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A House Is a Machine

by Max

I used to think houses were boring.

When I was a kid, my dad would cajole me to help him out with something or other around the house, and I’d always refuse. What could be less fun? Housing is so basic that it’s near the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. Forget shelter—I was all about self-actualization. And unlike the tech world, which was improving at a dizzying pace, houses (as far as I could tell) hadn’t changed in years.

But there was one house I was interested in: Smart House, the classic Disney Channel Original Movie about a robotic, A.I.-infused house that (spoiler alert) goes insane and turns against its occupants1.

It’s impossible to find good stills from Smart House online. In this one, we appear to be witnessing some kind of malfunction of the kitchen countertop’s orange dispenser.

Smart House (named Pat in the movie2) was cool. It (she?) was chock full of robotics that could make breakfast, clean up spills, and project terrible 90’s music videos onto the “kick-butt video screens” (actual quote from the movie) on the walls of every room.

Smart House wasn’t a boring old building—it was a complex, highly integrated machine.

Fast forward to 2013. It’s been years since I lived in the home I grew up in, and Get a Clue has long replaced Smart House as my favorite Disney Channel Original Movie3. And as I begin to work on my own house, my understanding of what a house is begins to change.

A house isn’t just a wooden box any more than a human being is just a bag of flesh. Rather, it’s a complex network of interacting systems, all of which work together in constant motion to create the illusion of a static, unchanging home.

I thought restoring a house would be like building from LEGOs: stacking and piling materials to create the final shape. But it turned out to be more like assembling a computer: connecting layer upon layer of infrastructure in a precise order, and only then adding the “case” (walls) that are visible in the end.

A typical house has heat ducts and electrical wiring running throughout the walls, and is connected to at least four city grids: electrical, gas, water, and sewer. Like a computer plugged into a network, a modern house can’t function on its own.

Which brings us back to Smart House. When I was a kid, a house that could make you a milkshake seemed impressive. But you know what’s really impressive? Running miles of underground pipes so that our poop doesn’t pile up in the streets, and then connecting that pipe to every single house in an entire country. And maintaining it. Forever.

Hidden below the surface of a typical home lies astonishly complex machinery. I’d been living in smart houses all this time, and I didn’t even know it.

  1. Looking back on it now, I’m not sure if the depiction of the malevolent A.I. as a stereotypical 1950’s mother who, believing the outside world is too dangerous, locks the family inside the house, is a clever sendup of the image of the overbearing mother or just typical patriarchal Disney.
  2. But I’ll continue to refer to it as “Smart House,” since it’s way too dumb to call a house “Pat.”
  3. It also has a seriously kick-butt theme song.

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