I love those old "house of tomorrow" film shorts from the 1950s and 1960s, but I sometimes wonder if the creative minds behind them are disappointed by homes today. No wild, bubble-shaped pod houses, no floating from room to room and no robot servants (unless you count the Roomba). Most of us live in homes that are very traditional, and styles of architecture from the past have cult followings.
Even homes that are more cutting-edge still have many of the same features that homes did 50 to 100 years ago. We still have kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms and bathrooms. We're still sitting on sofas, eating at tables and sleeping on mattresses resting on wooden or metal bed frames.
Yes, there have been some amazing improvements -- indoor plumbing, flush toilets and electricity have all made a huge difference in the lives of everyday people. While these existed 50 years ago, our modern array of appliances and electronics is dizzying in comparison. If you have older relatives who have trouble using a cell phone or don't understand why we've moved on from cassette tapes and VHS, you know what I'm talking about. But people of the past would still be able to recognize a lot of what makes up a normal home today.
When thinking about what houses might look like in 50 to 100 years, it's hard to imagine that they'd be totally unrecognizable to us. It's fun to speculate and admire some of the more unusual, futuristic home styles, but most of them aren't going to become the norm. In addition, some architects today argue that newer houses aren't built to last the way that older homes were. That means that there's a good chance houses in the future will be a mixture of newer architecture (possibly built of longer-lasting materials) and houses standing today that have been upgraded for modern sensibilities.
Let's take a look at what homes might look like in the future, starting with the high-tech and energy-efficient features that have the most staying power.
Tech-y and Efficient
It seems a given that most of our electronics and appliances will only get better and more efficient in the future. Although we have plenty of them in our houses right now, getting all of them to work together seamlessly still isn't common for most of us. You can use your smartphone to do everything from watch TV to check on your home security system, but can you also turn on your oven? The home of the future will have robot servants -- they just won't be big, shiny metal androids rolling around and cracking jokes. They'll be hidden within your home, unobtrusive, intuitive and easy-to-use, and they'll incorporate more sensitive and touch-screen technology.
Microsoft's Future Home, for example, is full of this kind of tech. It's a concept home that they update periodically to reflect what they think the future will hold, but so far, many of their concepts seem right on track. It doesn't seem like much of a stretch to go from a mat by your front door that charges all of your electronic devices to one that can also retrieve information from those devices and display it on a big, touch-sensitive screen. Challenges for incorporating this kind of technology today include the expense of retrofitting an existing home, but future houses will incorporate it just like they do plumbing and electricity. There are other challenges beyond cost, though. Microsoft also conducted a study to find out how people felt about home automation, and one of the biggest concerns was security. If everything's automated, you'd have to make sure nobody can hack in and unlock your doors!
Right now environmental friendliness is a huge trend in home building, and you may already have things like energy-efficient windows. These kinds of features will probably become more common, but that doesn't necessarily mean that in 50 years, your house will be covered in solar panels or surrounded by wind turbines. Futurologist Ian Pearson argues that solar panels make much more sense in the African Sahara, for example, than on the roof of a suburban home that sees far fewer sunny days. Given the fact that all renewable sources of energy have their problems, it's hard to predict what will power your house. But it'll be designed to use that power as efficiently as possible in HVAC systems. Things like graywater recovery systems will become inexpensive and easy to use, so using your shower water to flush the toilet won't be a big deal at all.
A stealth-tech, eco-friendly home is probably on the horizon, but will the walls themselves still be wood and drywall?
Green, High-performance and Organic
As a friend of mine pointed out recently, buildings really used to be built to last; there are churches in Europe that have been around for thousands of years. But that's often because the only materials available were ones that were just naturally durable, like stone. Materials like wood, drywall, fabric and plastic are less expensive, lightweight and easier to work with. But one of the downsides is that very few parts of a modern home are built to last more than 50 years. The old materials end up in a landfill and then energy is spent to make and install new stuff.
Here's where the green movement comes in again. Not only do we want houses that are built to last, but we also want ones that are constructed of materials that aren't as taxing on the environment to make. And we want them to be relatively inexpensive. Wood's renewable, but issues like global warming and mass deforestation have some people looking for alternatives.
There are some pretty wild concepts in the works, but a new one that seems likely to become a reality is concrete. Concrete itself has been around for a long time, but in the past decade or so, there have been some huge advances in what's called high-performance concrete. It's much stronger than the traditional stuff, it's an incredible insulator, it can come in lots of different colors and it can be poured in just about any shape that you want. Companies that manufacture this material continue to reduce the environmental impact of the process. High-performance concrete lasts a long time and doesn't need to be painted or maintained. It's expensive now, but again, the cost will come down over time.
A concrete home isn't as fun to contemplate, though, as one made out of fungus. Members of the nonprofit design group called Terreform ONE come up with creative green building ideas. Mycoform, for example, is a building block made from a fungus that has been grown in molds, feeding off agricultural byproducts like hay. A much more palatable concept, called the Fab Tree Hab, includes growing houses by grafting trees and other plants onto a frame. Indoor, organic structures called living walls are already in use and are sort of a step above your average houseplant. Not only are they pretty, they also filter the air.
Don't want to live in a fungus or tree house? Expect to see more recycled metals and other materials in use both outside and within the walls of homes in the future.
It's a Small World
Thanks to the economic downturn of the mid-2000s, the McMansion -- a very large suburban home with a mix of architectural styles and a variety of room types -- seem to be a thing of the past. Family sizes are shrinking. Many people can't afford a big house, and some of those who can are realizing that they don't need all that space anyway. Nor do we have unlimited amounts of space in which to build.
One way of dealing with these issues is to go back to those old homes that are so often remodeled and deemed "too small" by some standards and make the best use of the space that's already there. But in the case of new builds, smaller and more flexible houses are going to be more popular. Although the economy will inevitably turn around, in the future we're more likely to want houses that will work for a variety of lifestyles and interests. In other words, having a scrapbooking room with special built-in storage for your rubber stamp collection will only appeal to a small number of people when you try to sell your house, so it may not be the best idea.
In 2010, Builder Magazine "built" the Home for the New Economy, a virtual concept home. At 1700 square feet, it was more than 600 square feet smaller than the average house size in the United States at the time [source: U.S. Census]. Instead of separate living spaces, the living room, kitchen and dining room flow together. The concept home also includes two different rooms that are adaptable depending on the owner's needs (one can even be turned into a studio apartment). There's a lot of built-in storage, and the three bedrooms and three bathrooms are just that -- not massive living spaces unto themselves. While it may seem a bit spartan, it's completely functional and so well-planned that some builders are using it in communities today.
We won't all want to live in a single-family home for a bunch of reasons, though, and the maintenance required to keep up the house and yard is just one of them. But expect the generic rows of apartment buildings to become less common. People want to live where they work and have a sense of community. Common and outdoor spaces mean you don't need as much inside.
Flashy home designs of the future are fascinating, but they probably won't become commonplace. In 50 to 100 years, we'll probably live in more high-tech, more environmentally friendly, longer-lasting and smaller homes that look much the same as your home does right now.
It's really amazing what creative home designers are dreaming up for homes of the future. The meat home (in vitro meat habitat, to be exact) is my favorite. But I really do think that practically speaking, nobody's going to live in one of those in 50 to 100 years. There will always be the outliers who are willing to spend the money and time getting some really cool, untested, unusual thing that the rest of us can't afford or aren't willing to take a chance on just yet. Then some of the technology from that will filter down into a price point and a realistic version that the rest of us can get behind. It happens with all kinds of technology, including home design. If I'm around in 50 years, I definitely want my house to be more efficient and green, but I also want it to have that certain "homey" feeling that comes from the familiar.
- Builder Magazine. "Concept Home 2010: A Home For The New Economy." 2010. http://www.builderconcepthome2010.com/concept-home.php
- Cofer, Brittany. "Builder uses durability, efficiency, to go green." Chattanooga Times Free Press. Nov. 13, 2010. (May 23, 2012) http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/2010/nov/13/builder-uses-durability-efficiency-to-go-green/
- Fillingham, Nic. "Microsoft Campus Tours: The Microsoft Home." Channel 9. May 2, 2011. (May 23, 2012) http://channel9.msdn.com/Series/CampusTours/Microsoft-Campus-Tours-The-Microsoft-Home
- Gumbel, Peter. "Building Materials: Cementing the Future." Time Magazine. Dec. 4, 2008. (May 23, 2012) http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1864315,00.html
- Joachim, Mitchell, et al. "Fab Tree Hab." Terreform ONE. 2012. (May 23, 2012) http://www.terreform.org/projects_habitat_fab.html
- Joachim, Mitchell, et al. "In Vitro Meat Habitat." Terreform ONE. 2012. (May 23, 2012) http://www.terreform.org/projects_habitat_meat.html
- Joachim, Mitchell, et al. "Mycoform." Terreform ONE. 2012. (May 23, 2012) http://www.terreform.org/projects_habitat_mycoform.html
- Johnson, Amy. "High-performance concrete." Concrete Decor. August 2008. (May 23, 2012) http://www.concretedecor.net/All_Access/CC101/cc-High_performance_concrete.cfm
- Landscape Communications. "Home sizes shrink." Landscape Online. 2012. (May 23, 2012) http://www.landscapeonline.com/research/article/14264
- Pearson, Ian. "What do solar panels on your roof say about you?" Futurizon Blog. April 28, 2012. (May 23, 2012) http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/what-do-solar-panels-on-your-roof-say-about-you/
- Smith. "Microsoft's Automated Future Home, what can go wrong?" Network World. June 8, 2011. (May 23, 2012) http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/microsoft%E2%80%99s-automated-future-home-what-can-go
- Sullivan, Jenny. "Builder's Online Concept Becomes Reality." Builder Magazine. June 17, 2010. (May 23, 2012) http://www.builderonline.com/design/builders-online-concept-home-becomes-reality.aspx
- U.S. Department of Energy. "Solar Decathlon."2012. (May 23, 2012) http://www.solardecathlon.gov/