For Sale: House of Innovation

By Jessie Scanlon
BusinessWeek Online

The House of Innovation -- which opened Sept. 8, in Alamo, Calif. -- is a collaboration between Sunset magazine and its Time Inc. cousin Popular Science. Sunset -- the venerable lifestyle magazine devoted to the western U.S. -- launched its Idea House program in 1998 and has built 14 since then, each focused on a different theme or idea: historic renovations, sustainability, universal design, and zero-energy, among others.

"The point is to give people ideas about everything from home decorating to new building materials," says Sharon Thompson, the home programs director for Sunset. "We want people to walk away saying, 'I'd never thought of building a kitchen outdoors.'"

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This year's house focuses on technology, featuring both the most cutting-edge products and systems available today, and the "Tech Loft" prototypes that might be everyday gadgets and appliances five to 20 years from now.

Push-Button Home

"This was an opportunity to showcase many of the technologies that we are most excited about and write about regularly," says senior editor Eric Adams, who led the effort for Popular Science. "You could see them all working together, and actually use them."

The 6,500 sq. ft., five-bedroom house includes some products already well known: the GE Monogram collection of cooking appliances, for instance, and the Slingbox, that media wonder that plugs into your cable box and redirects the signal to just about any device on which you want to watch television.

A Crestron Adagio system controlled via touch panel lets you gain access to music stored on a hard-drive music server and deliver it to any of the six zones of the house. The system also includes AM/FM radio, XM satellite radio, and a CD player.

Mowing Robot

"The music server is like an iPod on steroids," says Kevin Vawter, a sales engineer at Pro Home Systems, which installed the $250,000 audio-video, lighting, and home automation systems.

With its roughly $60,000 worth of wiring, it would be easy to see the House of Innovation as a gadget freak's dream. But there is more to the place than a robotic lawn mower and floor washer and phase-changing windows with remote-controlled blinds. Like some previous Idea Houses, this one has an element of prefab. The hardwood floors are composed of factory-cut, pre-finished planks that snap together on site—no nails, glue, or staples required.

Because the Armstrong floors don't use solid timbers, they are more sustainable, another theme of Sunset Idea Houses. But this one is more tech-driven than previous Sunset showcases. For instance, a home generator produces electricity from natural gas at a 95% efficiency rate. Rooftop solar panels generate most or all of the home's electricity.

Nice Climate

The home also comes with a FuelMaker Phill Home Refueling Station for refueling a natural gas-burning car. Its presence is a blatant plug to buy the Honda Civic GX, but the home pump deserves all of the press that it gets if it lives up to its promise: to bring fuel costs down to roughly the equivalent of $1.20 per gallon. Its natural gas is a domestic product, so no dependence on foreign oil. And natural gas-powered vehicles are the cleanest-burning internal combustion engines in the world with virtually no emissions. "This car makes the Prius look like a diesel semi," says Adams.

The design also reflects an interest in flexibility. Day to day, or even hour to hour, the inside blurs with the outside in rooms that open to the outdoors—and a full kitchen built outside. But there's also a deeper flexibility built in.

On the Market

The tech loft could be transformed into a home office or teenager's room. The guest room has a separate entrance that could allow it to work as a waiting room for a home office or the front room of an in-law unit. "We looked at the sociology of the home, the fact that kids are moving home after college. And older parents are moving in with adult children," says Thompson.

The House of Innovation is open for tours until Nov. 12. After that, the only way to see the inside is to buy it. The house will be put on the market for $5.5 million with all of the built-in technologies included.

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