The house of the future is smart: “It has 50 sensors that monitor everything from temperature to humidity,” says visionary architect/builder David Sellers.
The house of the future is sustainable: It runs on solar power and geothermal energy enabling radiant heat floors. From the main floor, a living wall of plants rises two stories high, fed automatically from a cistern that collects water from the roof.
The house of the future is durable: “It will last for 500 years and could withstand forest fires,” Sellers says.
The house of the future is versatile: Interior walls are temporary, allowing for three bedrooms or three apartments, or something entirely different—there are no actual architectural drawings or floor plan.
The house of the future is playful: There are touches of humor throughout (an imprint of a computer keyboard randomly embedded in a concrete ceiling, a “take-out” window off the kitchen modeled after a creemee stand; a wall made of stacked, unfinished pieces of wood) and they make you laugh.
The House of the Future, as Sellers calls it, is high on Prickly Mountain overlooking Blueberry Lake and the Mad River Valley. The House of the Future is a prototype, he says, and this fall you can rent it on Airbnb.
The House of the Future Symposium
“I’m looking forward to seeing how different Airbnb guests use the house and what we learn from them,” says Sellers, gesturing with excitement. “People are going to be part of this grand experiment.”
It is a warm day in late August. Sellers, a vigorous 80, is dressed in a white shirt, black pants and electric yellow leather shoes. He holds forth from a folding chair in the atrium of the house, which is still under construction. The glass wall of the main living area is slid open to the waning sun and, as Sellers speaks and gestures, long wisps of his white hair break free and dance in the cross-breeze.
“We first started thinking about The House of the Future about 15 years ago,” says Sellers. Sitting before him on couches and perched on the massive hearth is a crowd of about 20. It’s a virtual who’s who of the design-build movement, a movement Sellers is credited with founding more than 50 years ago. There’s Sellers and fellow Mad River Valley architect William Maclay (author of The New Net Zero)—both inducted last year into the American Institute of Architecture’s prestigious College of Fellows.
Jim Sanford and Ellen Strauss are there— architects and owners behind Prickly Mountain’s funky multi-family Dimetredon, and collaborators with Sellers on projects such as California’s award-winning hotel, the Inn at Newport Ranch. Contractor and project manager Brendan O’Reilly of Gristmill Builders is there. Seated on folding chairs are architect Mac Rood, Dan Reicher (formerly Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of Energy for Energy Efficiency and Renewables), and John “Sucosh” Norton, a former CEO who helped grow Northern Power.
Jack Wadsworth, whom Sellers has known and worked with for decades, has flown from the West Coast for this preview as well. Wadsworth and environmentalist and financial entrepreneur John “Mac” McQuown are partners in the project, which is owned by Sellers’ non-profit Madsonian Museum of Industrial Design in Waitsfield.
“This house wasn’t built to be owned by anyone—it’s a prototype and an ongoing work in progress,” says Sellers.
“The concrete structure and exterior mean it should last for 500 years with no exterior maintenance which means you can really amortize the cost,” he says, pointing to the massive posts and beams that were poured on site by local craftsmen John Bertrand and Justin McCullough and others. “Justin has been helping me since he was an eight-year-old, notes Sellers as McCullough, 36, passes through. McCullough’s father worked with Sellers on his early homes.
Fireproofing is important to Sellers as three of his homes have gone up in flames. In 2016, the concrete house in Warren that Sellers named “Archie Bunker” burned after an Airbnb guest misused a wood stove. “The interior is gutted but, the structure is all intact,” says Sellers. “Think about what would have happened if there were more homes like this in the parts of California hit by wildfires,” he says.
Because the House of the Future is built to last for generations, Sellers designed it to be as flexible in its interior as possible. A 9-foot by 18-foot glass wall slides open to a central living area that acts like a greenhouse.
One side of the central area is a living wall of plants. On the floor, nine square panels pop out revealing three-foot concrete wells. “The idea is that you could have fruit trees or an indoor garden in here. The plants help clean the air and absorb carbon monoxide,” says Sellers. “Or you could make it a traditional living space.”
The arched ceiling of a hallway funnels guests toward a small room with large windows on two sides. A handle in a wall pulls out, revealing a hide-away bed. “This could be an office or a bedroom,” says Sellers as he slides it out. The 1,800-square-foot house is configured with three bedrooms and bathrooms, each a level up from each other. “The house could be set up as three apartments,” notes Sellers. One bedroom also features a glass wall that swings open onto a porch. The closets are moveable plywood structures with pointy roofs.
“What I love about the house is the very simple palette Dave used,” says architect Jim Sanford, who designed wild light fixtures for the hallway that look like metal flame-throwers. “He kept it to three basic materials: concrete, plywood and slate.”
Building, Then Designing
One of the first projects Sellers ever tackled was a parking garage in New Haven, a project his professor at the Yale School of Architecture was working on. “I learned there that I never wanted to design anything I didn’t know how to build with my own hands,” Sellers said. He also fell in love with concrete. “It’s a sustainable material that you can mold into anything,” he notes, brushing his hand over a rough pillar. “I like showing its structure and the crumbling finish in some areas or molding it into something smooth like the bathtub.”
The concrete posts and beams are incredibly strong. “Concrete can support up to 3,500 pounds per square inch,” says Sellers, which allowed him to place a cistern just below the roof, which collects rainwater.
As a designer/builder, Sellers has always tried to work with found objects and materials he recycles. The wood framework for many of the concrete forms Sellers recycled into arched beams for the ceiling. Brian Carter, who Sellers refers to as his “woodwright” reshaped the part cut out of them into rails for an upstairs walkway. “We didn’t really have a plan for where to put a staircase,” Sellers says with a shrug. Gristmill Builders’ Pierre Jaubert and John Rodriguez fashioned a staircase from laminated plywood, molding it into an elegant curved piece that’s a focal point for the home.
Closet doors, wall plates and switch covers were made from the slate of old school blackboards that McCullough hand-cut and shaped. On top of one pillar sits a giant glass lampshade, fashioned like a flame. “That’s from New York’s Plaza Hotel,” Sellers notes.
As the “Symposium” (as the group decides to dub the gathering) draws to a close, the crowd is talking about what ideas can be taken from this experiment and how it will evolve in the future. Engineer Audrey Martinez nods toward a low glass window which opens into a basement room where the “brains” of the house reside: the heating, cooling and pumping systems she helped design. “As time goes on, the house should be able to learn from itself. Sensors could let you know when the weather is about to change and open or close windows.”
The topic of costs comes up. Base costs have come to about $800,000, without a profit margin. “That’s about $400 per square foot,” Sellers admits. “But this house is not about money, it’s about creating ideas we can learn from,” he says.
“The idea we’ve created here is that we could do a simpler shell of a house out of the affordable materials we have here, perhaps using tilt-up concrete for walls (a process where you pour concrete slab, then tilt it), and then let people find the kitchen cabinets and furniture on Craigslist and use their creativity to bring in recycled parts.”
For more on David Sellers and a gallery of some of his other projects, see Mad (River) Genius
All photography by Lindsay Selin