2037: Home Sweet Home

  • Article by: Karen Youso
  • Star Tribune
  • March 23, 2007 - 10:57 AM

Imagine that you re visiting an open house 30 years in the future. Solar panels hug the roof and a wind turbine spins wildly in the stiff spring breeze. It s raining heavily, yet there are no puddles underfoot. The rain is soaking into the pavement.

Snaking down the sides of the house are large downspouts that disappear into the ground and into what appear to be cisterns. Your ears catch the faint sound of voices and town activity coming from the back of the house, which, you are told, is actually the front.

This house seems backward with all its features from the past: cisterns, home gardens, delivery services, community green. As internationally recognized designer and engineer Chris Luebkeman said, things we once knew will come back again.

For decades we built houses how and where we wished, concerned only about comfort and style, with little thought to any long-term consequences. But the prospect of a planet with a changed climate is creating a different world.

This will be especially apparent in our housing. Buildings account for nearly half of the nation s yearly greenhouse gas emissions, says architect Edward Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030, an organization for protecting the global environment. It can no longer be business as usual.

We ve been using the atmosphere as a convenient sewer for 200 years, said meteorologist Paul Douglas of our greenhouse-gas emissions. Now it s coming back to bite.

To slow global warming, cope with climate change and avert disaster, experts say, buildings will have to change. It ll amount to a revolution in housing.

Minnesota might need to lead the way. Situated in the middle of the continent, on the nation s rooftop, the state is in the cross hairs of climate change, according to Peter Ciborowski, an analyst who studies climate change for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

We will see more weather changes than will other parts of the country, because global warming affects northern latitudes most, scientists say. In addition, we have been more prone to the leading edge of arctic air masses, Ciborowski said. Getting fewer of those makes a huge difference.

Precisely what kind of climate changes will occur, and when, is difficult to predict, but scientists are beginning to recognize trends. Minnesota will be warmer and probably wetter overall, but precipitation is likely to come in prodigious amounts interspersed with dry spells, even droughts. Winter will be warmer and shorter with more sleet. Snow will melt days after it falls.

We ll no longer hold a season-long snow pack, Ciborowski predicts.

Expect longer, muggier summers with more hail and an increasing likelihood of extreme weather. That includes tornadoes, Douglas said.

But expect surprises, Ciborowski said. It s important to remember that global warming and climate change are not necessarily steady, predictable processes.

Neither is the shift to more sustainable housing. Development patterns will change. The days of building large homes on vast acreage will vanish. We ll be living in smaller homes, closer together or even attached, and clustered within green areas. These homes will sprout first where there is open land to develop, but the changes eventually will come even to established city neighborhoods as some roadways are abandoned and turned into green or garden areas.

Minnesota s house of the future will have zero carbon emissions, meaning it will need no fossil fuels. The house will also be disaster-resilient, capable of withstanding capricious forces in an unknown weather world. Insurers and governments paying for disaster damage will demand no less. Needless to say, the house also will be filled with technological wonders.

Interiors of the future

By design, daylight will flood the home, reducing the need for lighting. Window glass will be switchable, with electrochromic glazing automatically lightening or darkening to control heat gain. In the kitchen, OLEDs (organic light-emitting diodes) will illuminate work areas. There will be no old-fashioned light switches and no appliances will be visible. The highly efficient, computer-networked appliances will be integrated into a glass-paneled wall.

The technology-packed kitchen, indeed the whole house, will be powered by solar or wind power, gathered either by the house or a community array, with a utility grid as backup. This way, the house operates off the grid and the meter runs backward. When there s neither wind nor solar power, the home taps the utility grid.

The home breathes by way of small wall-mounted boxes in nearly every room that act as designated ventilation points. With climbing temperatures come air-quality problems. Minnesota will have more days with high levels of ozone, allergens, particulates and humidity, Ciborowski said. You won t be able to count on opening windows. Homes will have controlled ventilation and air that is cleaned and dehumidified.

The house will have no obvious computer area with monitors, drive units and keyboards. Everything will be tied to personal computing devices or embedded in the structure for at-command displays on desktops, walls and windows.

The bathroom will be self-sanitizing. Light-activated nanocoatings will clean better than bleach. A modern dry toilet several generations removed and improved from its predecessor, the composting toilet will handle waste without water or odor. Waste collects far below the unit in a sealed container where it s composted and managed by a service provider and eventually used as a soil amendment.

Re-use, recycle:

Indoors and out

Much of the home s furnishings electronic items, entertainment devices, appliances, even the carpet will be leased. Occupants will contract with companies for products and furnishings. When it s time to upgrade or replace them, the company will install new items and recycle the old, or at least reclaim resources before disposal. Old carpet can be recycled into new, said architect John Carmody, director of the University of Minnesota s Center for Sustainable Building Research. This closes the loop, reducing waste and conserving resources, he said.

The house of the future will have no basement, thus avoiding the inevitable problems with moisture, mold and radon. Controls for heating, ventilation and other mechanical functions will be housed behind a door, in a mechanical pod or nerve center for computer and household operations. In a storm or other catastrophic event, you would head for the house s safe room, built to withstand a Category 5 tornado.

In 2037, a two-bedroom home easily can be converted into a three-bedroom home. Equipped with solid but movable walls, the home will accommodate changes in living needs and conditions. Extended families or other groupings are more likely to live under the same roof in the future, said Carmody, because it s more economical.

The home s second floor will be dominated by a wall of sliding glass doors. The large overhang and changeable glass will protect the house from heat gain. Glass doors open onto a roof garden. The turf and gardens keep the house 15 percent cooler. In the middle will be a pool of harvested rainwater. It s the home s third cistern.

The system of cisterns and downspouts is for controlling runoff. Heavy rains in short periods of time inches an hour followed by dry periods, even drought, create damaging erosion and flash flooding. Water doesn t soak in to recharge aquifers. The runoff pollutes by discharging more contaminants to surface waters. But in the future house, porous pavement in the home s landscape assists in storm-water control. Tiny spaces in the pavement allow water to drain to the aquifer; the water is filtered by soil along the way.

Even water-rich Minnesota will need to manage its use. Enter the ancient idea of water cisterns. Homeowners cisterns will capture rainfall, providing nearly pure water for washing, cleaning and watering. This takes pressure off the supply of treated potable water, which comes into the home for drinking, cooking or as backup.

Missing from the outside of the Minnesota house of the future is a garage. Many will rely on vehicles stored and maintained by the community, and ride public transit. By 2037, train lines and busways are foreseen as connecting places such as Rogers, Hastings, Hinckley, Eden Prairie, St. Cloud, Lakeville and points in between.

Some people, especially those beyond this service, will drive their own electric or hydrogen vehicles, but they will be leased, not owned.

Defining the future

The house of the future isn t about living with less and doing without. Rather, it s about living well in a reordered world, one that doesn t revolve around oil and unbridled use of resources.

The movement is already underway. The Waldsee BioHaus at Concordia Language Villages in Bemidji, Minn., inspired by German building design, uses solar energy and superior insulation for energy efficiencies far exceeding the average house, and it s a nearly carbon-neutral operation.

These houses are already under construction on a grander scale in Dongtan, China. It s a whole new city designed around sustainability concepts meeting needs of the present without compromising needs of the future. A half-million people eventually will live and work there, driving nonpolluting cars. With completion dates starting in 2010, Dongtan is viewed as a blueprint for future Chinese cities, and perhaps the world.

By 2037, Minnesota s house of the future might not seem so revolutionary.

Karen Youso 612-673-4407

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