombies aside, many of their predictions about technology for home security and monitoring have become commonplace today.
Monitored home security systems with door and window sensors, motion sensors, glass break, smoke, fire, and carbon dioxide detectors all tied into a network that will alert the authorities in case of an alarm are now very common. Doors that open by remote control, and locks with codes that can be disabled if you fire the maid or break up with your boyfriend are now available and inexpensive. Security cameras, tied into your home entertainment system for display on home TVs, or hooked up to your computer for recording are now available at middle-class prices. Babies are now not only routinely monitored by special walkie-talkie devices, but frequently by wireless video cameras as well. You may not only speak to a guest at the front door via intercom, but even see who they are before you even answer (all the better to avoid salesmen and missionaries).
These systems, along with the home automation aspects discussed before, can also be hooked up to the internet, allowing your home to be monitored and controlled via a “home page” from anywhere with internet access. A visitor to your door could be routed to your cell phone, and could be let into the house with the push of a few buttons. In the near future, this kind of thing will probably become more common, especially for second homes.
High security apartment buildings and gated golf course communities are proliferating wildly in affluent areas, and although their security is probably mostly only of placebo value, even as crime continues to decline in the U.S., people like to feel set apart from the scary outside world. Home security and surveillance technology has helped them feel safer, whether or not they really are.
“The home of the future” wasn’t just about what was inside the house. What the house was made of and how it was designed always figured prominently. Many mid-century people were enthralled with the possibilities that new materials has opened up. Just as Dustin Hoffman’s character in “The Graduate” was advised in 1967, there was a big future in plastics. Forty years ago, many people were a little too convinced that plastics were going to rule the future. They envisioned plastic clothing, plastic furniture, and even totally plastic houses; egg-shaped, even. Well, plastic did end up dominating the home of the future, but in a more subtle way than they envisioned. We do wear largely plastic shoes and plastics like polyester, rayon, and nylon are still widely used in our clothing. We even have fleece jackets made of recycled plastic soda bottles. But plastic furniture is still relegated mostly to the McDonald’s and the back patio, and nobody but the truly eccentric lives in a gleaming white plastic egg-shaped house today.
Nevertheless, a typical home today is loaded with plastic. Exteriors, especially, are often completely clad in plastic: namely, vinyl siding, which has largely replaced wood and aluminum in many areas. Other exterior materials, which have always suffered the ravages of sun and water, have been replaced by plastic, such as decks and exterior trim made of plastic lumber molded to look like wood.
Other materials have come onto the scene, all promising traditional looks with low maintenance: siding made of a cellulose-cement mixture, doors made of fiberglass molded to look like wood, windows made of vinyl or fiberglass, roof tiles made of concrete to look like clay or slate, roofing made of asphalt-impregnated fiberglass, countertops made of composites of stone and plastic, durable epoxy finishes that look like paint.
Though the majority of home insulation in the U.S. is still that itchy fiberglass we all know, most of the more-efficient types of home insulation today use polystyrene or polyurethane foam, either in sheets or sprayed into place. Some of the newer building methods even use blocks or sheets of foam as integral parts of the home’s structure.
Though today’s homes mostly look a lot like yesterday’s homes, construction methods have changed. Energy efficiency is now mandated by building codes, so today’s homes are more comfortable and cheaper to heat, but the demands of the modern economy mean that by and large they’re constructed rather cheaply and without the detail or craftsmanship that used to be common. Whereas 70 years ago a brick house was made of brick, it’s now made of wood, insulation, some layers of high tech fabric, and a thin veneer of brick, and probably only on the front (who do theythink they’re fooling?). However, thanks to modern engineering know-how and building codes, that house with the thin layer of brick is much warmer in winter and much better able to withstand a hurricane or an earthquake than even the most well-built house from the 1920s.
The home is one of the last major consumer goods a typical person will buy that isn’t entirely mass-produced using modern manufacturing techniques. Though some are, most homes today are still hand-built on-site, whereas virtually everything else we own is built on an assembly line in a factory. But over the years, more and more of the components of the house are built in factories and merely assembled on-site. Many homes now use prefab roof trusses, wall sections, and even precast concrete foundation panels. Every year, a new house is less the product of skilled craftspeople, and more like Ikea furniture. This would not surprise the early 20th century futurist at all, who probably would expect houses to be 100% pre-fabricated by now, and dropped into place by atomic-powered zeppelins.
Architects, like all artists, have an intrinsic desire to blaze new trails, and the past hundred years has seen a lot of amazing, wonderful, and crazy residential architecture. But when it comes to an expensive, permanent thing like a house, we’re pretty conservative, so the house of the future really doesn’t look that futuristic. But that’s not because the world’s architects haven’t been busy. In fact, they’ve been doing what we really need architects for: making our homes better at what we need them for. And this didn’t happen though whimsical exterior eye-candy, but rather in internal reconfiguration, and improvements in materials and engineering.
We already discussed the radical changes in the kitchen, but other areas of the house have also experienced big changes. Some have been super-sized, like the kitchen: closets and garages, particularly. Especially garages. Most high-end homes today have three or even four oversized garage bays. Today’s high-end garage is larger than yesterday’s high-end home. On the flip side, some rooms have shrunk or even disappeared. Formal living and dining rooms are on their way out, replaced by great rooms that integrate living space with the kitchen area. Just as parlors and butler’s pantries faded away, home theaters and home offices are being designed into new homes instead of merely retrofitted from existing rooms. On the whole, one of the main hallmarks of today’s home is its tremendous size. The average home is 50% larger today than it was 35 years ago.
We’ve been on a roller-coaster of optimism and pessimism when it’s come to our future prospects, but constant striving for more and compulsive acquisition of material goods has continued unabated. Industrialization and globalization have even made much of what we’ve wanted cheaper and more plentiful. But energy is only getting more expensive, and many of us realize that natural resources are finite. A growing number of homeowners are waking up to these realities, and demanding more energy-efficient homes that make more careful use of natural resources and use fewer harmful chemicals in their components.
Futurists of the 60s and 70s would be a little disappointed at our progress in this regard. Today’s homes, by and large, do not have solar panels, nor do they rely on passive solar heating by orienting large windows to the south. They still use a lot of virgin materials and rely on cheap, short-lived flooring and roofing that are replaced often and not recycled. Luxury homes often use tropical hardwoods from bulldozed Amazon rainforests and other old-growth timber. Our homes are built using a lot of vinyl, which contributes to pollution, particle board, which emits formaldehyde, and various solvents, paints, and glues that emit volatile organic compounds.
But all is not lost. A wide array of new materials and methods are available to make stronger, warmer, healthier homes using fewer natural resources. Structural Insulated Panels, pre-fabricated wall sections built of thick sheets of foam bonded to composite wood sheets, and Insulated Concrete Forms, foam blocks assembled and filled with concrete, are proven technologies in wide use today that create stronger, more energy-efficient structures. Much of the lumber that used to be sawn from large, mature trees, is now made of composites of bits and pieces from five-year-old trees grown on farms. Recyclable, reusable, steel studs are now in common use, especially in commercial construction.
Tight, double-pane windows with coatings that block heat radiation are now commonplace, Heating and A/C systems are available today that are extremely efficient (some even use the constant temperature of the earth in conjunction with a heat pump to both heat and cool the house), though most production homebuilders prefer cheaper models, since the builders don’t have to pay the heating bills. Heat Recovery Ventilators allow fresh, filtered air to be exchanged for stuffy inside air, with minimal heat loss. And solar panels to heat water and generate electricity are better and cheaper than ever. Toilets, dishwashers, clothes washers, and showers today use less water than ever. Low energy light fixtures are cheap and plentiful, and now required by code in California. Certification programs such as Energy Star allow homeowners to know that the homes and appliances they’re buying stand up to rigorous efficiency standards.
So where to we go from here? Well, we’re still making “house of the future” predictions on TV shows and in magazines, but they seem remarkably more conservative than the ones fifty years ago, usually pushing the horizon out only a decade at the outside. Science fiction movies always try to give us a glimpse of the world-to-be. It seems to me they’ve been a bit more bold, with holographically-projected entertainment, recognition of home occupants, regular medical screenings available at home, and of course, domestic robots and flying cars.
Contemporary science fiction has also predicted more pernicious aspects of our future home lives: police and government being able to literally see into our homes and monitor our communications, overpopulated cities with people stuffed into warren-like cubicles, the wonders of online life (including simulations of sex and other ecstasies) so appealing in comparison to drab reality that a whole generation never leaves home at all, and sits in cramped apartments, wasting away (kind of like today, with World of Warcraft), and our most common pop culture future-fear: domestic robots turning on their masters and running amok.
Here’s hoping we get our flying cars and our (non-homicidal) robotic servants in our lifetimes.