Xanadu Houses: a peculiar architectural design for a “home of the future”

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Milica Sterjova
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Strange-looking experimental homes called Xanadu Houses began to be built in the United States in 1979. They were an attempt at making energy-efficient and affordable dwellings and would also be an example for some of the earliest automation in the home. The Xanadu were constructed by Bob Masters who had previously designed inflatable balloons used in building construction. Masters came up with the project in 1979 and built three houses to represent the advantages of foam houses to the nation. The Xanadu houses were advertised as “The Computerized Home of Tomorrow“.

The houses were built using Masters’s balloons. After being inflated, the balloon’s interior would be sprayed with polyurethane foam. The foam had to be dry and 6 inches thick before the balloon was removed. The house’s doors and windows were created by cutting out a desired shape from the wall and inserting the door or the window. When the elements were placed in the correct position they were secured using foam.

The first house was built in Wisconsin Dells in 1979. It was designed by Stewart Gorgon and had a total area of 370m2. Visitors showed great interest in the unusual house and about 100,000 people visited it during the first summer. The second house, which was designed by the American futuristic architect Roy Mason, was the most successful, mostly due to its location. In its peak years, it had over 1,000 visitors a day. It was constructed in Kissimmee, Florida near the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow Center built by Disney. The third Xanadu house was built in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

A photo of a welcome sign and path leading to the entrance of the Xanadu House that was located in Kissimmee, Florida.

The house in Florida included a main dome connected to a net of several smaller bubbles. It was bigger than the average American home and had 15 rooms, all of which were controlled by an automated system using Commodore microcomputers. The interior resembled the cave-dwellings – it had low ceilings, curved walls, and small rooms. The main dome was supported by a pole that was made to look like a tree.

Outdoors view. Author: Dgtldesigner. CC BY-SA 4.0

The house incorporated the 1950s concept of a technologically advanced house, where many of the daily tasks are done by computers. The inhabitants could turn their kitchen appliances on or off from another room, and meals could be automatically prepared at a time and date of choice.

The kitchen. Author: Dgtldesigner. CC BY-SA 4.0

The system would also choose a menu for the user depending on their height, weight, and age. If the family needed to buy food, for example, there was a tele-shopping system that included catalogs and a system for payment. The house also had a small greenhouse where the plants and their development were supervised by the computer.

The master bedroom. Author: Dgtldesigner. CC BY-SA 4.0

A central computer would regulate the usage of electricity in the house. An advanced security system could speak if an intruder entered the house. Almost everything could be done without leaving the house.

The dining room. Author: Dgtldesigner. CC BY-SA 4.0

The total cost of building a Xanadu house was estimated at about $300,000. Mason planned the construction of a low-cost house in order to prove that automated homes that used computers could also be cheap. The estimated cost of the house was around $80,000 but the cheap Xanadu house was never built.

The indoor ponds. Author: Dgtldesigner. CC BY-SA 4.0

None of the three Xanadu houses are still standing today. After several years, tourists began to lose interest in the houses, and the technology inside was becoming outdated. The design and the materials used were rejected by other architects, and people didn’t find the dwelling attractive enough to invest in it. The last one to go was the one in Florida which was closed in 1996 and demolished in 2005.

The whirlpool tub. Author: Dgtldesigner. CC BY-SA 4.0

Although the original Xanadu houses are gone, the idea of the “smart home” has persisted. In 1993, a new house was built in Arizona using the same design as the Florida Xanadu but not the same material. Instead of polyurethane foam, poured concrete was used for the domes, which made it more durable than its forerunners.