Predictions for the Millenium

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William McDonough
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David Roodman
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Watts Wacker

The millennium–long a subject of anticipation, conjecture, prognostication, and prophecy–is suddenly here. It arrives much like any other new year, but it is not just another calendar event. The millennium is a landmark, a touchstone, a time to reflect on what has been and what will be. Here at Natural Home, we wanted to know what lies in store for us when it comes to our homes, our communities, our environment, and our world in the 21st century. We asked three people we consider visionaries to share their thoughts about the home of 2025, the progress of sustainability, and the future of natural living. In their own words, here is their report.


William McDonough, recipient of Time magazine’s “Hero of the Planet” Award, and the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development. His architectural firm has been a leader in the sustainable development movement since 1977. As co-founder and principal of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, McDonough is internationally renowned for helping companies such as Nike and Ford design a broad variety of sustainable ­products.

David Roodman, senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, a nonprofit research organization devoted to the analysis of global resources and environmental issues. Author of the book The Natural Wealth of Nations: Harnessing the Market for the Environment (W.W. Norton & Co., 1998), Roodman writes for journals and magazines, and has appeared internationally on radio, television, and in print.

Watts Wacker, futurist and CEO of FirstMatter, a company that provides consulting services to General Motors, Sony, British Petroleum, Nike, and Dream Works SKG. Wacker is a frequent contributor to network news organizations and international news publications. 

Natural Home: Let’s start with your prediction of reality for what our homes and lives will be like in the year 2025.

WM: As an architect and a designer I’m inherently optimistic. Design is a signal of intention. I would obviously intend for the world to be as optimized as possible, so that would be the framework in which I’d be operating. As Buckminster Fuller once said, “The better technology gets, the more it disappears,” so I think a lot of the drama will actually be invisible. What will happen are things like huge advances in transparent insulation, otherwise known as windows. I think we’ll see windows with amazing R values. We’ll see, essentially, solid air. What will happen in the next 25 years is the fundamental integration of transparency and transparent insulation. In modern architecture, the use of glass has been ironic; we’ve sealed people up instead of exposing them to the outside. Architects didn’t know how to integrate glass intelligently with weather cycles and solar shading, so we ended up with these sealed buildings. I think what you’ll begin to find is buildings that can breathe again.

DR:The way things are going today, housing is not going to be very environmentally sustainable. It’s not now. We build houses out of wood in the United States even as natural forests are shrinking. They’re not very energy efficient. Lots of heat leaks out the windows, lots of water is wasted. When you think that the entire Earth is industrializing, we have to use a much smaller share of the world’s resources in the future than we use now.

WW:It’s really about the renewal of the definition of home. Between now and 2025, there are unbelievable changes that are going on in the organization of life and lifestyle and in the zeitgeist, the human condition. Home will no longer be a location. Home will be a concept. In reality, people want the feelings associated with home wherever they happen to be. There’s no reason not to be able to expect and have that delivered to you.

NH: What do we need to do in the next 25 years to ensure we even have “homes of the future?”

WM: I think we have to partition our material flows into biological and technical cycles and then we have to design things to go back to soil safely, or to go back to the technological world of human industry. We should start designing our buildings for disassembly so we can actually partition the components into those two cycles, so that we essentially rematerialize with them, instead of dematerialize. We should be thinking about how our buildings can become buildings again. I think we’ll see a lot of office buildings that will be designed to be converted to housing in the future.

DR: What matters for me is that we start building houses that are environmentally sustainable, that we make homes for ourselves without hurting our greater home, the Earth. One of the basic principles of environmental design is to adapt to local conditions, the local weather, what materials are available locally. Houses need to work the way ecosystems work, which means using resources efficiently, recycling them or reusing them, and using energy from renewable sources, like the sun and the wind.

WW: I think we’re already starting to see the shift to sustainability. In Germany, they’re debating changing the orientation of manufacturing, so that when you make something, you own the disposal of it. It’s the deconstruction of manufacturing to the degree that, until the automobile is completely pulverized into dust, BMW will own and be responsible for it. That would be manufacturing based on sustainability rather than on progress, and it would suggest that we will radically change the approach to the way materials are made.

NH: Let’s talk about communities and lifestyles, and the role that community planning will play in the future.

WM: I think we’ll start to see planning come back as a fundamental strategic tool, whereas right now, zoning is causing a lot of sprawl, growth for the sake of growth, like the growth of cancer. The question has to be, is that something you want to grow? It will no longer be a question of growth or no growth, it will be what do you want to grow, what don’t you want to grow. You’ll be able to say we want to grow literacy, not illiteracy. We want to grow healthy environments and landscapes instead of sick ones. We want to grow prosperity, not poverty. I think that will happen at the level of community, because, like politics, all sustainability is local.

DR: The city of the future, if it’s going to be environmentally ­sustainable, has to be designed, and that means planning our schools, our offices, and homes in a way that reduces the need for each of us to drive our own solo cars so much of the time. That means more bike paths, having more compact developments where houses are more clustered around bus or train stations. That doesn’t mean there won’t be any green space, but it may be in parks rather than in people’s yards. The emphasis has to be on providing more options for people, more ways to get around, and mixing residential and commercial space within an area so you live upstairs from where you buy your food, or down the street from where you work. That would be better for the environment, and a more pleasant place to live in than much of modern suburbia.

NH: We’ve talked about designing our communities. What about designing our homes?

WM: I think everyone will start to realize they should orient their houses to the sun again, instead of rubber-stamping houses willy-nilly on cul-de-sacs.

In the original salt box home design in, say, Nantucket, you had a high south-facing side to take advantage of the windows, and a low north side to shield the house from winter winds. Now with super glazing, with high efficiency windows, we can actually do the high side facing north and get that beautiful north light without the cold drafts. The super glazing is really critical. That’s the transparent insulation I was referring to. What happens now, is you can put those on the north side, and the large roof will face south and have solar collectors.

I think we have to drive everything toward solar energy as fast and as hard as we can, toward natural energy flows.

DR: In a home, the things that use the most energy and therefore generate the most environmental harm are the things that control the climate–heating, cooling, ventilation. The trick is to design a home so you need those much less. Once you’ve done everything you can to reduce the need for ventilation and HVAC equipment, then you can go on and try to install that equipment using the most advanced technologies and the most efficient design, so that when you are making use of electricity and fossil fuels, you’re using as little as possible. The technologies in this area are constantly improving.

WW: We will have the great awakening to realize that there’s a finite amount of resources that we’re responsible for taking care of. The metaphysics of the original peoples is all about leaving the world a little better than you found it. I think we will be more in sync with that than we have been through 200 years of “progress.” This does not mean we’re all going to go back and live like the aboriginals, but there will be some balance that will have us being much more cognizant of the air quality, water quality, foliage. We’ll have a lifestyle that reads those things in a real-time basis to make us more cognizant, and the home will be a reflection of that. You’ll have not just a heating unit that shows you the temperature, but also the air quality.

NH: Specifically related to our homes, what do you see in the future of construction materials?

WM: The materials we’ll see are going to be carbohydrate based, a lot of which will be the secondary products of agriculture–straws, rice hulls, other detritus–stuff they throw away or sell as dog food filler. And then we’ll see highly evolved technical nutrients, the polymers and plastics. I’d like to see those all designed to be safe until they’re recyclable or able to go back to the biological cycle safely.

DR: I worry about the massive use of wood in American housing. I think there is a definite place for that–forests can be maintained sustainably, we can use some wood–but in parts of the country where wood is scarcer we need to look more at masonry, such as unfired adobe, straw bale, and even brick homes.

By 2025, you may have the power plant running your house right at your home.

NH: And what about materials for home interiors?

WM: I think we’ll see much safer materials, because we’ll have recognized the indoor air quality questions. Very few materials have been designed for indoor use. We’re developing a new paint, for example, that will be completely safe, including not just the volatile organics, which everybody’s focused on, but also the actual pigments. Right now, a lot of people worry about the airborne stuff, but don’t pay attention to what’s going on the surfaces. We’re developing carpets that are completely safe, fabrics that you could eat.

DR: Increasingly, materials used inside the home include complex chemicals and plastics, which are potential sources of volatile organic compounds. There’s a lot that’s not known about the health effects. On the other hand, a lot can be done to reduce the danger so we don’t even have to worry about the health effects. Manufacturers are increasingly aware of this and coming out with products that generate less risk. We need to put pressure on manufacturers to continue reducing the need for chemicals. And they are finding ways, they’re using more chemicals that are thought to be more benign.

NH: Let’s talk about the future of energy sources. How might we power our homes in the future?

WM: I think we’ll see fuel cells in your car that you’ll be able to plug into your house, and they will become a miniature power plant. I think under deregulation, we’ll see the utility companies start to develop small dispersed power plants in neighborhoods, because it will mean they have more direct connection to their customers. They’ll also be able to distribute waste heat on a local basis. Right now, they waste the heat into a river. Their cooling systems will actually provide benefits to neighborhoods, and that will give them a competitive edge. We’ll see power plants wherever people need heat.

DR: I hope that we will increasingly rely on solar power and, to an extent, wind power. The best way to do this is through very simple design techniques that allow us to harvest the energy directly–for example, configuring the house so it captures prevailing winds and channels them through the house in a way that brings cooling to rooms, and thinking about where windows go in order to capture the sun. We can go beyond that and use solar cells, and maybe the power company can hook up wind turbines to provide electricity. Some power companies allow homeowners to sell excess electricity that they generate to the power company, and at other times, if they’re not generating enough, they can buy it back.

WW: By 2025, there’s a real shot at cold fusion, and you may have the power plant running your house right at your home. You’ll probably have a power system that actually fuels your car. Every time you bring your car home and plug it in, it downloads all the information and refuels it at the same time. I think it will be some combination of solar and fossil fuel, but we will be using it in combination with alternatives that create hybrid energy sources. It will [be in] the home, too, by that time, but it will start with the automobile before that.

NH: What role will technology play in our homes in 25 years?

WM: If everything becomes automated and interactive, then it’s just a matter of human beings becoming further disengaged from natural flows. I think we’ll lose something in that. On the other hand, we’ll gain a lot, too, as long as it’s truly optimized around mindfulness. When you think about automation, a lot of it is timeful and mindless. In many cases, there are things that none of us want to spend our time on. Some of these changes will be delightful, but as a designer, what I’m trying to achieve is timeless mindfulness. If it helps me achieve timeless things, if I have time with my family, time to think, to garden, bravo. As long as it’s not damaging someone to achieve that for me. That’s where we get into trouble. If the way of achieving this means toxifying a river with gallium arsenide to deliver a chip, that’s mindless. Or if I’m cutting down rain forests in order to provide the beautiful wood in my nice home, that’s mindless.

DR: There are different kinds of technology, active and passive. The passive techniques are the ones where you just think about where to put a window, or how thick a wall should be to absorb energy. I think we have to make the most of those first, because they allow us to harvest the natural energy and use resources efficiently at very minimal cost. There is a place beyond that for advanced technology, things like solar cells, wind turbines, efficient air conditioners that constantly monitor their performance to reduce energy use, and light switches that have sensors that know when people are in the room and automatically turn off when people leave.

WW: We will have had a third generation of embedded technology in the home. You will have the smart house. The key will be not just the embedded technology in the home, but that we’re moving into MEMS, micro-electronic mechanical systems, computers that sense their environment and respond as a result. You’ll have not just a smart home but one that, in real time, adjusts to its environment. It would be able to put out its own fire. The next level is you’ll start having regenerative homes that continually monitor and fix themselves so that you never have your plumbing leak, you never have your air conditioning or heating system break. It will be able to regenerate its own repairs.

NH: What do you see as the single biggest change in the house of the future?

WM: I would say integration, the integrated intelligence of materials, energy, and human sensibility. I think it was inherent in old farmhouses and we’ve lost it. I think we’ll see that again. A farmer would always have planted a tree on the southwest for shade in summer, and always put a windbreak on the north. When we look at these old farmhouses in the landscape, we all say, “Aren’t they beautiful?” What we’re recognizing is the very deep and long-term relationship between culture, materials, and history, where people are evidencing timeless wisdom, the result of millennia of experimentation. I think we’ll start to see something new come back, a new kind of engagement in the landscape and cityscape, with materials that we can now develop, with communication systems we can now enjoy, and with material and energy flow and a consciousness that will be quite profound.

DR: Something fundamental needs to change, the process of how the building industry works. There are many parts of the building industry–architects, engineers, builders, financiers, not to mention the customers–and they don’t communicate much with each other. In a lot of cases, this leads to the waste of resources. I think we need a new approach to the building process that brings the parties together early on to discuss a common vision of what their goals are in building homes and that allows them to develop detailed plans while maintaining conversations about how what each of them cares about affects the others. In many industries, like the car industry, this approach leads to a much higher quality design over the long run, and satisfies customers more.

WW: Home is no longer a physical location, it’s a concept. You’re going to be able to replicate the home of your dreams and live in it in a virtual world as much of your life as you choose. It’s pretty cool. Most of the things that people think are science fiction, the physics have been all worked out, they’re just not scaleable yet. But by 2025, they’re eminently scaleable. NH

Jennie Shortridge is a Denver freelance writer who has published her work in many national magazines, including Mademoiselle, Glamour, At-Home Magazine, and Mountain Living.

What’s Old is New

“Like an ox-cart driver in monsoon season or the skipper of a grounded ship, one must sometimes go forward by going back.”
–John Barth

A hundred years ago, men ran business and industry, and women ran the home–and waited on their family members hand and foot, preparing them large meals three times a day, and scrubbing floors on their knees, and scrubbing clothes and linens by hand with washboards and harsh lye soaps. The importance of housekeeping at the turn of the century was akin to the importance of having a fit military. The pages of Good Housekeeping magazine, which began publishing in 1894, regularly equated a clean and healthy home with “national virility.”

The home was a battleground where women waged war against indoor air pollution, bacteria, and germs. Clean homes and fresh indoor air were often a matter of real life and death. Smoking gas lamps, fireplaces, stoves, and gas-fired appliances choked the air through which typhoid and tuberculosis spread rampantly, wiping out entire families–particularly those in tenements without ventilation. To guard against disease, windows and doors were kept wide open, people slept on sleeping porches regardless of temperature, and homes were furnished sparsely with durable materials that would not harbor dust or germs. Pulverized cork linoleum, for example, was popular because it was easy to clean and lasted forever. Bare floors were considered most hygienic and sported simple coverings of easy-to-clean and long-lasting jute, cotton, wool, or hemp. Sound familiar?

Somewhere through the years, linoleum became vinyl, which wears out and offgasses volatile organic compounds, and floors came to be covered in carpeting that held dirt and bacteria and also offgasses volatile organic compounds. But today suppliers of natural building materials have gone back to recipes, methods, and materials from the turn of the last century to provide the healthy natural materials we want for our homes in the next century. Natural cork linoleum is back, carpeting is out, hemp, cotton, and wool floor coverings are in, and all for the same reasons that our forebears loved these materials a hundred years ago–simplicity, durability, purity. We may not be dying out-right from what’s in the air, but we have plenty of reasons to be obsessed once again with fresh, healthy, clean indoor air. According to the American Lung Association, 30 million Americans suffer from chronic lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis. Lung disease is the number three killer in America.

For the sake of our own health and that of the planet, we are now turning away from home materials that are highly processed disposable materials, and we’re looking to our past for home materials that are simple and durable, clean and healthy. A few snippets of wisdom from the turn of the century demonstrate what have become our enduring values. Except for the style and diction, you might not be able to tell which new century this advice was meant for:

. . . when I was first married, I bought a stuffed rocker for which I paid thirty-five dollars. After a few years the damask is worn to shreds and very soiled as well. Then again, stuffed furniture catches and holds dust, and consequently is not hygienic. But I realize now that if I had paid thirty-five dollars for a mahogany rocker I could have kept it bright and clean with the use of good furniture ­polish, and I would have had a chair that I need not be ashamed of.
“Hints for Homebuilders,” by E.B. Swift, Good Housekeeping, September 1905

The present tendency among well-to-do people is back to the original idea of scattering rugs upon a smooth polished surface. The ideal floor is undoubtedly of hard wood, properly laid and highly polished. This is the most sanitary, durable, and beautiful of all floors.
–Household Discoveries and Mrs. Curtis’s Cook Book by Sidney Morse (The Success Company, 1908)

Were I to refurnish my home today, in view of years of experience, I should hold firmly to one principle, buy only what is absolutely necessary, but buy the best.
–“The New Home, Were I to Refurnish,” by Patty Lawrence, Good Housekeeping, September 1905

Above all, make it your business to have a house a home, no matter how little, besides yourself, you may have to put in it.
–“The New Home, Were I to Refurnish,” by Patty Lawrence, Good Housekeeping, September 1905

–Molly Miller

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