Michael McDonough | Architect

The Smart House

By James Trulove, Introduction by Michael McDonough

The Smart House cover
The Smart House

Smart house technology came into focus with the advent of the Internet and, while increasingly sophisticated, is for the most part still in its developmental stages. The organizing idea here—idea that a building or a system can be automated to supervise and perform certain managerial tasks—is not new. You can go see automated manufacturing facilities, power plants, remotely located utility lines, shopping malls, high rise structures, and other large, complex areas of human endeavor. These buildings are expensive to maintain and are difficult to control, so automation is a critical factor in any economic efficiency model developed to manage them. With automation—essentially smart building technology in its nascent form—fewer personnel can be employed, security can be enhanced, accidents can be reduced, and money can be saved. Existing communications networks can be employed. Smart technology is efficient. It makes good business sense. It gets put into big buildings and bigger infrastructures.

But to get it into your home is something different, something new. Standard business categories really do not apply to the average homeowner who ostensibly just wants things to be a bit simpler to run. It is not really about economic incentives or existing communications infrastructure.

It is about convenience.

The driving force behind smart house technology in its earliest phases has been convenience. Convenience for the home user, who—it was assumed—would be motivated to lessen the time required for certain repetitive tasks and mundane chores. These might include interior lighting—as in lowering the lights for a social gathering or raising them so that the premises could be cleaned after the guests had left. Similarly, entertainment systems would be pre-programmed and centrally managed. One’s favorite disco tracks could be pre-selected, and distributed to the living room and den in the house, while being kept out of the children’s rooms. Security—seen in part as an offshoot of convenience—could also be addressed, so that the home owner could have a smart house system check the status of all doors and windows, make sure that motion sensors were be armed and that the system was capable of reporting problems to whomever was deemed most appropriate.

Any and all of these and related categories could be taken to higher levels of sophistication, where window blinds could be raised or lowered remotely, heating systems could be turned on from a hundred miles away, yard lighting could be automated, and surveillance camera technology could be implemented. The fullest manifestation of this would be the “integrated house,” where all the systems, everything that was wired, would be controllable from a central location running a centralized control panel. You could raise and lower the shades while selecting a lighting setting and arming the security system.

Convenience would—it was assumed—drive the market, and smart house technology would be a selling point in new house sales. The Internet—just starting to blossom—would function as a communications pipeline. Eventually everyone would want the stuff, and a golden age of automated ease would dawn.

Smart…or not quite so smart?

Several countervailing forces emerged, and as surely as childhood innocence yields to adolescent rebellion, the smart house became more like—as the New York Times reported it—the Smart Alec house. It got complicated. Houses had to be wired or networked, control panels had to be installed, passwords had to be logged, protocols had to be learned. Something might “glitch,” and a repair person would have to be called. The password might be incorrectly input. The remote control might get lost. Maybe the software manual was misplaced. Or you couldn’t remember the 22-digit registration number so you were in the tech support dead zone on hold for three hours. Maybe a power outage or lightning spike would blow the system’s brains out and you would have to start again. Or, maybe, just maybe, the dot.com entity that sold you the system was in Chapter 11 and no longer available to help. The Garrison Colonial with the tennis court and pool with the high IQ was having a temper tantrum, and you couldn’t necessarily reason with it.

This was not convenience. It was inconvenience with a high price tag and a service contract to boot. Initially enthusiastic, now those high-end home owners were reporting that they would try use the smart house system once or twice, then give up on it. They would never bother programming the software. Or they would not repair the system if it broke down. It was the stuff of suburban support groups.

No matter, said the industry, the motivated homeowner will still desire the luxury implicit in the thing. And the big developers who market gated communities will see smart house technology as a target market sales incentive value-added item, and they will purchase and install it anyway. And the so industry pushes on.

New technologies in the pipeline include the much vaunted refrigerator that constantly surveys its own contents, and then tells you when to buy more milk. And the motion activated camera that tracks the live-alones, the impaired, and the aged so that their every move can be noted and evaluated, and so that medical personnel can be summoned in the event of an emergency.

One might say of this brave new wired world, “great.”

One might also say, however, that I am sick of milk and would like to try soy bean drinks or a beer for a change. Or that if my whole darn life has become so regimented that the refrigerator can order me around, and I will be tracked while sitting on the toilet just in case I fall off, well, then, upon mature consideration, I’d rather be dead. So label me DNR, and let me pass with a modicum of dignity….

Luddite, I? Not at all. Quite to the contrary, I am a techie, and a pretty die-hard techie at that. I believe firmly that smart house technology will continue to be an important part of new house design and construction, that it will be part of home renovation markets, that it will provide new and amazing services to the home owner, and that it will continue to evolve with the Internet and other networking technologies. I like the smart house. And I am building my own version in Upstate New York. It is called “e-House” and will have all sorts of smart technologies, but—and herein lies the rub—they are not based on convenience.

Like the power plants and manufacturing assembly lines, the e-House is based on that good old business model war-horse, efficiency. Energy efficiency is the raison d’être of the thing., but it doesn’t stop there. Home repairs are anticipated and called-in before they become critical. The pathway to my door has a snow melt system that turns itself on when snow is first predicted so that snow and ice can never accumulate. Power failures are a thing of the past because an uninterruptible power system (UPS) sits watching the house. Load-shedding software makes sure that big, energy hog appliances (bossy refrigerators and computer monitors) can’t draw-down the back-up systems. My water quality is monitored. And the blinds are raised because here comes a big batch of passive solar sunlight at the first crack of dawn, and we can use that to light the house and warm the floors.

The key words here are, once again, whole house integration, but with a sort of vengeance. The e-House project began as a website (www.e-house.us), a place where the building was designed, where fabulous sustainable technologies were evaluated and designed-in, and where the building morphed into a structure that maximized its potential efficiencies and wonderments before ground was broken. A 3-dimensional blueprint for the future. This was not about integration of the control systems within themselves, but integration of the control systems into the building design and vice versa. It was as if the house could both breathe and monitor its own breathing for maximum well-being.

In e-House, the building knows when to raise the blinds, not because its easier, but in order to catch the rising sun. And the special two-stories-high windows that hold the blinds face east-southeast to capture those precious first rays, and because you need to jump-start the solar warming cycle first thing in the morning. If the super-efficient fireplace warms the great room, the radiant heat zone there will tamp itself down automatically. And if the thermal solar collectors are making more hot water than the house can use, the excess will be routed to a special storage area that holds hot water for showers, heat for snow melt, or heat exchange for air conditioning. Sensors will monitor indoor air quality, humidity, condensation, and other health and well-being criteria, then adjust the air flow and filtration levels accordingly. Outdoor fresh air, when it is fresh enough, will be circulated. The original website continues, now as a data collection site, and a place to check-in and see if everything is as it should be.

In essence, the smart house is also a healthy house: a smart place to be. It will save you operating costs. It will never have sick building syndrome. It will water the plants when no one is around. You can still listen to the audio system in every room, but you can also turn-on the dishwasher from Tokyo, and know that if a circuit-breaker pops or the power lines snap under the strain of an ice storm, the refrigerator will still be running.

Sound far-fetched? All of the hardware and software you need to construct these systems, to make a really smart house, a building that works like a money grubbing, self-regulating, comfort addicted, integrated organism, already exist. You can find the technology on the Internet (I did and with relative ease). You can purchase it with a credit card and have it overnighted to an address of your choosing. And the technology is relatively “bulletproof” because it has been out there running big structures and systems for years. Some of it even updates and repairs itself. The next phase of smart building is, in essence, very adult, lying around waiting to be picked up and made use of.

So the question might be, if all the technology we need is out there, it is really the house that needs to get smart?

Where to Buy

The Smart House cover
The Smart House