The house on Spring Street in McKeesport doesn't look fancy.
From the outside it's a two-story wood frame house with vinyl siding. Inside, it seems like a regular house, with a burglar alarm and a new plasma TV.
But these walls can talk.
Not the walls, actually, but the computer system hooked to speakers in the walls that can tell occupants if there is a fire and can alert emergency dispatchers and family members if there is trouble.
The walls have a lot more than that -- cables throughout the home hook controls for lights, heat, video cameras and even sensors on the shower and the range so someone outside of the house can check on what is happening inside from a computer hooked to the internet.
It's all part of Blueroof Technologies' model smart cottage, which the company has designed to use available technology to help elderly and disabled people stay in their homes longer.
There aren't a lot of buttons to push. Mike Richey, president of Blueroof Technologies, used to sell alarm systems to older people in the Mon Valley. What he saw repeatedly was that he would sell elderly customers an alarm system and then they wouldn't use it because they were nervous about entering the right codes.
Blueroof's model cottage has an alarm system that can be armed with one button. It is also a fire alarm system that flashes lights, announces to the occupants that they should evacuate and calls the fire department.
If it does call emergency crews, it flashes the porch light so they can find the right house.
The voice in the wall is called "Amy." Mr. Richey said giving the computer-generated voice a name is less intimidating to the elderly than telling them the computer knows when they are coming and going. Amy, it turns out, has a voice that sounds like the gorilla in the movie "Congo."
Amy says "hello" and "goodbye." She announces when a door or a window has been opened. If someone pushes the button for emergency help, for example, if they have fallen and are hurt, Amy will let family or emergency crews know.
The house is also set up so a resident can have a full media center with radio, television and Internet and an Internet connection that features a Web camera so he or she can have live conferences with their children (if their children have the same access).
It's not just the technology that makes the house accessible for older people and those with disabilities. The physical design of the house also makes it easier to manage. The windows are made from PPG self-cleaning glass. The shower is a walk-in. Even the bathroom floor is made from waterproof, slick-resistant crumbed rubber, so if a person falls the floor will take some of the impact.
In the model home, the hallway is 30 inches wide, which conforms to federal standards set for wheelchair accessibility, but by using the home, Blueroof has found the 30-inch hallways to be too narrow for easy use by someone in a wheelchair because it doesn't allow easy turns into a room. In subsequent homes, the hallways will be wider.
The counters also can be set up so a wheelchair can roll right up to the kitchen sink.
"The challenge is doing it affordably," Blueroof Executive Director John Bertoty said.
He said the research done at the home is based on using technology that is readily available in the home, rather than inventing new gadgets that would then have to be specially built. The house is also mostly manufactured in a factory so that it can be built to the specifications set by Blueroof.
"You give me $6 million, I'll show you a smart house that will knock your socks off," he said. But, he said, that is not realistic for most older people.
Mr. Bertoty said the purpose of building the smart house is to provide support for the occupants.
He said if the design of the house can forestall someone's move into a care home or nursing facility for two years, the savings will be equal to the cost of the house. He said the for-profit side of Blueroof, Blueroof Solutions Inc., is building homes for about $100 a square-foot, or $100,000 for a modest, 1,000-square-foot home for a single person or a couple. That house includes the basic technology like the alarm system with video cameras and the phone system.
"The Internet accessibility doesn't add more than a couple thousand [dollars] to the total," he said.
The model house is different from the houses that will be built for people to occupy. For instance, there is a research area in the basement that will be used by students and professors from Penn State, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. The living area is often the site of meetings for the Blueroof staff, and the second floor has office space. Mr. Bertoty said the house may be sold someday and a new model built, but right now it is the headquarters and laboratory for the nonprofit organization.
Mr. Bertoty said he hopes that Blueroof will also add a layer of security to McKeesport as well, by diversifying the economy as the town rebuilds, so that if one economic sector in McKeesport takes a hit, the entire economy won't be hurt as it was when the steel business collapsed.
And, with Pennsylvania's strength of having more companies manufacturing homes than anywhere else in the nation, Blueroof's work in McKeesport may be one of the pieces that help secure the local economy.
So far, the associated for-profit company that is the building arm of Blueroof has constructed fewer than a handful of homes, but firm officials are studying a request for proposals from the McKeesport Housing Authority to build handicapped accessible public housing units.
For more on Blueroof, visit: www.bluerooftechnologies.com.