At almost any point in time, our ideas about the future turn out to be both prescient and ridiculous. One of my all time favorites was the Monsanto House of the Future. It was the 1956 version of what a 1986 home would be. Now that 2016 is upon us, we can look back 60 years to see what prognosticators thought the future would look like 30 years ago. An architectural Back to the Future.
Let’s keep in mind that the House of the Future was partly about future vision, it was also blatant marketing. The prime idea was to sell plastics as an upscale and classy material for middle class America. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the idea has failed, and failed dismally. Melamine or Formica counter tops and vinyl floors are definitely low rent.
The most brilliant concept was the structure. The house was built around a 256 square foot service core. This plan minimized the runs for plumbing, electrical, and HVAC ducting. It’s both cost and energy efficient.
The structure itself was made from fiberglass modules assembled on site. Instead of massive and expensive beams to support the cantilevered modules, each room was connected with tension rods. Incredible strength with minimal weight and expense. The fiberglass shell could easily be made water and air tight. Vapor barrier built in. Urethane foam was used for insulation, to this day the most cost effective insulation available.
It turned out that America wasn’t ready for the best of those 1950s concepts. Most houses today are not as structurally sound or air tight as the Monsanto house. The style was totally Jetson, both then and now. Americans prefer conventional, we want our houses to look like every other house in the neighborhood.
Keeping in mind the was intended to promote the use of plastics, a wonder material at that time, it got quite a few things right. But as with all attempts to guess what the future might be, it missed just as many trends.
Some ideas that worked.
- Big screen TV. Not for 1986, but HD became mainstream in the 00’s.
- Microwaves are popular, but haven’t replaced electric or gas. Induction cooking is affordable now, not even thought of in the 1950s
- Intercoms are used in higher end homes
Climate control. We now have very efficient climate control, but without the fragrance. Keep in mind that these fragrances come from toxic chemicals.
- The idea of an electric razor and toothbrush was considered advanced then, now in common use.
Some ideas that didn’t make it.
- The Ultrasonic Dishwasher. Hot water is still cheaper.
- Motorized and drop down refrigerators and cabinets. Still not happening.
- Plastic dishware. It’s available, but considered low end.
- Countertops and sinks the adjust for height. Desirable, but still not practical.
- Item #5
Some ideas that were missed entirely.
- Computers at the top of the list. Spreadsheets, word processing, photo or movie editing on the desktop was science fiction.
- The Internet. No one imagined email, search engines, or entertainment being delivered to your home, much less to portable devices.
- Home automation. Having your thermostat or home security system available through a remote control, total fantasy.
Another of the huge differences was size. The Monsanto House of the Future was 1280 square feet. At the time, that was considered perfectly adequate for a three bedroom family home. The average home built today is more than twice as big, around 2600 square feet.
I have to believe that the future we believe is right around the corner, will look just as silly 60 years from now.