A picture of domestic bliss

The house of the future is so full of gadgets, you need never leave the sofa, says Andrew North
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If the "House of the Future" outside Brussels bears any resemblance to what we'll be living in even 20 years from now, we will be looking back on today's architectural monstrosities with nostalgia. It looks like a cross between an airport terminal and a shopping mall, with all sorts of unrecognisable structures tacked on. But Frank Belien, the Belgian architect responsible for the project, says that this is missing the point. "We are not saying this is what we will live in - we don't have a crystal ball. Our aim is to make people think about living in the future and the kind of technology we will have."

He sees the house as an experimental showcase, where the 158 companies involved can test and demonstrate their state-of-the-art expertise in a "real" home. So alongside the technology of such names as Digital, the house is being used as a proving ground for specialists in construction, new materials, energy and environmental management. With so many competing interests, perhaps it is not surprising that the design of the house is such a hotch-potch.

However, there is certainly plenty inside to make you think about home life in the future, about just how lazy we could be. For this is a house where you can open and close the windows, order your groceries, turn on the bath, adjust the lighting and heating anywhere in the house, select a video or a CD and even see who is at the door, simply by touching a remote control. No need to leave your comfy, ergonomic sofa. This is a home for couch potatoes, lounge lizards and sitting-room surfers. But only for the richest of these species - the house cost more than pounds 6m to build.

On two levels, with a large garden and outdoor pool, the House of the Future is apparently designed for a "modern family with one child". But with 300 square metres of space in the house alone, it feels as though it could accommodate 10 people.

The kitchen is packed with gadgets, including an electromagnetic hob that can boil a pan of water in less than a minute. It works by creating an electromagnetic field within the liquid or substance. The pan itself is not heated, allowing you to pick up hot dishes without gloves.

On a touch-operated screen above the hob, you can select radio, music or a television programme to play while you cook. The screen will also display your recipes and serves as a constantly updating shopping list. Before you throw a food package into the relevant recycling bin, you flash it past a barcode sensor (similar to those in supermarkets) and it will tell you what's left. If you don't have time to go to the shops, you can order replenishments from your local supermarket from the same screen for home delivery.

Every piece of equipment in the house is networked, allowing you to control things from any room. Lighting, temperature, humidity, air quality and windows and doors are handled by an automatic system known as Domotica. Another network links up computers and audiovisual equipment, as well as household appliances.

"If necessary, you can dial in when you are away from home to turn on the heating, or set the washing machine," says Kristiaan De Roeck, the Digital troubleshooter who maintains the electronic innards.

If you go away, Domotica manages the house as if you are there, opening and closing curtains, switching on the television and turning lights on and off at appropriate times. It is also linked to the house security system and will automatically call the police or the local security firm if the alarm is triggered. The house even boasts a "computerised gardener", which keeps tabs on soil moisture and switches on the sprinklers when necessary.

Some of the most innovative features of the house are its simplest. The "Octopus" lighting system requires no bulbs, because it uses a fibre-optic cable network, fed by high-power halogen lamps in the basement. Smaller links run from the main cables to provide spotlight sources. If you want more light, you simply install another link to the main cable.

The doors and windows around the car port are fitted with Prevalite liquid crystal glass, which can be turned from frosted to clear at the flick of a switch. When an electric current runs through it all the crystals are aligned, making the glass clear. But at pounds 35,000 per square metre, the glass could be worth more than the rest of the building. Window-lifting may become the crime of the future.

The House of the Future has pulled in more than 120,000 visitors since it opened in March 1995. But the present is catching up fast and many of the gadgets and techniques on show are already becoming part of today's world. In other words, the house could become an anachronism very quickly. But Belien recognised this from the beginning and so has decided to close it in 2000.

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