Ahwatukee’s House of the Future Preserves the Dreams of the Past
The architectural gem is a monument to early smart home technology and modern design.
By Carly Scholl
Glinting in the bright sun, a prism of oxidized copper and glass juts out of the desert sand like an unearthed relic from another time. In actuality, the geometric monolith is the angular roof of the “House of the Future,” the first-ever computerized home, built in 1980 as a publicity attraction for the newly conceived village of Ahwatukee Foothills.
“In 1973, a real estate developer from Orange County named Randall Presley purchased more than 2,000 acres in the southeast Valley and built about 50 houses,” explains local historian and author Marty Gibson. “He saw the potential of the beautiful land in the shadow of South Mountain, but things were going slowly because, at the time, there was no East Valley. There were tiny towns called Gilbert and
Chandler, but the land was all agricultural. Presley was breaking open a whole new piece of ground, and Ahwatukee turned out to be the first master-planned community on the south side of Phoenix.”
Presley needed to do something radical in order to draw potential buyers out to his new, remote village, so he devised a plan to build what he called the “House of the Future”—a showcase of technological concepts and design that would be open to the public for tours. The developer tapped Taliesin West for the right architect to execute his pioneering idea.
“In 1978, Presley sent out his company’s president, Bruce Gillam, to meet with potential candidates for the project,” remembers Charles Schiffner, who had graduated from what was then known as the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and had recently been licensed by Taliesin Associated Architects. “Olgivanna, Frank Lloyd Wright’s third wife, who gave me the nickname ‘Lath’ during my tenure with the firm, told Gillam, ‘Lath will do it.’”
The 30-year-old architect was tasked with envisioning the future and manifesting it into a physical building out in the near-empty expanse of Ahwatukee. “I asked myself, ‘How can I judge what is to come?’ So instead of trying to predict the future, I called the house ‘a showcase of ideas,’” he recalls.
Even with Presley’s budget of $1 million, Schiffner knew the project would end up costing more. “I was able to generate an extra $1.2 million in materials and labor from 65 different corporations,” he explains. The chance to be included in the development of a groundbreaking new project was a major opportunity for such companies as Motorola, which donated the computers that ran the house, and the Copper Development Association, whose material is featured prominently throughout the home.
Schiffner’s plan epitomized the forward-thinking dreams of the late 20th century, including environmental sustainability, touch-of-a-button convenience and futuristic design. The project also helped allay some of the prominent fears of the era. “At this time, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and other sci-fi movies were coming out and technology was not portrayed as being a hero. It was the bad guy,” notes Schiffner. “Additionally, computer manufacturers were creating toys to try to integrate a younger generation and get them ready for the world of technology. But I wanted to approach the computer as an appliance—something that’s in the background. I said, ‘Let’s not highlight it, but let it be the brains of the home.’”
Seamlessly folded into the house’s modernist form is a technological nervous system that preempted many of the common smart amenities we know today. “It had microcomputers that could control the indoor climate and the water temperature, manage the security system, recycle water, open windows automatically and even recognize you when you walked in the door,” explains Gibson. “The House of the Future showcased features that have become so mainstream in modern
homes.” One of the computers, named “Tuke,” could even speak to and take commands from people inside—an early prototype for today’s virtual assistants, such as Siri and Alexa.
The architect and his team addressed environmental concerns with a system of solar panels, a computer that had the ability to select between three different modes of air conditioning based on efficiency, and heat sensors that would automatically adjust windows and shades. Schiffner prioritized convenience by doing away with the common three-way wiring system, and included user-friendly buttons throughout the house that were programmed with different functions depending on the time of day. “For example, near the master bedroom, there were several switches. One was for the bathroom lights, but if you hit that switch between five and six in the morning, it would turn on the coffee maker in the kitchen. And these signals were sent throughout the house through radio waves,” he explains.
Aside from the innovative technologies, the unique design of the house itself presented new ideas for how people of the future would dwell. Set about 3 feet into ground, the 3,100-square-foot concrete-block structure was clad in copper detailing and outfitted with colorful, Wrightian-style furniture and decor. At the center of the home was a two-story atrium meant for communing and conversing. “We basically took the walled-in backyard of a typical property and put it at the core of the house,” Schiffner says. The rooms that surrounded it were the primary living spaces—three bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room, bathrooms—which needed to have more air conditioning or heating.
Today, the house is a private residence, and while many of these once-futuristic features remain, others have been marked by the passing of time. The exterior copper cladding has oxidized in the elements, the colorful interiors have been modernized, and “Tuke” has been replaced by contemporary smart technology. But passersby can still see the trapezoidal mass rising from the desert floor—an ode to the dreams of the past.
“After the grand opening on March 28, 1980, Presley Development of Arizona had a little storefront in the very first shopping plaza in Ahwatukee where they had a fleet of tour buses that would take folks up to the property,” explains Gibson. “In the two years that they ran these tours, before the home was sold to the first private owner, about 250,000 people visited the House of the Future. And, of course, it was no accident that, as the buses made their way up to the property, which was in the middle of nowhere back then, they strategically drove past every model house Presley had built. Many guests liked what they saw as they went by and decided to buy homes. This was how Presley, with Charles Schiffner’s visionary design, put the village of Ahwatukee Foothills on the map.”