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issue: January 2003 APPLIANCE Magazine

From the Top
The Open Source Solution

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by Dick Topping, director of Appliance Research , TIAX, LLC

On Oct. 15, 2002, a group of leading researchers, scientists, web and IT specialists, engineers, and business leaders met in Cambridge, MA, U.S. at the MIT Open Source Building Alliance (OSBA) workshop.

Many of the companies participating are currently serving the building industry; others see this as an opportunity to become key players in this mammoth U.S. $830-billion-per-year market.

The OSBA hopes to address the many problems faced by today's building industry. As the needs of people have quickly changed, the housing industry has lagged. Currently in the U.S., 80 percent of a new home's construction cost goes to field labor, with only 20 percent going toward materials. The result: the majority of Americans live in low-quality, low-tech, difficult-to-upgrade, costly-to-maintain domiciles.

The OSBA concept responds to the premise that the housing industry must radically change to meet future needs. One of the key drivers behind the need for a housing revolution is the aging population of baby boomers - demanding home environments that keep them healthy and living independently. The OSBA also supports the development of energy-efficient housing.

The OSBA is dedicated to providing individuals with choices about how to configure their living space while also allowing for mass customization through a modular component system. The target is highly customizable, technologically advanced living spaces that can be produced and assembled inexpensively with the best quality materials. Mimicking the automotive and computer industries, open source building will rely on an integrated house "chassis" that will provide structure, power, and communications. A building's occupants would choose mass-customized modules to meet their needs by choosing the desired interior surfaces, exterior facades, electronics, communications, and home medical technologies.

But the OSBA faces many hurdles. Because it is a new concept in a traditionally conservative industry, it will require major shifts in attitudes and culture. It will take cooperation among all of the stakeholders in the homebuilding industry. Codes and standards will have to be adapted to ensure safety and compatibility. Homeowners may also have to reconsider their thinking. For example, most of the homebuilding public may not realize that modularization could provide a highly customized living space constructed with higher-quality materials to provide better aesthetics, "feel," reliability, and durability. Also, OSBA offers the vision of a truly flexible residence that can "age gracefully" like a family as it grows older and has different space and functional needs.

Engineers at my company worked on an integrated appliance concept for the workshop. We envisioned a modular HVAC unit that could be purchased at any appliance or home improvement store. The unit would have common interfaces for gas, oil, or electric power. Units could be added in a "plug-and-play" fashion to precisely fit the volume of air to be treated. Or a homeowner could buy upgrades such as a HEPA filter to improve air quality.

But what will be the killer application that will drive the open source concept? It will most likely be a collection of health monitoring systems that encourage and ensure a healthy lifestyle. The number of Americans aged 65 and older will jump from the current 35 million to 70 million by 2030, according to projections by the U.S. Census Bureau. America does not have enough hospitals or clinics to address such a large population of aging Americans and its medical needs, nor will the country be able to afford the amount of care required. A new paradigm is needed to keep the population healthy and living autonomously.

The OSBA is capable of providing a broad range of minimally invasive medical services, including promoting senior wellness by checking the live-alone elderly for changes in mobility, sleep patterns, etc. For example, MIT researchers are developing an early warning system for congestive heart failure. A PDA or watch-like device could collect biometric data, but this information is insufficient in itself for early prevention of many conditions. However, as MIT's Stephen Intille explains, "A user interface can automatically and actively query the home occupants about how they are feeling by asking context-sensitive questions that inform monitoring systems without alarming or annoying the user."

Many medical devices are becoming more like appliances - designed and developed for home use. And sensor-driven medical monitoring devices could even become a component of common furniture. But who will manufacture these devices in the long term? Appliance producers could take the traditional approach in developing only HVAC and other appliances to meet OSBA market requirements, or they could realize the larger opportunity that OSBA is pioneering. Seems to me there's a huge opportunity here.

Dick Topping

Dick Topping is director of Appliance Research at TIAX LLC (www.tiax.biz). He can be reached by phone at 617/498-6058, by fax at 617/498-7206, or e-mail at topping.r@tiax.biz.

From the Top appears bimonthly in
APPLIANCE Engineer¨.


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