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Edifice Complex

Isn’t it about time architecture began to fully accommodate sensible automation in the home and workplace?

Is there a future for the smart house? When, already? And what will it entail? Beyond plumbing and electri-city, surely our homes will develop an “inner” net-networked intelligence to manage things more sensibly. Our buildings need to become wiser. Remember, Jane Jetson will be born someday soon, so we’ve got to come up with something more interesting than an Internet toaster.

A look to the past might help. I write this in Kyoto at its cherry blossom peak. Kyoto is a special city, with many ancient wooden buildings intact and in harmony with the newer city. And there is more than charm to the old homes and country inns; centuries of zenlike wisdom are infused into the architecture. Wandering through a garden, I noticed peculiar cedar trees that grew into perfectly straight poles 10 meters high with leafy pompoms on the top, like something Dr. Seuss would have drawn. This was not natural. Thousands of years ago, monks figured out that if a tree’s horizontal limbs were constantly trimmed, it would grow perfectly straight. Over hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, they cultivated forests in this way to supply perfect pillars and timbers for buildings.

That kind of deep value, spanning generations, hardly applies to intelligence technologies yet. There is no zen in my tangled stereo system, or the appliances and early-20th-century heating and lighting systems that clutter our abodes. Home computers haven’t helped. Technology at home is not a symphony. It’s a cacophony.

We have the ability to do better-to build dwellings that are comfortable, beautiful, functional and environmentally friendly. The difficulties are not primarily technical. They are cultural. Fly over the United States and look out the plane window: you could convince yourself that the profession of architect doesn’t really exist. And the patterns of suburbs don’t look much better on the ground. Common sense in design is in uncommonly short supply.

Just look at plumbing. Frank Gehry likes to call architecture “sculpture with plumbing.” Great civilizations don’t grow without good plumbing.

You may have heard of Ephesus, whose ruins overlook the Turkish Aegean coast. Built in the time of Christ, it is a dazzling city with marble-colonnaded streets, a massive amphitheater, a magnificent library-and great plumbing. Ephesus’s Roman rulers took bathing and plumbing seriously, and some of the terra cotta sewers and pipes still work. Ephesian baths had ingenious heating systems to feed hot, warm and cold pools. Walk into the beautiful Roman latrines. You instantly admire the contoured potty seats, the rivulets underneath to carry waste away, the water channel by your feet for washing hands and toes, and the breathtaking view. Compared to my lousy little bathroom in Cambridge, it was a dream.

But go back to the nearby “modern” Turkish town of Kusadasi to use a public restroom and be horrified. To call it a hole in the floor would be generous. It’s as if more than 2,000 years of better living through plumbing had never happened.

Most of the world still has very bad plumbing, where the distinction between the water to wash with and the water to drink has not yet been realized. Diseases related to impure water are among the top three causes of death in parts of India and Asia. Management of fresh water is a significant world issue, but few homes or communities do it well, let alone with joy or ingenuity. There are of course creative solutions. Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Sustainability, for example, devised a small greenhouse full of plants and snails that can thoroughly rid domestic wastewater of toxins; they call it a “Living Machine.”

Worse than water is the wanton use of electricity. Whether you’re at home or not, the typical electricity-guzzling U.S. house chugs away, burning power. It’s too dumb to know whether you’re in or out, awake or asleep. When it comes to saving power, a million-dollar home is dumber than the dumbest thousand-dollar laptop.

The United States, with less than five percent of the world’s people, produces a quarter of the world’s air pollution. And the number one cause of air pollution is: generating electrical power. More than half of U.S. electricity comes from burning coal, which dumps greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Bill Browning of the Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that buildings account for more than one-third of U.S. electric power demand. More than one-fourth of that energy goes into lighting.

You don’t need to be the brightest bulb on the tree to realize that energy-efficient lights, architectures that make better use of daylight and sensible approaches overall (like homes and offices that are smart enough to turn off the lights when the occupants leave) could reduce consumption enormously. Incandescent bulbs, once a bright idea, are obsolete yet still in heavy use. They are horribly wasteful: 90 percent of the electricity they draw goes out as heat rather than light. Compact fluorescent lights that fit standard sockets are four times as efficient and last 12 times as long. Efficiencies and savings with the use of new light-emitting diode technologies are likely to be even greater (see “LEDs Light the Future,” TR September/October 2000).

As power companies in California suffer under the load and embarrassingly brown out large parts of the state, it is hard not to wonder why people still design and use such dumb lighting systems. Why are incandescent bulbs used in the vast majority of homes? Are consumers so unaware? (Yes.) Does the high initial price of a compact fluorescent obscure the long-term benefits? (Yes.)

But there is a more insidious factor: force of habit. Even small changes in consumer behavior would have easily prevented the California blackouts. But bad habits are hard to break-and the Bush administration’s hostility toward energy conservation isn’t helpful. This is where smarter use of technology in architecture might serve us well. Unfortunately, most people tend to live with what they’ve got. Renters have no incentive to upgrade their homes. Homeowners find they’ve inherited a big box full of leaky pipes and running toilets and drafty windows and bad insulation that they don’t have time or money to fix. Even when design solutions exist, it’s been difficult for homeowners to obtain them. But the solutions are out there.

Carrier makes Web-enabled thermostats that can be monitored and controlled remotely, and programmed to follow set temperature patterns. That’s a first step in building a home that can relax and go to sleep when you’re away. An Italian company, called Wr@p, is pioneering the development of smart, networked appliances that can take turns drawing electricity to minimize peak-hour consumption.

Efficiencies extend into appliances themselves. For instance, when you open and close the refrigerator door around mealtimes, your fridge goes into a tizzy as its control system fights to maintain a steady cool temperature. A smarter refrigerator (a few exist) tracks the opening and closing of the door and knows enough to sit quietly and sweat it out during periods of use. After things have quieted down, it calmly brings the temperature back under control without wasted effort-cutting energy consumption in half. That’s significant: the fridge typically accounts for about one-fifth of a home’s electric bill.

Whether they are within an appliance or across a household network, when your home computer is able to manage your home, efficiencies could compound into synergies. If that happens, the home could begin to counteract some of the consumer’s sloppy, lazy behavior.

In design, too, behavior is still the root of the problem. Although most forward-thinking architects envision homes with sensible systems, many people feel that home architecture is for the wealthy. Substantially redesigning a home has been beyond the means of most. But an MIT research team called the House_n project would give consumers access to intelligent architectural design and to the gamut of other building services that have been manageable only by teams of architects and contractors. The researchers argue that such services are increasingly online, available to all who would like their homes to work better.

Commodity, firmness and delight: those are the three ideals of virtuous architecture espoused by Vitruvius more than 2,000 years ago-as engraved on the Pritzker Prize, in Henry Wotton’s 1624 translation. It was, after all, the Romans who put the “arch” in “architecture,” and their values have not faded. Vitruvius’s order was firmitas (buildings should be sturdy, structurally sound shelters), utilitas (they should accommodate human needs) and venustas (like Venus, they should be beautiful). To which we could add: sensitas. Buildings should be sensitive, even wise. Architecture is destined to absorb intelligent technologies, and buildings ought to be smart enough to do the right thing on behalf of their residents.

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