Smart home technology is becoming ubiquitous: According to GfK, a global market research company, more than one-third of U.S. consumers own two or more smart home devices. We’ve come a long way in a few years since the first smart home technology was introduced. Now, homebuyers seek a more sophisticated home technology platform and have been conditioned to a fast-moving, two-year update cycle by the cell phone industry.
Yet unlike cell phones, smart home technology is hardwired into the walls. Not an easy exchange, when the homebuyer sees a better retail solution and starts longing for the next, best, more user-friendly technology.
Right now, consumer use is all over the map. Homeowners lose interest in some technologies in a matter of months, and with others, like speakers and Google Home, usage doesn’t pick up until after the homeowner has had it installed for six months, according to Brad Russell, research director of connected home at Parks Associates, a market research company focused on emerging consumer technology. And, at the same time that many technologies have super short life spans, it can take home builders months to select and specify the right product to put in new construction, which is becoming a much more painstaking process with the necessary integration of many of the smart home features.
This balance is becoming more and more uneven as manufacturers and builders play a tug of war on value versus cost structure. When some smart home technology was first launched, the hardware was installed, the software was static and its relevancy to the consumer lasted sometimes only a matter of months. Recently manufacturers have advanced to have the software updated routinely via the cloud, which solves for only a portion of the issue, when and if the hardware becomes obsolete.
Karen Hollinger, vice president of corporate initiatives at AvalonBay Communities, a multifamily housing developer that built 2,600 units in 2017, says they take a very judicious and risk-averse approach to adding technology to their projects by only selecting established products. Hollinger says Avalon has invested in Nest thermostats for several thousand units, but that software will be supported for 20 years.
And I’m dumbfounded. Twenty years? Look at the evolution of iPhones in just 11 years, how can we believe that a 20-year service agreement makes good business sense?
“We start off by bringing our low voltage consultants and low voltage subcontractors on board to help us design and price these systems into our projects,” says Bill Greene, vice president of design management at JPI, a Texas-based multifamily development company that built 2,800 units last year. “We also rely on them to show us the latest technology at the time of design. But because this technology changes so rapidly, what we select during design can be outdated by the time these products are installed so we are constantly updating the scope during the design and construction process.”
Because not only is it nearly certain that the parts and pieces will evolve, it’s also inevitable that consumer preferences will change enough to revamp the product. For instance, locks used to be solely to keep people out. But, as Hollinger points out, on her properties enabled with smart lock technology, locks are now meant to let the right people in at the right time. Today’s lifestyle demands for the convenience of not being home, yet having the luxury of inviting in dog walkers, food delivery and cleaners.
So, after the relatively short-lived initial phase of being enamored with smart home technology, the buyer then starts eying what is available on retail shelves. Techie home owners would want to start considering updates and shopping for not only the new, advanced hardware, but the new service agreements, making sure the integration plan works with the technology infrastructure that’s already installed in their home.
But, is this model sustainable? If driven by consumer demand, won’t consumers not only be ready to have a system that lasts for the average 10 years that they stay in their home, according to the National Association of Realtors?
WZMH Architects may be on the cusp of a future solution. The firm is collaborating with Microsoft’s IoT labs to continue engineering a new smart building solution, called the Intelligent Structural Panel. ISP is plug-and-play infrastructure that creates a network for devices in the home, including lighting, heating, air conditioning and security. The system also gathers and analyzes data from the surroundings to have the ability to intuitively react to changes in the environment, including: movement, touch, sound, sunlight and room temperature.
“The goal in creating the ISP panel is more about integrating technology into the fabric of a building and creating a ‘common highway’ within this fabric, that includes plug and play ports, to allow the connection of an unlimited number of devices,” says Zenon Radewych, principal at WZMH Architects. “The solution is also vendor neutral and allows any device to be connected. Once connected to this ‘highway’, all devices can then be programmed to be smart, talk to each other, and utilize AI. So, the ISP panel is not limited to technologies that may be state of the art today, and obsolete tomorrow.”
The ISP panel also leverages the intelligence of all its connected devices and the data that their sensors accumulate. With that data, the space becomes truly ‘smart,’ more user friendly, safe, energy efficient and provides an overall higher quality of ‘wellness.’ Radewych points out that the universal port on the ISP allows for total future flexibility to add any device at any time without running new conduit or revising any other element of the design.
As the web of consumer demand, manufacturer capability and home builder risk continues to tangle and evolve, innovation and new solutions will evolve out of necessity. Incorporating technology into the most personal spaces we have—our homes—will require completely new paradigms of thought, models that are evolving in front of our eyes.