photo: courtesy of Timothy Krings
Last weekend I finally got off my duff and paid a visit to the Smart Home exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry—some seven months after it opened and a good four weeks before it closes. Sadly, I had little excuse for the delay besides the difficulty of arranging a jaunt to Hyde Park; so when I found out my friends Tim and Martta were going to take the "Smart Home: Green + Wired" tour, I decided to tag along.
The house, billed as "Chicago's greenest home," was designed by Midwest native Michelle Kaufmann, who wanted to build an ultra low-impact, affordable single-family home specially designed for Chicago lots and climate. Kaufmann's firm partnered with contractors All-American Building Systems, University of Illinois Extension and, somewhat peripherally, Wired magazine on the project. The result is the three-story modular home now located on the museum grounds. Interested visitors can buy tickets for guided tours of the Smart Home, departing every 20 minutes during museum hours.
We'd secured spots on a fully booked Saturday afternoon slot. The tours were running a little behind schedule, so we queued up by the door; Martta flipped through the single Exhibit Resource Guide we were given to share while I attempted to lip-read a video of Kaufmann playing sans volume on an overhead monitor. The film soon cut to a fellow in black horn-rimmed glasses, a black Wired tee and black blazer speaking with nervous animation. As he enigmatically gesticulated, the shot zoomed out to reveal a child's dirt bike, its back wheel propped in a stand and rigged to a battery. Still speaking, the Wired fellow slung a leg over the tiny frame and pedaled for a few seconds, knees splayed wide, his tottering execution betraying what I suspected to be gross inexperience with bicycles of any dimension. My scrutiny was interrupted by our tour guide, Melissa—a young woman wearing a blue lab coat and a mildly bored expression—who requested everyone keep their phones quiet and their gum-chewing unobtrusive before leading us outside.
The group headed up a permeably paved walk to the front door and gathered in the living area of a large common room. Melissa pointed out the automated lighting, window shades and sound system that kick in when the homeowner's cell phone enters the room. "Pretty cool, huh?" she asked rhetorically, not sounding terribly convinced herself (Martta and I later agreed that far more cool was the Christmas tree decorated entirely in white paper cranes, complemented by a giant wrapping-paper crane on the coffee table). Our attention was then drawn to the high ceilings and spacious feeling of the main first-floor room, which extended uninterrupted to a dining area, TV area and kitchen. Kaufmann was inspired by the airy architecture of barns, which capitalize on natural ventilation and light. This sense of space could be expanded further in temperate seasons thanks to accordion-fold glass doorwalls on three sides of the house, each opening to the large wrap-around patio. Rooftop patios provide extra useable space on the second floor as well.
The tour moved rapidly, taking note of several resource-conserving features like hydronic sub-floor heating, a solar-powered water heater and three 30-gallon rain cisterns located beneath the house, along with many furnishings and interiors—all non-toxic and constructed from recycled or reclaimed materials. Tim and I were disappointed at how fast the tour blew through the mechanical room, with only a fleeting glance at the energy monitoring system that educates homeowners about their gas, water and electricity consumption and sends alerts during peak usage hours. However, time was limited and nearly every element of the house was worth mentioning, from bamboo flooring that mimicked the look and feel of hardwood to photovoltaic solar film on the green roof (which provides about 80-percent of the home's electricity and harvests energy even when covered in snow) to shower tiles made from recycled wine bottles.
Several features listed in the 35-page Resource Guide had to be omitted for the sake of time—judiciously, in some Epcot-Future-World-ish cases like Pleo, the robotic "household pet" dinosaur, and a moisture-monitoring system that calls your cell phone when the houseplants dry out (a pre-recorded, refined British voice claiming to be your philodendron leaves a polite message—in the first person—requesting you water him at your earliest convenience). The small stationary dirt bike made an appearance in the children's room; it's used to charge a battery that powers the TV or Nintendo Wii. Melissa encouraged a young lad on the tour to try it out. While he pedaled in place she explained, "If the kids want to watch television, they have to charge up the battery first; 20 minutes of pedaling gets them a half hour of TV."
One of the tidiest features on the tour was a grey water system in the bathrooms that channel used tub and sink water to the toilet tank. A low-powered pump and a little tubing—why doesn't every American bathroom have this? Some of the most intelligent elements of the home are the least flashy; the spray-in foam insulation in the exterior walls forms a stronger barrier than traditional insulation, saving heating and cooling energy. And the building itself, prefabricated indoors at a plant in Indiana, took only a few days to build and created far less waste than traditional construction—an industry that sends more trash to landfills each year than any other.
We left the exhibit duly impressed, but wanting to hear more. I appreciated the fight I had to put up to wrest an additional Resource Guide from a staff member at the exit. He agreed to surrender one only after I promised that it would be put to good use and composted when I was finished. The tour is definitely worth a look, but don't dawdle—the Smart Home closes to the public early next year.
"Smart Home: Green + Wired" is at the Museum of Science and Industry through January 4, 2009.
It took a move from the regimented lawnscapes of the suburbs to the congestion of a major metropolis for Sharon to look twice at what she puts in the trash, down the sink and into her own body. She reports fortnightly on her endeavors to change "greening" from calculated deviation to a practicable way of life. You can contact her here.