Recession slows progress on model home featuring latest technology for disabled

June 23, 1991|By Adele Evans

A model home for the disabled, which had been scheduled to open in Baltimore County last year, has been stalled by the recession. But engineers in charge of the project say "Future Home" still has a future.

As envisioned by its creators, Future Home will feature voice-activated lighting and security systems, remote-operated video components and a variety of other "senses" designed to aid the disabled in daily living.

But the 5,000-square-foot project, which involves renovation of a 140-year-old home in Phoenix, is still far from completion. Originally scheduled to open late last summer or early last fall, the model could be delayed until next spring, its engineers say.

The reason is money. As the economy, particularly the construction industry, has slumped, donations of construction materials and manpower became impossible for many of the companies that had at first expressed interest. That caused Volunteers for Medical Engineering, the organization spearheading Future Home, to revamp its efforts.

"The downturn in the economy hurt us," explained Jeffrey Jerome, director of Future Home development and technical development at the Baltimore-based group. "We had counted on the building industry to do a lot of construction work. It's not their fault. They had great intentions."

Mr. Jerome and 20 other volunteer engineers donating time to the home emphasize that although there has been a lull in construction, Future Home is not doomed.

The VME is taking a new approach to the marketing of Future Home, emphasizing the public relations opportunities related to participating, along with the humanitarian aspect of contributing to a good cause.

"It's good PR for a company involved," Mr. Jerome said, and he is making sure companies know this when he calls them.

Several electronics companies have already donated equipment, which is now being stored until the interior wiring and walls of the house are completed. The stumbling block is not the automation, but basic construction of those interior renovations.

"In this project, construction lags the technology; it is not technology lagging the construction," said Jay Gamerman, VME member in charge of the video systems in the house.

To pay for interior renovations, the VME recently applied for federal Housing and Urban Development funds through Baltimore County's block grant program. The first grant of $76,000 has received county approval. The second grant, for $100,000, has received tentative approval. A final decision is expected by the end of the summer.

Although private companies have been donating components such as a personal computer, voice-activated security systems, speakers, and some of the wiring and video equipment for the house's interior, it is VME that is designing the computerized system to link the components.

The VME system will make the home operate as a unit. Mr. Gamerman compared the system to a conductor of an orchestra.

Future Home technically belongs to the state, but after heavy lobbying in Annapolis five years ago, Phoenix residents David and Terri Ward were appointed as curators of the property. When it is finished, the Wards will live in it rent-free, cooperating with VME engineers as they test and monitor all of the components.

Mr. Ward, a quadriplegic for 14 years as the result of a fall from a water tower, and his wife are eager to move into the "living lab" and test the technology for themselves.

"I'm frustrated at the delays," Mr. Ward admitted. "But it's the nature of what we're trying to do and the concern to accomplish what we want."

Although renovations have slowed down, much progress has been made already. Exterior improvements -- including a new roof, porch and landscaping -- are nearing completion. Mr. Ward said he'd planned exterior work first, in hopes that it would attract attention and donations for interior renovation. The Wards say they have spent nearly $200,000 of their own money on exterior work.

The interior is still primarily a shell. The home needs sheet rock, flooring, plumbing, heating and air conditioning, cabinetry, kitchen renovations and, of course, the high-tech components that will make Future Home a showplace for the public.

"We can't go to a book for this project," Mr. Jerome said. "Getting the experts together was difficult. We're also constrained because we're trying to make the technology donated. When there's no money to do construction, you can design all you want but it doesn't do any good."

The home will be open to the public so disabled people can tour and get ideas for use in their own homes. A typical complaint of the disabled is that company showrooms do not display a system as it would operate in a house. With Future Home, they could see the technology in a realistic setting.

Public interest in the project is still high, despite the fact that money has not been as forthcoming as praise. VME has given tours of the home to representatives from the United States, Sweden and Japan, among other countries, to explain the project.

"The group isn't disheartened. We have our hands full," Mr. Jerome said. "We're encouraged by the HUD money."

"We want to promote independent living for the disabled," he added. "If we help someone to go to work even part-time through our technology, we'll have done a good job."

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