The house of the future is just around the corner, home builders promise, and when it comes it will provide the average homeowner with all the electronic wizardry and convenience gadgets that today are reserved for displays at Disney World or the homes of the wealthy.
A stroll through such a home reveals an array of functions, all intended to make future life in the home a little easier and safer. The home of the late 1980s will be able to sense if an elderly person has fallen down and alert paramedics for help. It will prevent shocks to children who put their fingers in wall outlets or light sockets.
Working unexpectedly late at the office and want to record your favorite television show? Or have the house nice and cool by the time you get home? With the house of the future, simply call and tell your house to turn on the video recorder and the air conditioner. Want to talk on the phone while working in the garage, or listen to music in the bedroom? Just take along the phone or stereo speaker and plug them into any wall outlet, which will be able to accommodate all appliances.
These and a myriad of other features are no longer the dreams of futurists, but the coming reality for the average American home, dubbed the Smart House by industry leaders.
David Smith, president of the National Association of Home Builders, said such a home of the future "will revolutionize the way we build houses, and it'll probably change the life styles of people."
Smith, whose 140,000-member association and research foundation is coordinating and marketing an extensive smart-house study, said the technology is about two years away from being on the market. Research on the project began last year.
Currently, two prototype vans with smart-house features are touring the nation at various exhibits, and the NAHB plans to begin construction this summer of the first smart house at the group's research park in Bowie.
In addition, 38 major corporations, including General Electric, Whirlpool and Apple Computer, are conducting research for the design of products that will be compatible with the home of the future. The companies are pumping millions of dollars into the research project they hope will create a new market for their products.
Tomorrow's home is being made possible by an advanced wiring system and sophisticated computer software, which are the heart and mind of the smart house.
Wires in houses today are like strands of spaghetti, with a different set of wires for lights and appliances, thermostats, telephones, a television antenna, a security system and, in some cases, audio speakers.
In the smart house, one central wire links outlets throughout the structure. Such wiring, plus appliance modifications currently being adopted by manufacturers, will allow a homeowner to plug any device into any outlet.
Basic single-wiring innovation will add about 1 1/2 percent to the cost of a new home, said Pieter VanderWerf, deputy director of the smart house project at NAHB's research foundation in Rockville. Additional charges depend on how smart owners want their house to be.
Adding the software necessary to transform a home into a security fortress would cost extra, but not as much as today because the internal wiring already would be in place. A smart-house security system could determine whether the individual walking through the living room at 3 a.m. is the homeowner or an intruder. If the latter, a call automatically could be made to the police.
The research on smart houses, which also is being financed by numerous utility companies, is designed to be produce highly energy-efficient structures. Appliances will use only as much power as they need, which will be evaluated by the internal wiring system when an appliance switch is turned on. The smart house will be able to tell the difference between an air conditioner and a blender, and send the proper amount of electricity to it.
"Why use 110 volts when an appliance could be run at 10 or 12 volts," said Smith, whose association is trying to raise $30 million on Wall Street to help fund the smart-house research project.
The smart-house owner would be able to have rooms set at varying temperatures, thereby saving on fuel bills. In time, VanderWerf said, a house could learn the habits of an individual so it could chill a bedroom before the owner usually goes to bed at 11:30 p.m., and shut off the television at the end of late night shows, just in case the owner had fallen asleep.
A smart house could take advantage of off-peak power times, turning off the hot-water heater during the day if no one were home, and turning it back on before supper. Working parents worried about their children setting the house on fire after school could program the house to not supply any electricity or gas to a stove until they got home from work.
NAHB officials say the smart house will be a safer home to live in. They said, for example, that if an air conditioner became overloaded, it would shut itself off. Or if it had a frayed or defective cord, the wall outlet would close down its power source.
Appliances would be able to interact. When the oven determined the roast was done, for example, it could signal the stove to heat the soup and the stereo to turn on some dinner music.
In the event of a power outage, a backup system could supply emergency electricity. Or if there were a gas leak, the smart house could warn the homeowner and call the utility company. The system also could lock a door at a specified time each night, or sound a warning that the refrigerator had been left open.
VanderWerf said the most common form of communicating with the smart house will be a wall screen that will graphically display different functions available to a homeowner. A simple touch would activate or modify a home's features.
"This is a major undertaking for the industry," said Smith. The NAHB has also pushed for changes in the National Electric Code, which sets standards for home electrical systems. The code changes, a requirement for the smart house because of its electrical modifications, are expected to be approved this year.
Smith said an important factor in his group's involvement in the smart-house project is the fear that American builders could be beat to the high-tech housing market by other nations.
"It's about time we get ahead of the Japanese on something," he said.
Retrofitting existing homes, however, will not be possible at the same time the technology is available for new homes, NAHB officials said. NAHB and the manufacturers involved are performing most of their current research on new home designs, but VanderWerf said some sort of retrofit package should be available about a year after new smart homes appear on the market in late 1988 or early 1989.
VanderWerf said an adapter plug is being designed to fit existing appliances, although he added that older appliances in a smart house probably will only be able to operate as they do now, and won't be compatible with the computer-led functions of the future home.
"It will antiquate a lot of equipment that we know of today," Smith said. "It may even antiquate some houses."