Over the years, Disney has dabbled in housing. Remember Celebration, one of the first traditional neighborhood designs to grab the attention of the mainstream? Look further back and you can see how their exhibits have mirrored the fantasies, if not the lifestyles of the mainstream.
For example, the Monsanto-sponsored “House of the Future” opened at Disneyland in the 1960s, at a time when jetpacks and flying cars seemed to be just around the corner. Now, that exhibit seems quaint and farfetched, like the set from a B-movie, but at the time, styrene and vinyl and plastics—ever more plastics—seemed like the wave of the future.
Times and priorities have changed. In April, we joined with Disney to open the door to something completely different—a model home of the future that merges low-tech and high-tech technology to reduce how American lifestyles impact the planet.
On one level, VISION House® in INNOVENTIONS at Epcot® is not a house at all. It’s an exhibit, inside a giant building, lit by theatrical lighting. But it all feels real. That’s the intention, to provide a model for futuristic living that can be built today, using existing products and technology. In other words, it’s a show home intended to be both inspirational and attainable.
Does it Work?
I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts and experiences while attending the grand opening of the exhibit at Epcot® theme park in Orlando. Some of you may be skeptical about this project. I know I was.
Can a giant global entertainment company really get serious about water conservation, ecological footprints and embodied energy? So far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what I’ve seen. We wanted the exhibit to be something Green Builder could stand behind as a model for change--not a greenwash that would distract from our mission as serious advocates for sustainability, and we weren’t disappointed.
The way exhibits work at Disney, I've learned, is that their "imagineers" control most of the initial design. They also act as the general contractor. Our role has been to act as a sounding board for green design, products and functionality--and to facilitate partnerships with sponsors who expect to maintain a close connection with the exhibit throughout its three-year, renewable tenure.
Sara Gutterman, our CEO, and Ron Jones, company president, had been in talks and planning with Disney for a few months before I got involved. I added a few recommendations about the home late in the game. For example, I wanted to see LED lights installed--not CFLS—along with recycled and salvaged materials and furniture, plus a greater emphasis on durability as a green value, along with a green roof, a solar carport, and so forth.
I was delighted to find, during my first walkthrough of the home that many of the elements have been included.
In fact, the guided tour is pretty sophisticated, by theme park standards. Our young “cast member” talks about sustainably harvested wood, offgassing, R-values and water-saving faucets. Every few minutes, another group of about 20 people of mixed ages, sexes and types cue up to take the tour. On the tours I attended, they were attentive and curious.
One thing I observed right away is that certain topics seem to engage visitors the most. The kids, for example, want to touch the chairs made from recycled plastics and napkins made from newspapers. Women can’t resist touching the quartz composite countertops. They’re paying close attention to detail—surfaces, color combinations, materials.
The men, in general, seem caught up by the building science. The home’s energy efficiency, programmable heating and so on.
If these sound like stereotypical reactions, keep in mind that my sample was very unscientific—just a couple of tour groups. But they’re not unexpected reactions. Think about this audience—middle class, reasonably well off people, with the resources to take a vacation and visit a theme park.
Research, such as the Shelton Group data we published last September, shows that this demographic group falls into the mainstream category. As such, they’re not especially interested or aware of green issues—although their kids may be. But they're very interested in home remodeling and design. Green may not be on their radar in terms of saving trees and water, but saving money and improving their home sure is. These are your next customers. And they're the ultimate family-focused crowd, often with multiple children in tow.
A perfect example is the first woman in line for a tour of the exhibit in front of me. Her husband and son have gone off to another part of the park to take a thrill ride, but she wants to see the VISION House®. Why? Because she's in the process of building a new home.
"I'm really looking for ideas,” she says. “We want to build the best house we can, so we’re interested in the latest things.”
Our group has a few kids with their parents, and a couple of retirees--so the mix is fairly typical of Epcot®. With the exhibition just a few hours old, I’m making a mental punchlist. The house tour is good, but not perfect. That cotton insulation in the walls may be eco-friendly in terms of resource use, but calling out an R-8 performance is not what we want people taking home as a goal. And simply mentioning that a cooktup is "induction" is not good enough. More explanation to be added. Check.
At the end of the tour, we’re standing in the “back yard,” where I’m encouraged to see they’ve installed a vertical garden on demonstration. There’s a rain barrel set up, (but I wish it was operative!) a nice plug for Green Builder—and more importantly, a moment of green advocacy that fits our mission. Our guide gently urges guests to take what they've learned and go further--to consider adjusting some of their lifestyle choices in favor of the environment. It's a message that by this time, even a person on vacation is ready to hear.
As I turn to leave the exhibit and Epcot® for what’s likely to be a few months, I take a last look at VISION House®, and I imagine, hour after hour, day after day, tour after tour, spreading the message of green living. I set aside my cynical editor’s eye view for a moment.
“This is pretty cool,” I think.
Then I head out into the hot Florida sun to buy myself a chocolate covered banana, and listen to a bunch of guys in khaki play drums on empty five gallon buckets. Life is good.
To view this article as it appeared in our May 2012 issue, with additional photos and diagrams, please visit our Magazine Archive.
More information on VISION House® in INNOVENTIONS can be found here.