For as long as Americans have been paying the mortgage, we've been transfixed by the home of tomorrow. It was back in 1957 when Disneyland's forward-looking model dwelling—the Monsanto House of the Future—began dazzling millions of visitors with then futuristic features like telescreen intercoms and microwave ovens. Fast-forward to 2008, when the Happiest Place on Earth unveiled its Innoventions Dream Home, a house so advanced that its kitchen can suggest what to make with certain ingredients (like all that flour). Meanwhile, the Microsoft Home, the software giant's interpretation of the future of residential living, doesn't just alert you when you're out of milk—it can send for a fresh gallon.
But are these innovations just Disney magic, or are they really coming soon to a neighborhood near you? (After all, the Monsanto House, intended to project what the ordinary American home in 1985 would be like, was made almost entirely of plastic.) To find out, U.S. News asked a handful of experts to sketch out their version of the home of the not-so-distant future. Here's a peek at eight innovations that may be in store:
[See photos of the Home of the Future.]
1. Point and build: The housing boom was marked by mass-produced developments filled with largely identical units, as the nation's megabuilders turned the suburban McMansion into a cultural icon. The coming years, however, will give way to an increasingly intimate, personalized approach to home construction, with consumers viewing residential real estate as more of an instrument of self-expression. "Customization is where the market is headed," says Kermit Baker, the chief economist at the American Institute of Architects. "The successful builders will be the ones that figure out how to change their production model enough to make the buyer feel like they are really getting something that was designed for them, not just a Model T off the assembly line."
Today's consumer can customize everything from T-shirts to new cars over the Internet. And Kent Larson, the principal research scientist at MIT's School of Architecture and Planning, expects advances in virtual modeling and construction efficiency to one day make it affordable for most home buyers to do the same. In Larson's vision, instead of heading over to a builder's office to examine floor plans, home buyers would use online design tools to create building information models, which would be passed along to fabricators and assemblers. The practice would allow consumers to engage in a sophisticated design process despite not having any professional architectural experience. "It's somewhat similar to the Dell [computer] model," he says. "You configure your custom computer with the same efficiency as if you went down to Best Buy and bought a generic one." This approach will enhance the architectural diversity of future American neighborhoods as different home buyers choose structures of distinct size, shape, and quality, Larson says.
Launch date: About 20 percent of new homes are custom built today, according to Gopal Ahluwalia, vice president of research at the National Association of Home Builders. Larson expects customization to be the leading approach to new home design by 2024. Custom remodeling of existing homes will be popular by that time as well, he says.
2. "Right-size" house: Although future homeowners will have more latitude to design their own pads, anyone expecting boulevards of flying-saucer-shaped bungalows is in for a disappointment. It's unlikely that the house of the future will shed the basic hallmarks of your current home, says Sarah Susanka, an architect in North Carolina. "We have this collective, almost archetypal image in this culture of what a house is supposed to look like," she says. "The house of the future isn't likely to deviate from that dramatically."
But while the comforts of pitched roofs and boxy shapes may remain, future homes will probably shrink—a bow to environmental concerns and a more thrift-conscious consumer. "We will be building smaller but smarter houses," says Ed McMahon, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute. "The era of conspicuous consumption is over." Instead of having a room for every indulgence, consumers will demand homes that make better use of interior space, says Susanka, whose bestselling book, The Not So Big House, has become increasingly influential in home design. Seldom-used quarters, such as formal dining and living rooms, will be replaced with spaces that can serve both functions. The goal of this "right-size" home is to fit its occupants like a professionally tailored suit rather than a jacket off the rack, Susanka says.