The Xanadu Houses were a series of experimental homes built to showcase examples of computers and automation in the home in the United States. The architectural project began in 1979, and during the early 1980s three houses were built in different parts of the US: one each in Kissimmee, Florida; Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin; and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The houses included novel construction and design techniques, and became popular tourist attractions during the 1980s.
The Xanadu Houses were notable for being built with polyurethane insulation foam rather than concrete, for easy, fast, and cost-effective construction. They were ergonomically designed, and contained some of the earliest home automation systems. The Kissimmee Xanadu, designed by Roy Mason, was the most popular, and at its peak was attracting 1000 visitors every day. The Wisconsin Dells and Gatlinburg houses were closed and demolished in the early 1990s; the Kissimmee Xanadu House was closed in 1996 and demolished in October 2005.
Bob Masters, who conceived the Xanadu House concept, was an early pioneer in creating and living in houses built of rigid insulation. Before creating Xanadu House, Masters designed and created inflatable balloons to be used in the construction of the house. He was inspired by the Kesinger House in Denver, by architect Stan Nord Connolly, one of the earliest homes built from insulation. Masters built his first home in 1969 in two-and-a-half days during a blustery snowstorm, using the same methods later used to build the Xanadu houses. Masters was convinced that these dome-shaped homes built of foam could work for others, so he decided to create a series of show homes around the country.
Masters’s business partner Tom Gussel chose the name "Xanadu" for the homes, a reference to Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan’s summer residence Xanadu, which is prominently featured in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem Kubla Khan. "Xanadu" is also the name of the palace in the movie Citizen Kane.
First Xanadu House
The first Xanadu House was located in Wisconsin Dells. It was designed by architect Stewart Gordon in 1979, and was created by Bob Masters. It was 4,000 square feet in area, and featured a geodesic greenhouse. In its first summer, 100,000 people visited the new attraction.
Kissimmee Xanadu House
The most popular Xanadu house was the second house, designed by architect Roy Mason. Masters had met Mason at a futures conference in Toronto in 1980. Mason had worked on a similar project prior to his involvement in the creation of the Kissimmee Xanadu House — an “experimental school” on a hill in Virginia which was also a foam structure.
Both Mason and Masters were influenced by other experimental houses and building concepts which emphasized ergonomics, usability, and energy efficiency. These included apartments designed by architect Kisho Kurokawa featuring detachable building modules and more significant designs including a floating habitat made of fiberglass designed by Jacques Beufs for living on water surfaces, concepts for living underwater by architect Jacques Rougerie and the Don Metz house built in the 1970s which took advantage of the earth as insulation. Fifty years before Xanadu House, another "House of Tomorrow" at the Century Progress Exposition in Chicago introduced air conditioning, forced air heating, circuit breakers, electric eye doors, and other innovative features.
Mason believed Xanadu House would alter people's views of houses as little more than inanimate, passive shelters against the elements. "No one's really
looked at the house as a total organic system," said Mason, who was also the architecture editor of The Futurist magazine. "The house can have intelligence and each room can have intelligence." The estimated cost of construction for one home was $300,000. Roy Mason also planned a low cost version which would cost $80,000, to show that homes using computers do not have to be expensive. The low cost Xanadu was never built.
Disney opened the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow in Florida on October 1, 1982 as the EPCOT Center. Masters and Mason decided to open a Xanadu House several miles away in Kissimmee. It eventually opened in 1983, after several years of research into the concepts Xanadu would use. It was over 6,000 square feet in size, considerably larger than the average house because it was built as a showcase. At its peak in the mid 1980s, more than 1,000 people were visiting the new Kissimmee attraction every day. A third Xanadu House was built in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Shortly after the Xanadu Houses were built and opened as visitor attractions, tourism companies began to advertise them as the "home of the future" in brochures encouraging people to visit.
By the early 1990s, the Xanadu houses began to lose popularity because the technology they used was quickly becoming obsolete, and as a result the houses in Wisconsin and Tennessee were demolished, while the Xanadu House in Kissimmee continued to operate as a public visitor attraction until it was closed in 1996. It was consequently put up for sale in 1997 and was sold for office and storage use. By 2001 the Kissimmee house had suffered greatly from mold and mildew throughout the interior due to a lack of maintenance since being used as a visitor attraction, it was put up for sale again for an asking price of US$2 million. By October 2005, the last of the Xanadu houses had been demolished, following years of abandonment and use by the homeless. A condominium is planned for the Xanadu site.
Xanadu House was ergonomically designed, with future occupants in mind. It used curved walls, painted concrete floors rather than carpets, a light color
scheme featuring cool colors throughout, and an open-floor plan linking rooms together without the use of doors. The modular exterior was reminiscent
of a UFO, because of the domes built by spraying polyurethane foam onto removable molds. Xanadu House featured white painted walls, a
communications pole, an outside public toilet, and a lake. It had at least two entrances, and large porthole-type windows. The interior of Xanadu was
cave-like, featuring cramped rooms and low ceilings. The interior used a cream color for the walls, and a pale green for the floor. At the center of the
house was the living room, in which a large false tree supported the roof, and also acted as part of the built-in heating system.
Construction of the Xanadu house in Kissimmee, Florida, began with the pouring of a concrete slab base and the erection of a tension ring 40 feet in diameter to anchor the domed roof of what would become the "Great Room" of the house. A pre-shaped vinyl balloon was formed and attached to the ring, and then inflated by air pressure from large fans. Once the form was fully inflated, its interior surface was sprayed with quick-hardening polyurethane plastic foam.
Spraying from the inside permitted work to continue even in wet or windy weather. The foam, produced by the sudden mixture of two chemicals that expand on contact to 30 times their original volume, hardened almost instantly. Repeated spraying produced a five-to-six-inch-thick structurally sound shell within a few hours. Once the foam cured, the plastic balloon form was removed to be used again. Once the second dome was
completed and the balloon form removed, the two rooms were joined together by wire mesh which was also sprayed with foam to form a connecting gallery or hall. This process was repeated until the house was complete. Window, skylight, and door openings were cut and the frames foamed into place. Finally, the interior of the entire structure was sprayed with a 3/4 inch coating of fireproof material that also provided a smooth, easy-to-clean finish for walls and ceilings. The exterior was given a coat of white elastomeric paint as the final touch.
The Xanadu Houses used an automated system controlled by Commodore microcomputers. The houses had 15 rooms each, of these the kitchen, party room, health spa, and bedrooms all used computers and other electronics equipment heavily in their design. For example, the bath could be filled with water at a set temperature on a specific date and time. The automation concepts which Xanadu House used are based on original ideas conceived in the 1950s and earlier. The Xanadu Houses aimed to bring the original concepts into a finished and working implementation. As visitors followed an electronic
tour guide of the house, featuring constantly changing computer-graphics art shows on video screens in the family room, they learned about the different
advantages and features of the Xanadu House including the security and fire systems.
The main features of the Xanadu House design included an "electronic hearth" featuring a television, games console, sound system, VCR and other electronics equipment, an automated kitchen including tele-shopping and housekeeping capabilities, a family room with several television sets to watch multiple channels at once, a telecommunications antenna, computer-controlled heating and computer-controlled electricity and gas usage.
Xanadu House's kitchen was automated by "autochef", an electronic dietitian which planned well-balanced meals. Meals could be cooked automatically at a set date and time. If new food was required, it could either be obtained via tele-shopping through the computer system or from Xanadu's own greenhouse. The kitchen's computer terminal could also be used for the household calendar,
records, and home book keeping.
The Xanadu homes also suggested a way to do business at home with the office room and the use of computers for electronic mail, access to stock and commodities trading, and news services.
Computers in the master bedroom allowed for other parts of the house to be controlled. This eliminated chores such as having to go downstairs to turn off the coffee pot after one had gone to bed. The children's bedroom featured the latest in teaching microcomputers and "videotexture" windows, whose realistic computer-generated landscapes could shift in a flash from scenes of real places anywhere in the world to imaginary scenes. The beds at the right of the room retreated into the wall to save space and cut down on clutter; the study niches were just the right size for curling up all alone with a pocket computer game or a book.
The "great room" was the largest room in the entire Xanadu home, and included a fountain, small television set, and a video projector. Nearby was the dining room, featuring a glass table with a curved seat surrounding it; behind the seats was a large window covering the entire wall. The family room featured television monitors and other electronic equipment covering the walls. The builders called the entertainment center an "electronic hearth". It was planned as a gathering place for family members and relatives, just as is a traditional hearth with a fireplace.
In the spa, people could relax in a whirlpool, sun sauna, and environmentally-controlled habitat, and even
exercise with the help of spa monitors. One of the advantages of using computers in the home includes
security. In Xanadu House, a HAL-type voice would speak when someone entered to make the intruder
think someone was home.
An initial concern was that the cost of electricity would be excessive, since several computers would be running all day, all year. However, Mason figured that a central computer could control the energy consumption of all the other computers in the house. Many believed using computers in the home was a disadvantage, because if the computer failed, occupants would be restricted from getting food, having a bath, and even leaving the house if doors are locked. Many also resisted the concept of computers in the home because of concerns people would become less social. Those in favor argued that computers improved security and helped get household chores such as cleaning done quickly.
While the majority of people who visited a Xanadu House felt at ease because of the organic design, others felt that the concept was not viable because it was badly affected by the weather. Other architects and designers saw Xanadu House as an unprofessional architectural design because of the materials used, and the odd use of colors and shapes inside the home. Designers continued to build conventionally-shaped homes, dismissing Xanadu House as an unsuccessful concept. Many disliked Xanadu House as a practical home because of its low ceilings, curved walls, and cramped rooms.