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.
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 in the United States. 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. The first Xanadu House opened in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. It was designed by architect Stewart Gordon and constructed by Masters in 1979. It was in area, and featured a geodesic greenhouse. 100,000 people visited the new attraction in its first summer.
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.
The Walt Disney Company opened Epcot Center in Florida on October 1, 1982 (originally envisioned as the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow). 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 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 visited 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.
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, as the domes were 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.
The Xanadu house in Kissimmee, Florida used an automated system controlled by Commodore microcomputers. The house had fifteen rooms; of these the kitchen, party room, health spa, and bedrooms all used computers and other electronic equipment heavily in their design. For example, the shower could be configured to turn on at a set temperature at 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. Visitors followed an electronic tour guide of the house, featuring constantly changing computer-graphics art displayed on video screens in the family room. Through the guide, visitors learned about the different advantages and features of the house including the security and fire systems.
At the center of the house was the "great room", the largest in the house. It featured a large false tree supported the roof, and also acted as part of the built-in heating system. The great room also 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.
The 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.
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.
In the spa, people could relax in a whirlpool, sun sauna, and environmentally-controlled habitat, and exercise with the assistance of spa monitors. One of the advantages of using computers in the home includes security. In Xanadu House, a HAL-type voice spoke when someone entered to make the intruder think someone was home.
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.