Nice House if You Can Get It

A Green Home with All the Extras? Keep Dreaming.
Since 2008, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry has hosted a special exhibit called Smart Home: Green + Wired. For an extra $8, you can tour a seemingly perfect environmentally friendly house.

It’s an actual freestanding house on the museum’s lawn, a stack of thrifty modular units beneath a whirling wind turbine. The “wired” in its name refers to WIRED magazine, whose editors picked the cutting-edge gadgets showcased in its spacious rooms.

There’s a kid’s bike that hooks up to a battery charger. On a rainy day, a child can prop up the rear wheel and pedal her Fruit Loops back into the grid. There are automated window shades. There are even “smart” plant containers that automatically feed and water your plants.

My favorite feature is the portable fireplace. That’s right, portable. It has wheels. It burns clean, cool, denatured alcohol, which means that you can set up bar on top of it and push it around the house—while burning! Brings new meaning to “getting lit.”

It’s a gorgeous eco-mansion, a “dream home” in every sense of the term.

Total price: $400,000, which does not include all those nifty gadgets–or land, which might double or triple the figure, depending on your zip code. Though there are plenty of more expensive homes to be found on the market these days, the steep price tag undermines the home’s ostensible purpose as a model for the average homeowner.

In fact, at that price, the Green Home is a fantasy not unlike the fairy castle elsewhere in the museum. Leonard DiCaprio could afford it, but not me and not most of the 200,000 folks who have toured it to date.

Over-the-Top Ideas

In retort, the museum folks would say that the point isn’t for people to build green homes on this scale. Just visiting the Smart Home will give people pragmatic new ideas for greening their own homes: native plants as landscaping, low-flow fixtures, efficient appliances and so on.

Even so, the Smart Home may be as misleading as it is helpful in its celebration of “green” consumption. How about just watering the bloody plants instead of waiting for an electronic sensor to tell you to do it? As nice as it would be never to push a mower again, there’s no way the home’s robotic mowers are as energy-efficient as its good, old-fashioned push mower. And unless you’re Oprah, it just doesn’t make sense to have a bathroom scale that wireless transmits your morning weigh-in to your PC. Do most people really want to review a spread sheet of their day-by-day weight? Personally, I’d rather read Perez Hilton than obsessively tabulate my bulges.

That’s one of the big problems with the Smart Home: It mixes truly smart, if less-than-inspiring, technologies like high-efficiency toilets together with gimmicky contrivances that waste energy, serve little purpose and will probably never catch on.

Here’s a bigger problem: In some ways, the Smart Home isn’t much greener than many far less desirable homes nearby.

Take a walk through the neighborhood around the museum, and you find high-rises left and right. Most do not have portable fireplaces, or any fireplaces, for that matter. Nor do they have induction cook tops, LED fixtures or radiant floors.

But they do have decidedly unsexy green features like common boilers and high-volume hot water heaters. They may be old, but they’re efficient by definition because they are small (my two-bedroom condo is a third the size of the Smart Home) and densely inhabited. As the blogger Carla Saulter put it:

  • Smaller spaces require less energy to heat and cool. Smaller spaces take up less land, leaving room for more homes–and maybe even some forests and farmland. Smaller spaces also require us to limit the amount of “stuff” we accumulate, which in turn limits the amount of waste we produce.
  • Better still, high-rise condos are affordable for most families, starting at around $100,000 near the Smart Home. Yes, the neighbors can be noisy, the pipes rusty and the elevators ancient. But it’s the greenest place I can afford.