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Smart Homes, a Beginner's Guide (Pt. 1)

What are smart homes? Are they homes that are outfitted with all the latest “tech” and gadgets? Are they homes that act as living organisms, capable of recognizing patterns, behaviors and changes? Or are they simply homes that are designed in a smarter way? And when we say “smart” what does that mean? Is it better for the environment? Cheaper? More efficient?

We’ll answer these questions in this new series exploring the intersection of technology and home design through the “Smart Home” typology. First question: what is a smart home?

Smart homes are, by definition, homes equipped with lighting, heating, and electronic devices that can be controlled remotely by phone or computer. They function using home automation technology - electronic or digital systems that are capable of controlling certains utilities and products. Usually this happens through applications on your phone, voice command, or artificial intelligence. The moniker “smart” is used to emphasize the fact that, with these technologies either inserted or integrated into the home, it becomes able to control itself with very minimal intervention on the user’s part.

I’d like to point out, too, that there are varying degrees of home “smartness”. Some homes are built as “smart” right from the get-go, meaning they are designed with smart home automations already integrated. The company RoomOS is an example of such an approach. “Electric locks are embedded into the door, sensors for humidity, temperature, and air quality are built into the walls, and HVAC controls are all digitally managed by RoomOS through either an iPad built into the home or with your smart phone. The whole building operates on a computer in the home, so it doesn’t rely on the cloud, and your data is stored locally.”

Other homes are “smartified”, meaning homeowners will add smart home automations gadgets after the home is built. These homes are referred to as “enabled homes” - they are transformed into being “smart”. Method Homes falls into this category; “Method Homes’s approach is to layer technology on top of the existing home’s systems, much like what you might do in a more traditionally built dwelling. However, it is all preinstalled and preconfigured to work together.”

Finally, some homes just have a couple gadgets included, like Alexa or Sonos, which don’t necessarily make the home a “smart home”, strictly speaking, but rather a home with “smart home” gadgets.

The first type of Smart Home - with the technology built into it - typically relies on prefabrication technology - a method of construction that consists of building and assembling components of a structure in a factory first, and then transporting those pieces to the site for final assemblage. It is cheaper and more efficient, because it reduces construction time and costs, and avoids any inconveniences that usually occur in traditional construction practices - such as disagreements amongst designers, delayed construction due to weather, or any other unexpected hiccups related to decision-making and cost.

IT sounds appealing, right? Who wouldn’t want to be able to open the front door from a mile away, turn the oven on or off when we’re in another room, or see what’s inside our fridge when we’re getting groceries? Indeed, the smart home “trend” or phenomenon, revolves around the idea that utilizing this technology will make your life easier, by streamlining day-to-day tasks.

But does it really work? Is it really worth investing in? What are the downsides to this type of intervention? These are tricky questions, which garner many dissenting views. By and large, the debate around Smart Homes is one of compromise, utility, and accessibility, as in, how much privacy are we willing to compromise on?, how useful or necessary are they really? And how accessible are they to those who have less means? We will explore these issues, along with questions regarding the prefabrication debate in the next article.


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