Heat-radiating floors and halogen stoves are among the advances on the way

By William Allen
Post-Dispatch Science Writer

Oct. 10, 1999
Edited by Virginia Baldwin Hick

(Ronn Phillips is associate professor of environmental design
in the College of Human Environmental Sciences at the University of Missouri at Columbia.)

QUESTION: Focusing inside the home, what do you see happening in the next century?

ANSWER: Energy conservation will be one area of focus. Materials are coming out now that will last much longer than they have in the past. People are spending a lot of money and doing a lot of experiments trying to develop glass that, for example, will block ultraviolet radiation (from the sun) and maximize heat retention. Historically, this has been very poor.

Q: Won't advances like this be expensive?

A: Yes and no. We're starting to look at building in what we call a life-cycle costing system. We don't just look at what new technology costs now, but how long it is going to last. The longer it lasts, the more the overall life-cycle cost is reduced. So an inexpensive 20-year roof may be a really good deal initially, but if you have to put one on every 20 years and you're hanging on to the house -- and everything else in the house will last a hundred years -- then the cost of that roof will be multiplied five times over 100 years. If initially you could put on a roof that was three times the original cost but lasts a hundred years, its life-cycle cost is much less.

Q: But people generally don't stay in a house 100 years, do they?

A: That's starting to change, especially with the advent of the Internet. Homes are going to be far more important than they've ever been because you may not need to drive to work. We have significant numbers of people with home-based businesses or who work at home through the Internet and e-mail.

Q: What about the technology of building homes?

A: It's going in the opposite direction, becoming simpler. A homeowner can now lay the Styrofoam equivalent of concrete blocks. They have horizontal and vertical reinforcing steel behind them. You lay them up dry, and you pour concrete in them. So the house has insulation on the outside and inside, and the concrete you pour provides the structure. It holds up its weight, the weight of the roof and everything else.

Q: How will new materials be used inside homes?

A: One example involves nontoxic materials that make it possible to install durable radiant floors. It's a very low-technology, fuel-efficient way of heating your house. And it's really humane. The kids play on the floor -- that's where the heat is. It's nice and warm. Everybody in a radiant-heat home walks around in their socks, because it just feels so good. It's a simple system for heating garages used as workshops, so you don't have to buy a furnace and run ductwork. It's most frequently used now in new construction.

Q: How does a radiant floor work?

A: A plastic or nonmetallic pipe is embedded into the concrete floor and gets snaked around for literally hundreds of feet. It comes out the other end with no seams in the concrete. It warms just the floor and then that radiates heat. You don't heat air, you heat the actual space and it ho lds heat really easily. Over the past few years, some people were heating their entire house with a water heater. It was very economical. The problem was that they were using the conventional way of moving water around a house -- in copper pipes. The joints would get cracks and leak. It was a nightmare. You don't have that with plastic or nonmetallic pipe because it's seamless.

Q: What about the kitchen of the future?

A: Kitchen cabinets are going to be much more flexible and modular. You're also going to see all kinds of synthetic countertops that we don't have now. They will be heat-resistant, stain-resistant and very long-lasting. You can put hot things down and it does no harm. It's not porous, so you can spill wine all over it and it doesn't stain. Other kinds of materials are susceptible to at least some of those potential damages.

Q: What will kitchen appliances be like?

A: The microwave was the last big development. We're going to see that kind of electronics developed even more. The days of gas and electricity, where you're actually heating and making four burners red hot, is incredibly primitive. What we're going to see -- and we've begun to see it in the high-end market -- is basically gigantic lights underneath a flat surface. The lights are halogen. Electricity is passed through and produces white heat, and in essence, you're putting the stove on a dimmer. It's much more controllable.