June 29, 2012 By Wayne Hanson
The September issue of Government Technology magazine will look at smart buildings, so I started thinking about the future of houses. There are nearly as many ideas of what the home of the future will look like as there are architects, or even people. There are big houses, like the Palace of Versailles, which began as a hunting lodge. An addition here, a wing there, and voila, it turned into something pretty splashy with a lot of upkeep.
There are small houses, mostly engineered by the Japanese who seem to like humble abodes that fit into one parking space or a capsule hotel that is even smaller -- about the same size as a morgue drawer but with better lighting and a TV.
Most of us live in something between Versailles and a capsule. It can be a New York City apartment, a ranch house in New Mexico, a loft in Portland , a narrow wooden two story in San Francisco, a brick cottage in Montana, or a liveaboard off the Florida coast.
The green movement and the recession have begun tilting homes toward smaller more efficient designs, made of sustainable materials, with heavy insulation and smaller heating and cooling requirements. Solar systems for heating water and home interiors are becoming more common, with geothermal systems on the horizon.
While Los Angeles is a poster child for “ugly spread-out terrible place to live,” the green lexicon for “sprawl” is pejorative, meaning anything with space around it. How much space does one family need anyway? Greens publish recycling nightmares like “There are these shipping containers lying around, let’s use them for houses.” So they design homes around those, cut holes in the sides for a few windows, and voila, a family-sized iron coffin.
The big home developers have their own abominations, building castles out of particleboard and staples, plastic plumbing and faux-wooden decks. Move right into a neighborhood where castles sit cheek to jowl. Reach out and touch someone looking down into your front room, sit back and listen to your neighbors’ arguments or an engine revving at 3 a.m. in a four-car garage.
Most ideas about the future are wrong. Just look at all the laughable world’s fair images of tomorrow. Their function, perhaps, is to break us out of the reality of now, and begin a search for something better. But the something better or newer never seems to be the same as the world fair vision.
The New York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in 1853, for example, featured the Crystal Palace, made entirely of steel and glass. It may have spurred the search for Windex and Rustoleum. Then a few years later, it burned down in matter of minutes, perhaps sparking the search for automatic sprinklers.
And how about those Jetsons? Robot maids, flying cars, etc. in a high-rise high-density city, with a 1950s traditional family. Compare that to The Fifth Element’s grubby flying cabs, three-dimensional traffic anarchy and pod living. Now that’s the future, baby!
Some people love New York City’s congestion, honking horns, smoking sewers, and rattling subways. Others prefer a sunny hillside cabin in the country, with a small flower patch, a few goats and a long gravel road to town. Some people might love a computer-assisted cooking program with a database of 10,000 recipes, automatic ingredient ordering and a voice-activated guide like Suri. Others might prefer a cookie recipe hand-written by great grandmother on a 3X5 card.
The best thing about the future is choices. It has more of them.
Wayne Hanson is editorial director of Digital Communities. His interest is in the future of communities and the elements necessary to create those places in which we would most want to live and work. What makes an ideal community, and how can civic leaders help their cities, counties and regions evolve to better meet old necessities and new opportunities?