Coming home to the future Home: Technology and design promise to make the house of tomorrow a friendly and helpful place.

December 28, 1997|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

When is a house more than a home?

When it's your friend.

In the next millennium, interior environments are going to do a lot more to take care of the people under their roofs, and the communities around them.

Houses of the future will be interactive, caring, sharing, protective and able to learn about occupants' preferences. Your house will take your messages, play your favorite music, monitor your visitors, save your knees, connect you to the world, make your coffee, stock your pantry shelves and keep down the dust.

Chances are you won't be alone: You'll be surrounded with friends, family, maybe even a former spouse, as part of a "re-extended family." You may live in a senior commune or a "new millennium" boarding house; you may live in a small town far from the big city lights and do your work by computer. Or you may live in a new "subdivision" built on the site of some post-industrial ruin in the middle of a big city.

When you're not working out of your home office, you can relax in front of the big-screen or projection TV, with access to hundreds, maybe thousands, of channels, and a library of hundreds of movies. You can exercise in your home gym, then soothe away the aches of the day in your home spa, complete with whirlpool, massaging multi-jet shower and scale that keeps track of your weight and body-mass index. Or you can sit on your front porch and chat with neighbors strolling along the curved, tree-lined street.

Wherever you live and work, prepare for "a radical departure" from the present, says Gerald Celente, of the Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y. In a recent issue, the institute's quarterly, Trends Journal, said, "Homes will be designed for comfort, safety, convenience and maximum independence. They'll be marketed as 'maintenance free,' technologically advanced, functionally efficient, easily accessible/'ramp ready' and 'environmentally friendly.'

"The major design feature of these staircase-free, single level homes will be their one large, open room, encompassing kitchen, work space and entertainment areas. Only the bedroom, bathroom and closets will be separately partitioned."

The Trends Institute also predicts that building materials will be chosen for ease of maintenance inside and out, and that their inhabitants will want appliances that are small and light, "furniture that's ergonomically designed, and household features, both low-tech and high-tech, that make living easy without assistance."

All that makes "the Home of the Future," a show house built in Dallas for the National Association of Home Builders Convention next month, eerily on target.

The house has two stories, but it does have an open foyer/kitchen/dining/media space with movable partitions that allow flexible room arrangements. There are no steps to get into the home, and a first-floor area could be used as an in-law suite. It is energy-efficient; it has a geothermal heat pump and photovoltaic shingles to provide backup electrical power. It has a satellite dish and fiber-optic cable for communication with the world.

Most of all, it has flexibility.

"Flexibility is very important," said San Diego designer Barry Berkus, who created the house built by Centex Homes. "The house has to respond to the changing needs of the inhabitants, to the changing family unit."

In the past, Berkus said, so-called "homes of the future" actually showed whatever were the hot ideas of the moment. For the convention show house, Berkus tried to anticipate what might happen to the inhabitants of the house as they, their parents and their children age. That could mean the establishment of the "re-extended family" the Trends Institute envisions, with grandparents living in a suite on the first floor, and a child returning home after college, or after a divorce, and living in one of the two casitas, or "little houses" that are part of the complex.

"The house has to accommodate a diverse group of people with diverse interests," Berkus said.

Closer to home, Jim Joyce, president of the Baltimore division of Ryland Homes, said one trend he sees picking up speed is the idea of giving a house flexibility to respond to technology of the future -- technology that might not be available yet, but that is under development. Fiber-optic communications, integrated television and computer functions, and some of the old "Smart House" features are the things Joyce cited.

The "Smart House" concept, which emerged about 10 years ago, used low-voltage wiring to connect various functions of the home. A Smart House, proponents said, could wake you up and turn on your coffee pot, monitor security while you were at work (and call the appropriate police or fire departments if trouble arose). You could call the house from the airport and turn on the oven and the air-conditioning.

The idea proved too expensive 10 years ago, but Joyce sees it slowly emerging into the marketplace in more affordable forms. "It's getting closer."

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