House with a ‘changing view’

Published November 9, 2001

SAN DIEGO: Al Johnstone believes in choice. Like the choice of view when you wake up in the morning. Mountains? Mexico? Pacific sunrise? Pretty soon he will just have to ask his house and it will oblige.

Johnstone is completing what he believes is the first fully-rotating house in California, possibly the world. Other houses can turn 300 degrees, but cannot manage full and continuous circles. Johnstone, 58, is a former house-builder, engineer, and computer programmer at AT&T’s famed Bell Labs, where he specialized in voice recognition technology. He has been nurturing this brainchild for 30 years, but it was only recently that he came upon his ideal location.

In January 1999 he and his wife Janet found a small plot of land on the northern slope of Southern California’s Mount Helix, east of San Diego. It is a mini-summit all of its own, with spectacular views ranging from Mexico 20 miles to the south, to the sometimes snow-covered Cuyamaca mountains to the north and east, to the California coastline below to the west.

The miracle is the entire 400,000-pound, circular, 55-window structure needs just one horsepower to turn it (although Johnstone installed a three-horsepower electric motor for built-in redundancy). “Nobody’s going to get dizzy,” he says. “The fastest it can move is one-tenth of a mile per hour.” Top speed is 360 degrees in 30 minutes. Slowest is one revolution every 24 hours.

But Johnstone has gone way beyond turning. The self-confessed techno-freak has packed his $700,000 house with electronic wizardry. From the moment the eye-scanner’s iris recognition system lets him or Janet in the front door (there are no keys), jewellry that each wears will emit a radio signal to the central computer named James will immediately set Al or Janet’s favourite temperature, light, and mood music room by room as they pass through. An elevator takes them to the deck-surrounded 5,000-square-foot second floor with its four bedrooms, living room, recreation room and kitchen. There will be no light switches. The Johnstones’ spoken commands will do everything from turning on the TV to choosing digitally-stored art images to display on living room wall monitors (surrounded by real frames). Meanwhile, the ground floor garage will automatically rotate each of their cars to point them outwards again. The master bedroom’s bed can also rotate “if, say, we don’t want the daylight blaring in our eyes next morning.” And for safety from any nearby summer forest fire (relatively common in Southern California’s forested mountains), the circular house has fire-resistant walls and a flat roof which its computer can instantly flood with two inches of used ‘grey’ water to douse flying cinders.

But before he could proceed, Johnstone had to solve one very basic problem. “I had to work out how to stay attached to the utilities while turning the house infinitely in either direction. Gas, electricity, water, sewage.”

At first this seemed an impossible conundrum, without getting all his pipes and wires twisted in knots. That is when he came up with a brilliantly simple idea: he designed a central, hollow, non-turning stainless steel core with four main grooves carved horizontally around it. One each for gas, water, grey water (shower and bathroom basin waste), and sewage.

Johnstone has applied for patents on the system and believes his slotted core puts him ahead of the whole rotating building pack. Which leaves only one problem: Who will ‘James’ obey when husband and wife want, say, different TV channels, or, worse, different views to wake up to in the morning? —Dawn/The Observer News Service.

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