'Smart' homes that react; Foundation's grants spur research on housing technology; One idea: safety sensors


When homeowners face life-threatening emergencies in the next century, the first response may not be from an ambulance crew. If current research continues to develop, the house itself could provide the initial medical assistance.

Researchers say they are working on designing home safety sensors that identify and react to a medical emergency and, thanks to a new federal housing initiative, are getting the chance to put those and other ideas into action.

The National Science Foundation announced a $1.5 million grant program last month to pay for engineering research to help create basic technologies needed to build the next generation of housing.

"We really want to see fundamental research done in the area of housing," said Priscilla Nelson, director of NSF's civil and mechanical division. "This could mean anything from building with new materials to having a house with safety sensors to more efficient energy use."

However, Nelson said specific topics to be researched will not be known until the proposals for the grants arrive at the end of January. Grants could be awarded as early as May 2000.

"We never know what we'll get with the proposals. It's really wide open right now," Nelson said.

Proposals are required to address five areas of technological need -- the quality, durability, environmental performance, energy efficiency and affordability of the nation's housing.

Riley Chung, a researcher and consultant for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said one project that may come off the drawing boards is what he calls "smart construction."

Chung said researchers believe that the frame of a house can actually be designed to react to natural disasters or other forces that would normally damage buildings.

"Once this is developed and put into action, it would allow the structure of a house to adjust in response to forces such as earthquakes and extreme wind," Chung said. "In a sense, it would flex in order to maintain the integrity of the structure."

The grants will support the Partnership for Advancing Technologies in Housing (PATH), a national program announced by President Clinton last year to reduce the cost of new housing by 20 percent, reduce maintenance costs by 50 percent and cut the environmental impact and energy use of new housing by 50 percent.

PATH also hopes to reduce the risk of life, injury and property destruction from natural hazards by at least 10 percent and bring down residential-construction work illnesses and injuries by 20 percent.

While these goals are set high, the real challenge, says PATH Communications Director John Blair, will be to get builders to take a closer look at the new technologies. Often, builders and contractors are reluctant to use newer products because they fear liability issues.

"We really want to cut the time it takes to get these innovations to market," Blair said. "Sometimes getting new technologies into everyday use can take as much as 25 years. We can recommend that they use a product or innovation, but often that's not enough."

Nelson said this grant program is NSF's first real work in housing research, and it's important that the initiative be promoted in the building community as well as in the research community.

"We don't really have the nation's research community mobilized yet into seeing housing [as] a viable subject for developing research," Nelson said.

Any U.S. academic institution is eligible to apply for the grants. A minimum of 10 grants between $100,000 and $150,000 will be awarded.

"We're all very excited about the possibilities," Blair said. "These proposals could potentially radically improve housing across the nation and set the tone for the next century."

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