The first time I shared this essay, it was self-defeatedly titled “The Not-So-Smart Home.” I was immeasurably frustrated with home integration strategies and had become convinced that the promise of a truly ‘smart home’ was unattainable, and the effort to make technology behave was more troublesome than beneficial. From a building technology perspective, labor-saving strategies have changed the way we live. Imagine the 1898 Paris World’s Fair (Fourth Exposition Universelle) that brought together Bell’s telephone, Edison’s light bulb, Otis’ elevator and gave Eiffel’s tower to Paris and the world. The “House of Tomorrow” refers to George Fred Keck’s glass and steel house installed at the Second Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. The home featured central air conditioning, the first dishwasher by General Electric, an ‘iceless’ refrigerator and an automatic garage door operator. Just a few years later and closer to home in Queens, New York, the 1939 World’s Fair theme was “Building the World of Tomorrow” including a competition to design the “Home of the Future.” Most notable was opening day at the RCA pavilion with its first public demonstration of the television – a live broadcast of a speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Baby boomers fondly recall the Jetsons and their otherworldly romanticization of the automated home. While the 1960’s appliance ads of the “Mad Men” era look quaint and stereotypical today, albeit in a most misogynistic manner, they document the enthusiasm for simplicity attained through technological innovation. Coming of age as an architect in the digital 90’s when technology integration and the smart home were no longer the province of science fiction made for fits and starts. The highs and lows began for us when the first plasma screen televisions arrived, at a system cost of $20,000 apiece. Once the television was affixed to the wall and was no longer concealed in millwork or an antique armoire, we sought ways to hide the equipment. Centralizing AV systems was challenging for both television and music. For large apartments and homes, we installed columns of cable boxes on custom racks in a closet with fans whirring twenty-four-seven to keep them cool. For whole-house music, we went in a few years from 500 compact disc shufflers to designated and expensive digital servers, all to accomplish what an iPhone does today with elegance and simplicity. Speakers were all hard-wired and often permanently installed in-wall. Along with all the AV wiring came the need for programmed universal remotes. Nothing frustrated homeowners more than a basket of remotes with Post-It Notes describing which buttons on which remotes needed to be pressed in which order. Couldn’t there be just one remote to control music and television. The answer was always “that is just an issue of programming.” The problem was every time there was a glitch, the programmer had to come out to the home to assess and to re-program. Predictably, the consultant would attribute the glitch on a faulty piece of equipment or worse, would blame the owner for pressing the wrong buttons too impatiently. Once this had occurred a few times, the homeowner usually became frustrated at the bugs and started to look for simpler work-arounds. Sometimes we replaced the consultant, although this was very hard to do considering the proprietary codes, and as a result, programming-intensive pieces of equipment became abandoned.
The digital age brought many new opportunities. We could control the lights and shades, and the heating and air-conditioning systems, too. Nothing is more compelling than watching a living room transform itself at the touch of a button to a Hollywood quality screening room. Unfortunately, these integrated systems often failed to work smoothly and were challenging to service over long periods of time. The final nail in the coffin for me came when we would visit friends and clients in their homes, and upon taking note of all of the expensive yet non-functioning technology, began to refer to them dismissively as “technology museums.” In an effort to help friends and clients not repeat the sins of the past, we started to humorously refer to ourselves as “dis-integration advisers”.
And now, I can mark the precise day that I have changed my mind. The day was June 24, 2021, and we had spent the morning with clients in appliance showrooms learning about steam ovens, ice makers, and an induction wok. As for the wok, you ‘have to see it to believe it.’ The pan doesn’t make contact with the cooktop surface, yet still ‘inducts’ to an otherworldly 31,000 equivalent btu’s, twice the output of a conventional high-output gas burner.
Our last appointment was with Lutron for a demonstration of their new Ketra lighting system. Similar to audio-visual centralization, we have been working for years to transition from conventional lighting solutions to LED. When we first started utilizing LEDs (light emitting diodes), we had two primary paths. The first was to install new LED bulbs in conventional line voltage fixtures, and the second was to specify and install new LED fixtures with their ‘chips on board.’ From roughly 2010 to 2015, we thought the bulb replacement approach was preferential as we could purchase and install new bulbs as offerings improved. In reality, neither approach worked well when we were began to convert. Color and hues were inconsistent, lights flickered and strobed, dimming was problematic and when all else succeeded, fixtures and dimmers buzzed. Some of these challenges were easy to solve, others persisted, and until the June 2021 presentation, I was convinced that whole-house lighting control was as problematic as centralized AV.
What I saw in the Lutron showroom made me just as excited as the Paris Exposition visitor must have felt at seeing Edison’s lights, or of hearing Bell’s voice, or of beholding the Eiffel Tower. As the lighting changed from day to night and back again, it was as if I were enjoying a light installation by James Turrell. I was overcome by optimism that lighting design could finally fulfill the promise of LED, and not just in a Sky Space, but in one’s home. On display, were lights that could dance. They could change color (endlessly) and dim to one percent (not forty). They didn’t strobe, flicker, or buzz. These groundbreaking fixtures are also more ‘tunable’ than others and the lights can be set to any color of the spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) and any color temperature from sunset to daylight. Better still, each fixture is ‘addressable,’ meaning they are controlled wirelessly and individually. This approach will reduce the number of individual wire runs by roughly fifty-percent or more, and will allow the decision of how to group lights to occur post-occupancy, as opposed to during the design and construction phases. While the fixtures themselves are expensive, some of the cost will be offset by the simplicity and efficiency of their wiring. As for the programming of these new fixtures, there will not be proprietary codes locked away in the audio-visual consultant’s safe, but rather will be programmed remotely by using the Lutron app and a laptop computer. I don’t believe many homeowners will undertake this task, but at least they won’t be at the mercy of a single consultant. I know this essay reads like a testimonial for one company, and maybe it should.
As for the house of tomorrow, Lutron and its new product Ketra, have truly helped me to see the light, and just a little more than usual, I find myself inspired and “Looking Forward.”