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MIT collaborative team to design prototype for house of the future

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Think of the human body: it adapts to our needs, reacts to environmental influences, and lets us know--most of the time--when things are not working.

Now imagine a house that does the same.

Right now such an abode doesn't exist, but MIT researchers and colleagues hope to develop it through a new program on the house of the future. The researchers ultimately hope to build prototypes of such a house on the MIT campus and around the world.

To that end, the program is investigating three interconnected areas of research: the building technologies and systems that can be integrated to create the general architectural design of an advanced home, technologies that can be embedded in the home to make it "responsive," and the application of digital visualization tools to the design process. The goal is to produce such a home for the middle market rather than just for the wealthy.

"While housing is usually a family's major investment, most people live in generic 'spec' structures poorly tailored to their needs. A thorough reconsideration of the house--including the use and meaning of the spaces, the technologies embedded within these spaces and the process of its creation--is required," said Chris Luebkeman, assistant professor of architecture.

Professor Luebkeman and Kent Larson, director of MIT's Digital Design Laboratory, are co-principal investigators for the new program, dubbed House-n. The "n" represents adjectives including "next generation" and "neural" (the latter because the researchers envision a house with an electronic "nervous system" that learns the habits of those who live in it to assist in their living patterns.)

A key part of House-n is bringing together other researchers at MIT who are working on projects that might contribute to the next generation of homes. For example, said Professor Luebkeman, Professor Anna Thornton of mechanical engineering expressed an interest in extending her research to examining the entire system of the design and production process of the home, Professor Sara Slaughter of civil and environmental engineering is working on innovation in the housing construction workplace, and Professor Klavs Jensen of chemical engineering is developing paint that glows when an electric current goes through it.

In addition, Professor Peter Szolovits of electrical engineering and computer science has created Guardian Angel software agents that will help track, manage and interpret a person's health history and offer advice to both patient and health-care provider. And a team of researchers in materials science and engineering (Professors Gerbrand Ceder, Yet-Ming Chiang, Anne Mayes and Donald Sadoway) "are very excited about the possibilities of incorporating their thin-film battery technologies into building components," Professor Luebkeman said.

"We realized that if these researchers' work could be integrated into the new program there was the potential to create a truly new vision for the home," he said. "We have the technology in disparate pieces; now we're working on putting them together."

For example, he said, imagine a ring that could sense that a diabetic's blood sugar is getting low, and that information, transmitted to the house, would result in the walls' changing color to alert the diabetic. The information could also be transmitted via the Guardian Angel software agents to a primary caregiver and, if necessary, emergency assistance could be summoned.

With respect to the overall architecture of the house and the digital tools used to design it, Drs. Luebkeman and Larson foresee "a large set of carefully conceived components that can be rapidly arranged and combined in a variety of ways" on the computer. Because "the spatial and technological implications" of adding, say, a home office to the house will already be incorporated in the database, "its addition will automatically adjust ductwork, relocate diffusers, move doors, add windows," etc.

The House-n project is a collaboration between the Digital Design Laboratory, the Building Technology Program and industry sponsors.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 10, 1998.

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