The Unsmart Home

Late last year I visited the site of the Solar Decathlon Middle East 2018, held in Dubai. The overall winner was Virginia Tech with their FutureHAUS. Here’s a vid overview.

Early on we see images of robots making automobiles, as if this is how those larger consumer objects known as houses could and should be made in the future. I wonder. I’m pretty sure we could have made houses in this way anytime over the past eighty years but using human labour is still less capital-intensive.

After nearly a century of trying, the industrialiased production of houses hasn’t come to pass but IKEA and MUJI have made a success of houses that advantage the affinity that modular design has for timber construction. [c.f. The Catalogue House, The MUJI House] These companies can customise not just the positions of windows and partitions but the very proportions of the spatial enclosure. Automobiles, on the other hand, are manufactured by from a set number of pre-made and mostly metal components being assembled in set ways to make production cars (on a production line). “Customisation” means little more than the selection of colour, trim and an assortment of add-ons. Outside the automobile industry, custom cars are those that have been customised in ways their manufacturers never envisaged and in ways sometimes quirky or things of beauty. These highly individual cars are handmade labours of love by craftspersons taking great pride in their creations and great joy in creating them.

Factory production is applicable to building components such as windows and wall panels, but this is fundamentally different from the prefabrication that usually takes place in workshops using manual labour in a controlled environment. FutureHAUS designers attempted to strike a balance by designing a house as prefabricated components they call “cartridges” that can be quickly fitted together on site.

It’s not a bad idea although, as with automobiles, the degree of customisability is limited to that which has been designed in at the outset. I don’t mind this as an idea but fear it may be too much of a response to the competition requirement that the house be assembled once, then disassembled and shipped to the site for reassembly. Designing for this adds a redundant twice-off functionality to something expected to have the life cycle of a building. Curiously, it’s easy enough to tell what the exterior of the house is made of, but very difficult to tell how it has been constructed. This house has few indicators of being a product of human labour. I realised how much I like materiality in a house and, as with the food I prefer, how I like my houses top be made from recognisable elements put together with simple uncomplicated processes.

This lack of materiality carries through to the interior where the absence of construction joints articulating the labour that went into it by welds, nails, screws or mortar gives it the insubstantiality of a stage set. Again, it feels like the future because the interior also has no existence as a product of human labour. It’s the continuation of processes set in motion a century ago and stated as early as 1956 with the Smithson’s House of the Future and again in 1957 with Monsanto’s House of the Future. Put simply, industry needs a market and architects create that market.

FutureHaus continues this tradition of demonstrating the ways by which the products of industry can be rolled out. This is not for our benefit. It is Architecture saying to Industry that it’s ready to serve its needs, not ours. 3D printing is still fortunately some way off but we already have the “fluid” aesthetic ready for it when it is. For now, entire houses and even the bigger chunks of them are not being made in factories. It’s the smaller “fruits” of industry that are most likely to appear first.

I didn’t see a mailbox. The video calls the drone-delivery hatch the “mailbox of the future”. Perhaps, but it’s one that will be never be a place for human interaction. The drone delivery hatch is Architecture saying “hello” and “we’re open for business” to Amazon. There was no doorbell. Visitors will no doubt use their phones to announce their arrival. In a couple of the other competition houses, occupants could use their smartphones to open the front door. I’m puzzled why. One used facial recognition software. For every instance I could imagine myself wanting the front door to open automatically as I approached it, I could imagine a situation where I might not want it to. [Is arriving home all that onerous?] I was amazed entering a house was a problem that needed solving in so many technology-intensive ways. I reasoned that the important thing is not the solving of the problem but creating the solution first and then creating the problem for it to solve. We never knew we wanted to listen to music while walking, until SONY invented the Walkman.

I’m not some sort of Luddite. I use my smartphone’s facial recognition software to make credit-card payments and so on. I’m amused to see my smartphone lets me set an “alternative appearance” but, to be honest, I’m still wondering what that might be, or in what situation I might want one.

The houses of our future are not even safe from the vocabulary of industry. I learned that the smart kitchen will have inventory management. Sure it’s annoying to discover one has run out of milk or whatever, but I don’t mind making lists and walking to a shop to get what I need. Some people in some countries like to talk to their shopkeepers about the seasonality and quality of the produce they purchase.

Not that many years ago in London’s Bloomsbury there was an Italian baker who would bake bread all morning and man the counter all afternoon. I would ask for a particular loaf and he would wrap it in filmy paper and then put it in a paper bag, telling me that it was a great loaf and would keep for a week if stored that way. Conversations like these are what daily life should be made of. There is nothing inconvenient about them.

Inventory management normalises a world without grocers, butchers, bakers and family-run stores.

And then there are the smart surfaces. The example above hastens the redundancy of imagination by suggesting recipes based on the ingredients placed upon it, but another example is the kitchen counter splashback that’s basically an interactive display that can be house control centre, recipe book or generic video display. It’s simply not necessary for any surface to have any of these functions. Some people enjoy recipe books, pondering what to make and putting together ingredients or a menu. Some people have ideas about food and can rustle up something amazing from whatever they have. Some people enjoy cooking and don’t need to watch a video for news or entertainment, or catch up on emails or social media at the same time.

Dick Bradsell, mixologist extraordinaire and inventor of the espresso martini was great at parties. He could rustle up amazing drinks from whatever booze was left and whatever he found in the kitchen. My former upstairs neighbour, Marie-Claire, was like that with food. Her cupboards were always well stocked with things like pressed duck and those bottled vegetables so popular in France but, like all good cooks, she always knew exactly what was in the refrigerator, what was due to be used, and what leftovers were there as additional resources.

The combination of drone delivery hatch, inventory management and smart surfaces means one never has to worry about keeping stock of foodstuffs, shopping for them, or even deciding what to eat or cook. If preparing a meal while following a celebrity cookbook, instructional how-to or one’s preferred form of video entertainment on a screen is still too onerous, one could always get something delivered from the dark kitchen of some restaurant chain or brand. There will be no restaurant experience but some real yet poorly paid human will deliver the meal to your door. For certain things mainly to do with transportation and conveyance, humans require less capital expenditure and less maintenance than machines. I’m not saying this is a good thing. I’m not saying a drone delivery hatch is either.

Smart mirrors are a variant of smart surfaces. They’re basically your wardrobe door telling you what your day is going to be like, suggest how you might like to dress for it, and show you what you’re going to look like. It’s not so far off. If you’ve purchased some new item of clothing recently, your inbox and/or instagram feed will probably be cluttered by promotional offers, suggestions based on your profile and purchase history. In the future that feed will be tailored by the advice you either take or don’t take from the mirror. We’re mostly there.

I’m not sure I can be bothered training any more algorithms. Once I had two songs by two different French female singer-songwriters on one of my playlists and AppleMusic thought I must surely be a fan of every French female singer-songwriter that ever lived. Not so. After two months of me actively disliking recommendations, there was a month or two of 1970s French pop, followed by a month of 1980s French electronica. I felt it was just guessing to see what I reacted to. I’ve had better but still limited success trying to train YouTube to make more intelligent recommendations. All this convenience is too much work.

YouTube is one more source of compulsive content to fill smart surfaces and yet another face of the system of consumption that homes like this are designed to normalise. At the foot of the bathtub ffs is yet another smart surface. Not all this technology is immediately absurd. Sensors in the floor can identify who is in the house and adjust ambient climate and illumination accordingly. Voice commands can fine-tune them but the illusion of power by “issuing commands” masks the fact that there is now a middle element between our desires (such as wanting a window opened or a light turned on) and actions (such as opening the window and turning the light on ourselves. Existential questions aside, for houses that are supposed to meet their energy needs through solar power, I couldn’t help thinking that the energy produced ought to be used more wisely. The time of my visit was just prior to one of the rounds of judging and all the houses had their smart features switched off in order to boost battery storage. If the goal is to develop ideas for more environmentally responsible housing prototypes, then eliminating the need for superfluous technologies should be one priority. In time, the operating power consumption of all these products of industry will no doubt improve to become negligible. The cost of producing these technologies will probably decrease, at least until global supply of rare earth metals is exhausted. What we should remember is that none of these technologies is a disruptive technology [c.f. The Car That Runs on Air] that does something better, more efficiently, with simper and less technology and at lower cost. These smart technologies are all mature and conventional products of industry and all their manufacturers want is for us to want them.

For this reason I’d rather avoid the comfortably familiar word technology in favour of the more descriptive phrase output of global industry. Just in passing and as something I noticed, there was no conceptual place for art or even craftwork in the house of the future that was the starting point for this post, The moving living room walls discourage the acquisition and placement of sculpture, vases, houseplants, occasional tables, rugs or any item humans might form emotional attachments to and which are not products of industry. The message is that all aesthetic pleasure gets delivered via displays, as well as all intellectual pleasure. Whatever’s left is up to you.

Someone much cleverer than me once said “The cause of problems is solutions.” The same thinking is present in the statement “The solution to the problems caused by economic development is more economic development” and an example taking it further is “We need to work on colonising Mars for when living on Earth is no longer an option.” With such an attitude, we’re going to run out of viable planets later or sooner. Energy-efficient houses that function as Trojan Horses for the resource-consuming products of industry are no solution. It’s always claimed economies of scale and mass production will bring down the cost but it never will as long as architecture continues to function to nudge the aesthetic paradigm towards whatever industry wants to fabricate.

• • • 

Over this past week I noticed the word Extinction was appearing in the news a lot. It made me recall The Fermi Paradox and the 2015 The Great Filter post that riffed on the end of human existence and the beginning of the Post-Anthropocene. I’s probably absurd to give the next era a name if humans aren’t going to be part of it, but it’s still useful to contemplate. I doubt we will and don’t see much point fretting over this. However, in the meantime, I do wish architecture was

1. more eager to act for the benefit of buildings and their users,
2. less keen to service industry and its drivers,
3. less keen to claim to be doing the first while doing the second, and
4. less keen to have us believe the needs of humanity are best served by the needs of industry.


4 thoughts on “The Unsmart Home

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      I’m still waiting for the nuclear-powered oven Alison & Peter Smithson promised us in 1956. Maybe I should be careful what I wish for. Come to think of it, a nuclear-powered oven seems like overkill and it’s not a particularly architectural idea (other than it pandering to emerged technologies in need of a market). But that was a very interesting article – thanks. I had no idea the idea had been around for that long, but I’m not surprised it’s not going away. Much like self-driving cars, nobody wants them or is about to trust them but their manufacturers will eventually wear us down with promises of how much they’ll improve our lives. I’m old enough to remember the 1980s and the promise of flat-screen televisions. They eventually did come to pass and we all did end up wanting one, probably because the apartments we could afford had gotten smaller.

  1. Jack Ellis

    Hi Graham,
    I spent this morning at home with my hands in my pockets watching the appliance repairperson strip my washing machine to bits trying to diagnose a fault that turned out to be a sensor confused by some ambiguous input (a piece of fluff? a kinked hose? a paperclip out of my pocket?).
    I am feeling smugly skeptical about “smart houses” and the “internet of things” right now. Entropy never sleeps.

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