Coming home to the millennium

Future: Welcome to the house of the year 2020, where the structure itself will adapt to the occupants.

April 18, 1999|By Michele Ingrassia | Michele Ingrassia,Newsday

Ever since 1929, when architect-inventor Buckminster Fuller stunned the world with his alien-looking geodesic dome, planners and dreamers have plotted grand-scale designs of the future.

Disney's 1957 "House of Tomorrow," for instance, wasn't just an amusement park attraction but a guesstimate of the plastic, pre-fabbed world we'd live in centuries hence. Levittown wasn't just a means for sheltering legions of returning World War II vets, but the very blueprint for modern suburbia. Yes, Bill Gates' $53 million Seattle mansion is a latter-day variation on the Newport megastructures that America's robber barons built at the last fin de siecle, but it's also a laboratory for the technological and environmental innovations that, one day, will echo in houses for the masses.

But for all the debate, there have been no obvious answers. And as the next millennium approaches, the question seems more pressing than ever: What will the house of the future look like?

Ask most homeowners to conjure up a future house, and the results are likely to be sleek, smart, sophisticated -- and stuck in the cartoon images of the Jetsons. But even in a world in which Gates' techno-mansion is nearing reality, a house that thinks -- or cooks -- for itself is still a long way off.

But as anyone who owns a PC or DVD knows, the blueprint is already in place. And by the time the first millennium babies head off to college, houses could be all the things they are not yet: smart, green and flexible enough to meet the demands of the increasingly diverse American family.

From the outside, the house of 2020 will look surprisingly un-futuristic.

"A home is a home, and the objective is, among other things, to live in it," says Gopal Ahluwalia, who follows trends for the National Home Builders' Association in Washington. Which is to say, it won't take on some strange new form. But it won't be your father's house, either.

Architects and academics are already spinning their visions: a cupboard that tells you when you're out of Oreos -- and automatically zaps a restock order to the supermarket (which, of course, will deliver). A dishwasher that cleans with a sonic blast -- or incinerates the plates themselves and forges new ones in time for breakfast. Roof tiles that look like shingles -- and function like solar panels. A living room that morphs into a dining room whose interactive wide-screen TV lets you sit down to a birthday dinner -- with your brother in Indonesia.

"The house of the future will be sort of like having a servant," says Greenvale, N.Y., industrial designer Fred Blumlein. "With an automatic, whiz-bang, digitally controlled environment, you'll make a wish and your wish comes true. The only thing you have to do is pay for it."

Clearly, the wealthiest consumers will lead the way. The folks already swapping their VCRs for digital video disc, or DVD, units and contemplating voice-recognition systems for their home PCs will likely be the first to invest in the smart and the self-sustaining. But ultimately, experts say, the house of the future will be shaped, not in a single master stroke, but incrementally, by a middle class that has always adapted ideas from upmarket.

Consider that 30 years ago, the average house had 1 baths; today, it has 2 to 3. Back in the '60s, most houses had 8-foot ceilings; today ceilings soar to 11 feet.

What all this augurs, designers and builders says, is a revolution of interior proportions.

Significantly, the future house will have to be more flexible to meet the expanding needs of the 21st century's traditional, blended and reblended families, with multiple generations and any number of yours-mine-and-ours kids living under one roof. And it will have to be more flexible to accommodate the starkest architectural reality of the new millennium: that living rooms and dining rooms have become superfluous to our lives.

The result: Builders will not only abandon the living room and dining room, but they'll also have to rethink how to make interior spaces compensate for both. Manhattan architect Dennis Wedlick, for one, envisions a flex house in which private spaces (bedrooms, baths, dressing areas) are compact and highly functional, and public spaces (family room, kitchen, dining areas) are open and highly adaptable.

"This can work even in a small house if people are not required to have an individual space for an individual function," says Wedlick.

Architect Barry Berkus of Santa Barbara, Calif., says interior walls in public rooms will come tumbling down, replaced with partitions -- walls and storage bins mounted on casters so they can be easily moved to change, say, a living room into a dining room or a dining room into a playroom or conference room.

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