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The House of the Future Has Arrived Researchers at MIT are revolutionizing house design and construction so that aging Baby Boomers can grow old at home.
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By Sara Hart

Continuing
Education

Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this month’s ARCHITECTURAL RECORD / AIA Continuing Education article.

Learning Objective:
After reading this article, you will be able to:

1. Explain why the housing industry needs to make changes.

2. Discuss new trends in housing research.

3. Describe innovations in the housing industry.

Photography: Courtesy MIT
Single-family houses. MIT researchers are developing a Chassis and Infill component system (above) to replace conventional or panelized construction. The emphasis is on high-strength, high-performance, and lightweight new materials.

Seventy-six million babies were born in North America from 1946 to the end of 1964. Aptly called the Baby Boom Generation, those surviving in 2030 will be between the ages of 66 and 84 years old, according to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). This will be the largest age-identified demographic since census takers started counting. Surrendering to the inevitable, economic and social prognosticators are predicting gloom for the time when senior baby boomers begin to place an enormous strain on the health-care system, the economy, and many commercial and industrial markets.

There is no doubt that this bad news is a looming crisis for both commodity providers and end users. The housing industry, which, according to industry analysts, has not kept pace with other markets, has been the slowest to acknowledge the challenges it will soon face. Whereas the automotive and electronics industries, pressured by competition from abroad, have reinvented their production processes and business models, residential builders have coasted on time-honored (i.e., unchallenged) practices. The housing industry both benefits from and is hampered by lack of competition from abroad—and home. Most of the industry is locally based and produced by small construction companies.

This is not to say that there have been no improvements. The industry has responded to the forthcoming shortage by adopting some methods of prefabrication in the controlled factory environment—most commonly, panelized construction (SIPS, etc.) and modular construction. Both systems reduce waste and speed the process, but many operations—HVAC and plumbing systems, window and door installations, and most finishes—still require conventional, on-site construction methods. The growing consensus is that these improvements reflect only incremental progress, not the radical innovations needed to transform the industry.

To the reader, this static situation might not seem like the province of architects. After all, 80 percent of so-called manufactured housing (to distinguish it from custom, architect-designed homes) does not enjoy the customized services of a design professional. However, there are growing pockets of institutional, public, and private researchers and analysts who are convinced that the problem is not the population, but rather the enormous gulf between new technologies and the home-building industry, and that indeed it is, or should be, the responsibility of the design professions and construction industry.

So convinced are researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), that they began a far-reaching investigation called “Changing Places.” Comprised of a multidisciplinary consortium of university departments and private-sector industries guided by the university’s Department of Architecture and the renowned MIT Media Lab, the research group is developing next-generation systems to close the gap between new technology and housing. “House_n: The MIT Home of the Future” is a research initiative within Changing Places that is currently developing methods to integrate digital and building technologies with architecture.

 

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