A futuristic home frozen in time
The house at 6511 Clubhouse Circle is wrapped in eight miles of irony.
That’s how much wire it took to power the home of the future back in 1984. It made national news for its groundbreaking ability to learn and predict the behaviors of its occupants, using artificial intelligence.
“This was science fiction stuff,” says Larry Herring, who was part of the army of engineers that built the system. “That was the goal — to see how far you could push it to the edge.”
But on a stormy day in 2002, lightning struck and destroyed the home-control system — the brain of the house.
Just like that, one of the country’s first smart homes died. But not before it was briefly immortalized in the 1987 sci-fi film “RoboCop,” which marks its 25th anniversary this year. As a result, neighbors have dubbed Layton and Ariel Lang’s residence the “RoboCop house.”
With its white stucco design, the home still carries the classic ’80s aesthetic, and many of the original features have remained: the black paneling that held some 20 televisions throughout the house, the key-pad-operated light switches, and the more than 200 motion sensors that once tracked people around every corner.
“This house was so ahead of its time, and now it’s so far behind,” Ariel says. “That’s funny.”
The “Robocop” scene lasts just under three minutes, and it’s pretty racy. Describing it tastefully would dilute its murderous, drug-filled charm. In short, Detroit crime boss Clarence Boddicker barges into the living room and guns down Robert Morton, the arrogant executive who created the human cyborg police officer. Next, Boddicker blows up the house (a model version, of course). It’s one the film’s most popular clips on YouTube.
However, the house was famous before its role in “RoboCop,” appearing in publications such as Popular Science, Spectrum and the Dallas Times Herald as well as television shows, including “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” and “Beyond 2000.”
The original owner, Portia Isaacson, a computer scientist, championed the idea of personal home computers back when the technology was being used mainly in corporate and military realms. It was called “FutureHome.”
“The goal was to take a standard home and automate it as much as possible so that it could be high-functioning but also comfortable to live in,” Herring says. “It had a lot of intelligence without being threatening.”
Those eight miles of wire powered the home-control system, which built a database of information about its occupants over a short period of time. If they woke up at 7 a.m. each morning, so did the house. It turned on lights, opened the drapes and brewed coffee. The artificial intelligence took it even further, enabling the house to automatically react and make decisions. For example, if the pool malfunctioned, the home-control system called the pool guy and, for a specific amount of time, unlocked the gates so he could come do the repair. The homeowners don’t have to lift a finger.
“That was pretty radical for that time,” says Layton Lang, the current owner who lives there with his wife, Ariel, and two teenagers. He researched the history of house when they bought it four years ago, collecting magazine and newspaper clippings that are hard to find these days.
Sure, the house looks cool. But not only is it out of date, it’s impractical. Electricians run for the hills when they see the amount of wires spewing out of the panels in the garage. It would take days just to learn the system, much less fix what’s wrong. The cable companies gave up on installations a long time ago. Herring is one of the only engineers left who can navigate the channels beneath those walls.
Today, anyone can customize a smart house. This project’s main goal was to use off-the-shelf products that could become common in standard homes.
“I was sort of depressed [after the lightning strike],” Herring says. “I thought it would be relatively easy to replace what was damaged. Almost 20 years later, the stuff didn’t exist. It still doesn’t exist.”
Not without re-doing the entire house, a monumental task for any homeowner.
In the end, there just wasn’t a demand for universal high-tech equipment, but the house did play a role in the future of home technology. The research data were sold to manufacturers looking to create more innovative products.
“It’s more a showpiece than anything else,” Herring says.
That’s enough for the Langs, who adore the ’80s vibe and the fun stories they can tell guests, particularly about its “RoboCop” fame.
Mark Shekter of Graphic+Design+Group in Dallas designed the house, which he says is a perfect example of his philosophy.
“This house, while designed in the ’80s, still looks contemporary,” he says. “If it’s a good design, it will last.”
The Langs’ biggest selling point, though, was the backyard, which backs up to the heavily treed creek, concealing any evidence of the massive freeway construction on the other side.
“To us, it’s a home,” Ariel Lang says.