Research home will test radical new ways of designing, building, and living.

By Charles Wardell

"The process of home building is dysfunctional," says architect Kent Larson. "Most new homes are low-grade, low-tech, inflexible, unresponsive, disruptive to upgrade, and high maintenance."

Fighting words? Perhaps, but Larson wants to incite a revolution. His goal is no less than to re-invent the way homes are designed and built. Larson is principal research scientist of the "House_n" consortium--part of the Department of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Research under way here could, within a decade, give birth to homes that are easily assembled from high-tech modules, that readily adapt to evolving technologies and changing occupants, and that pose serious competition to conventional home builders.

The program consists of Larson, seven researchers, and between five and 10 graduate students with specialties including architecture, engineering, building technology, computer science, and art. But this is no academic ivory tower. On an average week, two building industry or technology companies come to visit.

When I visited Larson's research lab at MIT in June, Indiana builder Paul Estridge was on his way to see him. Centex has been involved from the start. The consortium's sponsors include names like Owens Corning and International Paper (see "Early Adopters," sidebar).

These forward-looking companies understand that digital and manufacturing technologies already let most other industries make complex, customized products at low cost. And they believe that the time may be ripe for housing to take advantage of these efficiencies.

But House_n is also a response to demographics. A 1998 survey by Roper Starch, a New York­based market research firm, found that baby boomers and Gen-Xers want customization in everything from clothes to cars. And while they love custom homes, most can't afford one. "But if you can figure out a way to meet that demand economically," says Larson, "it's a huge market." And with an increasing

diversity of household types--traditional families, single-parent families, working adults with retired parents, and singles--a house that can pass from one to another without disruptive remodeling should be a winner.

New systems, new builders

The above notions will soon get their first real-world test. After two years of research and fundraising, Larson's team has designed a prototype home for MIT's Cambridge, Mass., campus. The first job for this 1,700-square-foot "Living Laboratory," will be to evaluate a radically new building system. Once complete, researchers will use the home to study how people interact with technology and to generate data that manufacturers can use to develop new products for the home.

The Living Lab's frame, or chassis, will consist of posts and beams made from lightweight, plastic-and-glass pultrusions. (The process is like extruding spaghetti out of a pasta machine except that glass fibers are "pulled" through the die after being coated with resin.) The frame will include insulation cavities, as well as easily accessible wiring and mechanical raceways.

There will be no studs, no drywall, no screws, no nails: Exterior walls will consist of modules that can be plugged into the chassis by low-skilled workers and that can be replaced as needs change. Interior walls will be made from movable cabinets or closets, which can be re-configured when someone new moves into the home (or even pushed aside temporarily for a big party).

Enter the integrators

While some builders have shown interest in the Living Lab, none has committed dollars to its construction. Rather, most funding will probably come from companies outside the home building industry, with the best prospects being large technology firms. "They realize that before they can integrate their products into the home, there has to be a new concept of how to build and upgrade," says Larson. After discussing the project with local and national home builders, he is leaning towards using commercial contractors "because they are more familiar with sophisticated systems."

Is Larson saying that in the future homes will be built by commercial builders? "I'm saying something even more radical," he replies. "In the future there won't be a builder. Houses will be assembled by

integrators. In any other industry this would be a no-brainer." He believes that within 15 years, the new-home market will be dominated by well-capitalized corporations that are not thought of as builders--suppliers like Home Depot, retailers like Sears, technology firms like Microsoft, even lifestyle companies like Ralph Lauren.

These companies have access to the sophisticated technology, management, and marketing skills needed to mass-customize homes around modular components. Big home builders who don't grasp the threat might ponder what happened to an unprepared American auto industry with the invasion of sophisticated Japanese and European cars in the 1970s.

Architects will also have to adapt as home designers become virtual. Software being developed here could be used to build a Web site where home buyers can play design games, explore spatial configurations, and choose preferences in lighting, finishes, appliances, energy-producing components, and other technologies. Behind the scenes, expert systems will learn buyers' needs and values and propose home designs.

Buyers could even choose an expert system with a design engine based on the work of their favorite architect. Manufacturers would license design engines from well-known architects--who would get a fee for every home. "You would be hard pressed to get a name-brand architect to do a small house," says Larson, "but it's not a stretch to think they would design an engine that a corporation could license." Whether the final design was hyper-traditional or hyper-modern, it would be assembled using the same construction system and would be ready to accommodate a flood of new technologies.

World of possibilities

That flood shows no sign of slowing. When the Living Lab is complete (Larson hopes to finish the project by late 2002), researchers will invite people to live in it for a week or so at a time. They will be carefully observed to determine how they interact with the home in general and with new technologies in particular.

The data will help the program's sponsors develop products for new and existing homes. "All our sponsors realize that the future lies in providing high-value systems and services instead of low-margin commodities," says Larson. The lab will be a place they can test concepts before committing a lot of money to product development.

Eventually, these new products could create a demand among consumers for homes that can accommodate them. Companies that can provide such homes will find an expanding market. "If we take advantage of the innovation that other industries have long adopted," says Larson, "there's an incredibly exciting world of possibilities."