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.
Launch date: Susanka believes the "right-size" approach to home building will be a leading philosophy by 2019.
[Read about The Top 10 Housing Markets for the Next 10 Years.]
3. Smart Metering: Even as energy costs become a mounting concern for Americans, few have any idea how much they consume until the electric bill arrives each month. That's because today's energy meters are typically located in hard-to-reach areas outside the home or in the basement and can be difficult to read. But with the emergence of "smart meter" technology, future homeowners won't be left in the dark. These user-friendly devices, with displays located in the home, provide up-to-the-minute tallies of household utility consumption. "Electricity, gas, and don't forget water too," says Brian T. Castelli, an executive vice president for programs and development at the Alliance to Save Energy. Simply by making homeowners more mindful of their consumption, smart meters will increase conservation and reduce costs.
But that's not all. By communicating directly with the utility, smart meters will alert homeowners to changes in energy prices, enabling them to better manage their consumption. At the same time, consumers will be able to use these devices to control their home's temperature remotely, from a laptop or Blackberry. "If you are at work and you forgot to turn your air conditioner off while you were gone, you can make that adjustment by communicating with the smart metering device," says Meg Matt, president and CEO of the Association of Energy Services Professionals.
Launch date: Smart meters are currently being used in Europe and in parts of the United States, such as California. Matt expects smart meters to be a fixture of the typical American home long before 2019.
4. Voice Recognition: A handful of emerging technologies will transform homes into interactive partners rather than static living spaces. Take voice recognition technology, for example. Rather than fumbling for the thermostat, future homeowners may be able to increase the temperature of a room simply by saying, "Heat room," says John Peckham, the executive director of the Real Estate CyberSpace Society in Boston. Voice recognition technology could apply to other common household functions as well, such as turning lights on and off. "There is going to be very little pushing buttons. Everything will be voice oriented," Peckham says.
Launch date: Voice recognition technology is already being used in the Innoventions Dream Home at Disney's Tomorrowland in Anaheim, Calif., and the Microsoft Home in Redmond, Wash. Peckham expects such components to be built into the average new home by 2014 and retrofitted into most existing homes by 2019.
5. Facial recognition: If you think talking to your home is impressive, wait until it starts recognizing your face. Although not yet as advanced as voice features, facial recognition technology could enable future homes to identify and interact with specific residents, Peckham says. For example, wall-mounted sensors may one day identify an occupant as he enters the bathroom in the morning, then provide the day's weather forecast and even remind him to take his Lipitor. In addition, Peckham believes future homes will use a combination of voice and facial recognition technology to let homeowners inside, making house keys obsolete. "What's a house key?" he says. "The kids won't even know what that is 20 years from now."
Launch date: Peckham says facial recognition technology could be included in the average newly constructed home by 2019 and retrofitted into most existing homes by 2024.
6. Smart fridge/cupboard: Tomorrow's major appliances could pitch in around the house as well. For example, future refrigerators and pantries could use a technology known as radio frequency identification, which deploys radio waves to tag and track goods, to take care of your grocery shopping. Sensors placed in refrigerators and pantries would monitor your food inventory. When the stock gets low, the sensors would notify the grocery store to have the food replaced. "When the milk and the vegetable bin and the eggs all reach a certain amount, the order is placed, and it is delivered," says Saul Klein, the CEO of Point2 Technologies. "It becomes more cost effective when you get a certain critical mass of need."
Launch date: Klein says this technology could be found in the typical American home by 2029.
7. Smart kitchen: The kitchen of the future isn't just a place to cook; it's a sous-chef. When a homeowner places a food item on the smart kitchen's counter, a monitor will display a list of additional ingredients available in the house and even offer recipe suggestions. "The system is trying to be assistive, rather than waiting for you to give it instructions," says Jonathan Cluts, director of strategic prototyping at Microsoft. Cluts worked on both the Innoventions Dream Home and the Microsoft Home.
Launch date: Similar smart kitchens are up and running in both the Innoventions Dream Home and the Microsoft Home. The technology could appear in the average American home by 2019, Cluts says.
8. Virtual mirror: Teens will be spending even more time staring at their reflections once technological advances enable mirrors to dole out fashion advice as an older sibling might. As a teenager gets ready for school, these interactive mirrors could remind her of the day's events and also help select an outfit. Through technology like radio-frequency identification, the mirror could identify articles of clothing held in front of it and suggest other items that might match. "That's a blue blouse, and it should go nicely with these other things in your closet," Cluts says.
Launch date: Similar mirrors are now operating in both the Innoventions Dream Home and the Microsoft Home. They could appear in the average teen's room by 2015, according to Cluts.