This is the first of a series on the Smart Home I wrote for the Mother Nature Network on smart homes, back in January, 2015.
Everybody’s talking about the Internet of Things, about the smart home, about how your smart meter will know if your refrigerator is running. Everyone is saying that 2015 is the year of the wearables, with our watches talking to our phones, which can talk with our lightbulbs and thermostats. Those watches can even talk to our insurance companies, telling them how much exercise we're getting; who knows what information they will be exchanging soon.
Really, there's no limit to the imagination of people trying to connect things to the Internet; some are silly, some are counterproductive, some are invasive and some are going to make a real difference in the way we live.
The fundamental point of this is to make our lives easier, our homes more comfortable and our energy bills lower. But where does the smart money go in the smart home?
A great example of the quandary is the Nest thermostat, the first product from a company that Google bought last year for $3 billion. The Nest is supposed to save you money because it's smart enough to learn your habits and preferences, meaning it heats or cools to your desired temperature when you're in the room. But what if the temperature of your home rarely changes? For instance, in a Passivhaus, or Passive House, there is so much insulation and such high-quality windows that the temperature doesn’t budge. A smart thermostat would be bored stupid; it would have nothing to do. In fact, a smart thermostat works best in a leaky house where the furnace or the air conditioning needs to run all the time, and it would still not be effective. The temperature of the air is just one factor in what makes us comfortable. Your body absorbs or radiates heat from the surrounding surfaces — the walls matter as much as the thermostat setting, explains Robert Bean, an engineering consultant with Healthy Heating.
“The less efficient a building, the greater the temperature difference between your skin and the temperatures of the walls, windows, doors, floors and ceiling," Bean says. "It is the temperature differences between you and the building which causes discomfort.”
So really, the real smarts should go into the house during the design and construction phase, building the house well enough that it barely needs heating or cooling. Things like siting the house to take advantage of the warmth from the sun or the shade from the trees is also important. Sweating the details on the plans to get the most use out of a smaller space for more efficient living while conserving resources will be time well-spent.
It goes even further back than that, to the smart tools and smart materials that are changing the way we build. For example, in America the young architectural firm The Living is building towers out of bricks made from mushrooms. They are growing building materials and using computers to determine the complex forms. (The firm was recently bought by Autodesk, by the way.)
Facit blocks are created on-site via computer. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)In the United Kingdom, Facit Homes is sending instructions from its computers to computer-controlled routers on site to create instant plywood flatpack houses.
All the new smart technology going into our homes should be making us think about how we build them, for it changes far more rapidly than the houses themselves. A properly built house might survive hundreds of years, but the plumbing and electrical systems might last only 50 years. So all of our new LED bulbs, computers and phones run on low-voltage DC current and need wall warts, transformers and rectifiers to connect to AC electric wiring designed for the appliances and fixtures of 100 years ago — a huge waste of money, resources and efficiency.
A really smart home would be designed to be flexible, recognizing that things change and it has to adapt. In Vermont, Tedd Benson practices what he calls Open Building, where the whole house is designed so that you can get at the wiring and the plumbing and change it as required. Ceiling and wall panels are removable, wiring runs behind removable baseboards. The frame of the house might last 500 years, but everything else can be removed and replaced and upgraded. If Benson wants to install a new 5-volt DC USB 4.1 wiring system to run all his lights and electronics, he can do it in a weekend. He can pay for it by pulling out and recycling the copper from the old system, which was designed for disassembly.
A smart home’s basic plan would be adaptable, able to change through all of life’s cycles and go from single to multi-family as needed.
A rabbi once said "My life has been blessed, because I never knew I needed anything until I had it." That's what it's like in this age of the Internet of things, and what is so exciting about the smart revolution. We have no idea where it's going to take us, what our cities and homes will be like, how it will change the way we live. It never works out the way we think it's going to. Here's an example:
When the electric motor was invented, it was intended as a replacement for the steam engine, which worked best when it was big. So factories were built vertically so all the machines could be powered by leather belts that ran back to one big machine. Big motors powered streetcars and subways and elevators and led to the development of skyscrapers and apartment buildings and new dense urban patterns like the streetcar suburb, where everyone could walk to the streetcar.
Then the small cheap electric motor changed everything, giving power to small appliances, sewing machines, vacuum cleaners, lathes and drills and saws and making electric power useful everywhere. This — as much as the automobile — made the 20th century happen the way it did. It made factories horizontal and as much as the car did, it made suburban horizontal living possible. (Try heating a horizontal house without a fan or a pump. Heat rises, but it doesn’t go sideways.)
We are at the beginning of a new era. In about the time it took to go from the big electric motor to the little one, we have gone from the big computer to the cheap and omnipresent one that can be put into anything. Nobody knows how it's going to work or what it's going to do, but it's going to be quite a ride.