Being Smart About Smart Homes

Regardless of how slowly smart home technology is taking hold, its eventual acceptance is inevitable

May 1, 2018
Smart Home Technology

In 1984, the NAHB National Research Center hosted a seminar for manufacturers, trade associations, and government agencies to pitch a new and exciting idea for what it was calling a smart home. 

Shortly thereafter, a number of the attending companies joined a consortium they called Smart House and worked together to create an exhibit at the 1986 NAHB International Builders’ Show in Dallas. According to a 1988 article in Popular Mechanics, the exhibit, which cost about a half million dollars, consisted of two vans on the show floor, one each for gas and electric appliances, which were set up to show what the smart house concept was all about. The demos were a big hit. The Research Center conjectured that there would be 5,000 smart houses by 1987, and although that number may have been more than a bit overambitious, the ball was rolling. (Photo: picjumbo via Pexels)

In 1987, the NAHB Research Center started work on one house, a laboratory house at its Bowie, Md., campus. That same year, Honeywell, already a leader in heating, cooling, lighting, and security systems, began conducting smart house research, development, and testing in its company facility in Golden Valley, Minn., in conjunction with engineers from AT&T, Square D, and other companies. Twenty prototype homes were scheduled to be built in 1989, with 50 to 150 more demonstration homes online for 1990. The goals for these homes included safety, such as detecting gas and water leaks; convenience, as in cabling that provides a single outlet for power and communications; and economy, like taking maximum advantage of off-peak electricity rates. A Smart House public affairs director predicted that 50 percent of all new homes built in 1995 to 1997 would be smart homes.

An article in the Chicago Tribune in 1991 painted this rosy picture of a smart home: “Picture it lighting your path to the bathroom in the morning while it opens the curtains, starts the coffee and fills your tub at just the right temperature. In the evening you buzz from your car phone and have the house select some good music, turn up the thermostat and switch on the pot roast.” These goals were somewhat different from the earlier, more utilitarian ones, but a spokeswoman from Smart House said that they should start to become reality in 12 to 18 months. Eight years later, as tech entrepreneur Andrew Weinreich tells us in his well-researched podcast “Predicting Our Future: The Future of the Smart Home,” Microsoft was still waxing poetic on the possibilities, but not the realities, offered by smart home technology, including the ability to unlock the front door for a homeowner based on a retina scan. 

When reading these stories written over the years about smart home technology, the possibilities seem almost limitless. But, nearly 35 years after that first symposium on the subject, the industry isn’t even close to executing them for more than a handful of homeowners. Our own take on the subject, “Play Ahead,” reports that a study by Houzz says learning thermostats such as Nest, the most commonly purchased smart home device, have made it into just 13 percent of homes with a broadband connection, and that over a third of homeowners “just aren’t interested” in connected devices. And if homebuyers are interested in having them in their homes, they don’t want to pay for them.

So why bother trying to figure out what and how to offer smart home technology to your buyers? Because regardless of how slowly it is taking hold, its eventual acceptance is inevitable, and it’s your job to make sure your homes are not obsolete right from the start. It will be worth your while to take a look at a few of the lessons learned by some of the country’s biggest builders and see what you can implement in your homes that will, at the very least, offer a base that buyers can build from as the technology progresses over time.

editorial director

Denise Dersin, editorial director of Professional Builder, Custom Builder, PRODUCTS, NKBA Innovation+Inspiration, and co-editor of Multifamily Design+Construction, has been in publishing as an editor and writer for 30 years and has worked in the housing industry for much of that time.

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