Smart Home serves as tech, green showcase

House Profile: Catch up with Facebook friends on your bathroom mirror

Wish that your living room chairs were upholstered with old car tires? Want your bathroom mirror to help you keep up with friends on Facebook?

Aiming to capitalize on two avidly marketed-to interests of American consumers — anything "green," in the environmental sense of the word, and anything wired — Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry has unveiled the fourth incarnation of the "Smart Home," constructed on its campus.

This year’s version has an "old meets new" theme.

The exterior of the sleek-looking, factory-built modular home remains much the same as when it debuted in 2008. But each year the interior has been renovated and updated, always with an eye toward melding technology and environmental responsibility, according to Jeff Buonomo, coordinator of temporary exhibits and events at the museum.

This year, while there’s still an emphasis on consumer technology, the environmental side has shifted slightly, from filling the house with sustainable furnishings to those that, well, have been around the track a few times.

"In the past, the Smart Home had new furnishings from sustainable materials, such as from Crate & Barrel and West Elm" stores, Buonomo said. "This year’s idea is to reuse and repurpose."

For example, before an enormous cabinet landed in the main living area of the 2,200-square-foot home, it spent about 50 years as a repository for sorted mail in a Springfield, Ill., post office, Buonomo said.

Atop the postal cabinet sits an item that clearly isn’t old — a large flat-screen television that handles the usual entertainment chores. But it also displays, on demand, a room-by-room measurement of the house’s energy consumption.

It’s linked to the home’s automation system, which, in addition to controlling the lighting and raising and lowering blinds, can track daily or even hourly use of energy.

The idea behind home-automation systems — as well as some other technologies in the house, such as an on-demand water heater — isn’t terribly new, Buonomo acknowledges. But the museum believes many thousands of consumers’ first exposure to them came in the past four years as they walked through the Smart Home. About 250,000 people have visited the home since the original version opened.

"Four years ago, a lot of this was in the very early stages of being mass-marketed," he said. "Now you’ll find it in places like Home Depot."

Not widely available — yet — is the Cybertecture Mirror in the master bath, which not only functions as your basic mirror, but at the click of a remote doubles as a computer monitor that displays time, temperature, traffic reports and news. It can track of your weight gain or loss, too, and let you check in to your Facebook page.

In the kitchen, a "family dashboard" screen is a tech twist on the traditional notion of a bulletin board. It keeps an electronic grocery list, and will post text messages from family members who need to announce such daily events as staying late after school — and will forward the texts to every other member of the family.

Other green and/or techie features of the home:

  • In addition to a tall, graceful wind turbine that whirs quietly in front of the house, the building gets some of its energy from the sun. Though instead of rigid, permanent panels, the Smart Home’s solar panels are soft and roll out like sleeping bags on the flat roof, and the owner can take them with him when he moves, Buonomo said;
  • Back in the master bath, a solar-powered toothbrush uses electrons that react to the acid in your saliva to clean your teeth, without toothpaste;
  • In the "reuse" category, the kitchen cabinets are actually 1940s metal laboratory cabinets salvaged from the nearby University of Chicago, stripped of decades of paint down to their original, industrial-chic finish.

In the living room, guests who run their hands across the royal blue, vaguely suede-ish upholstery on the chairs might be surprised to learn that the fabric has been made from recycled automobile tires.

The current Smart Home will close in January; Buonomo said the museum staff is now working on version 5. He said even he has been surprised with how the house has resonated with museum visitors, and in the beginning didn’t anticipate it becoming an annual event.

"In 2008, we thought we would be offering a one-hit wonder," he said.

Demonstration homes long have drawn crowds, and the Smart Home has many precursors. Among the most famous are the Homes of Tomorrow from Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress Exposition (one home had its own helipad) and the House of the Future at Disneyland in California, which was open from 1957-67 and featured such modern wonders as a microwave oven.

Though individual aspects of these demonstration homes found their way into the mainstream, the jury is still out on whether consumers, as wired as they are today, clamor for homes whose chief marketing appeal may be to-the-rafters technology.

"I haven’t heard any clients saying, ‘I only want to see "smart" properties,’ " said James Kinney, vice president of luxury home sales at Baird & Warner Real Estate in Chicago. "It’s a nice plus, but most of us haven’t figured out how to program our TiVos yet.

"Where you do get a reaction (from people buying homes) is with lighting systems — they like to control zoned lights and they like the whole-house music systems where you drop an iPod in a docking station," he said. "And in kitchens, they want bells and whistles in their appliances."

Beverly Hills, Calif., agent Ronna Brand said that quality construction is still the decision-driver in homebuying, but more consumers appear to be starting to see the value of cost efficiency and environmental responsibility.

Even so, few are daring enough to take the plunge with a home that’s cutting-edge now but may all too soon be as quaint as that ’60s Disney-esque view of the future, she said.

"Clients understand that what may be technologically exotic today could become obsolete tomorrow," Brand said. "If they consider the technology in a home to be a novelty or a toy, they probably will not consider paying extra for it."

Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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