6:05 PM EDT, June 27, 2012
They weren't kidding when they named the modular house just east of the main Museum of Science and Industry building the Smart Home.
Not only does it incorporate a bevy of ecologically friendly features, it is now entering its fifth year as a special MSI exhibition, four years past the original plan. Nature teaches us that only the brightest organisms find ways to extend their life spans.
The home's ability to earn a lasting place is partly due to its obeisance to the green movement, which is, at the moment, both fashionable and a scientific necessity. And it's partly due to its ability to serve as an oasis of outdoor calm, amid tranquil gardens, during the sometime chaos of a museum visit.
But let's go out on a limb here and venture that the home survives in largest measure because almost all of us are drawn to sweet, seductive, real-estate porn.
Sure, the roof is sodded, the bathroom mirror gives you news and the weather, and the home automation system monitors energy consumption throughout.
But at base, this is one booty-kicking house: Open floor plan. Funky furnishings, recently redone by the Andersonville shop Scout, incorporating lots of recycled items. A roof deck and balcony off the master bedroom, 21st-century Murphy beds in the kids' room, a see-through floor panel to show the home's infrastructure at work.
If you can walk through here without fantasizing about moving in tomorrow, you must live in a very special home, indeed.
The home was built because the museum wanted something special to celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2008, and "there was nothing available in the marketplace" of museum exhibitions that would do the job, said Anne Rashford, director of temporary exhibits.
Some research into the 1933 World's Fair here discovered that Homes of Tomorrow was among the fair's most popular exhibits.
Meantime, the Green House exhibit was at the National Building Museum inWashington, D.C.Rashford and some fellow MSI staff went to see that and came away impressed, particularly, by the work of Michelle Kaufmann, a San Francisco Bay-area architect specializing in modular, eco-friendly houses.
"We thought, 'Wow, we could actually build a house,'" Rashford said, and so they got in touch with Kaufmann. "We said, 'We'd love you to design a house that would fit a standard city lot.'"
For Kaufmann, who had grown up in Iowa, it was a dream request: "I was, like, 'Yes!' Oh, my God," she said.
"We used to pile in buses and go to the Museum of Science and Industry as a child," she said, trips that very specifically inspired her to pursue architecture.
The only other structure the museum has had in that park between the main building and Lake Shore Drive on the east, she said, was, in the summer of 1989, a Frank Lloyd Wright home, the Usonian Automatic Traveling Exhibit House, emphasizing the architect's innovative design and prefabrication.
As for the Smart Home's longevity, "It hasn't actually surprised me because the topic is still relevant," said Kaufmann. "It's a story that evolves pretty quickly too."
What she hopes people learn is that being green "isn't about compromising or sacrificing. It's about a value system that can make your life so much better."
And the biggest part of that lesson is having a livable structure as an example. At the National Building Museum in Washington, "What they found was people enjoyed the data and picking up samples," Kaufmann said, "but where people enjoyed it the most was when they were actually able to walk into a space and go, 'Oh, I feel good here.'"
Among the things that feel good in the Smart Home: A floor with radiant heating elements installed within; a chimney ceiling and automated blinds for efficient use of hot and cool air; and an "energy dashboard" that tells where resources are going (the home's gadgets were selected by the tech website Gizmodo).
Power sources include rooftop solar film and, a bit farther east, a wind turbine. And it all rests in the "Smart Park," a carefully tended urban garden environment where beehives coexist with vertical gardens, planting areas that, in season, look like verdant wallpaper.
As to the home's future, Rashford said the museum evaluates every September whether to make it over again in winter and reopen for spring. So far, the answer has always been "yes."
"It was only supposed to be there for only one year," Rashford said. "Now it's in it's fifth year. It has won many, many awards for architecture and landscaping. It's sort of like The Little Engine That Could."
When: Through Jan. 6, 2013; open daily with tours 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Where: Museum of Science and Industry Chicago, 57th St. and Lake Shore Drive
Price: $12-$23 (includes general admission) at 773-684-1414 or msichicago.org
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