Looking Forward to Monday Morning
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
The Not So Smart Home
by Daniel Frisch
Posted October 29th, 2019

By the time you read this dispatch, some of the referenced technical details will already be obsolete – they are as I type. Home automation is ubiquitous and the pursuit of the smart home is universal. As architects, we love home technology and incorporate current technology in every project. In the last few years we’ve been inspired by LED lighting and the Samsung Frame television, not to mention Lutron Caseta and J Geiger winder shades. We have cooled a bit on Nest, but Sonos continues to dominate the distributed audio space. The Japanese have re-invented mini-split HVAC systems based on variable speed compressor technology and take advantage of this new technology at every opportunity. And finally, Warmboard has revolutionized hydronic radiant heat flooring.

I wrote the above catalog to defend the many claims that I am anti-tech, or as is often asserted, a Luddite. Notwithstanding our love of technology and all of the benefits, we are skeptical that technology is an answer onto itself. We’ve found that most new technology performs as advertised when the installation is limited to a single company’s product. Getting different technologies to communicate with one another can be a meaningful challenge. Ninety percent (plus) of the lighting we specify is now LED, and when the fixture itself is not an LED fixture, we usually re-lamp with LED bulbs. We can control lumens and color temperature, and can now even specify many fixtures with ambient dimming – by adding red diodes, the light output warms up as wattage is decreased, nearly perfectly simulating an incandescent bulb. The trouble comes when we try to control them, specifically as it pertains to dimming. Fixtures can buzz, flicker or strobe when the dimmers and fixtures are mismatched. When dimming problems occur, it is often difficult to determine whether the problem lies with the fixture, the bulb, or the dimmer with each manufacturer claiming the fault lies with others. Invariably, troubleshooting defaults to trial and error.

Relative to more complicated systems, lighting and lighting controls are akin to playing scales for a musician. HVAC systems become more sophisticated each year, and manufacturers supply thermostats and controls for their units. We’ve had good luck with Nest on simpler systems, but the more sophisticated multi-zone systems are better served by pairing with the manufacturer’s thermostat. HVAC is not made easier when humidification is desired. It’s not well suited to a multi zone system, and humidification is usually required when the AC system is dormant.

Whereas HVAC has become more sophisticated, but not necessarily simpler, low voltage systems have become both more sophisticated AND simpler. Sonos and Eero are both plug-and-play, and out perform generations of alternatives. Roku and Sling help us limit the tithing to local cable providers.

We exhaustively and enthusiastically incorporate technology in each and every one of our projects, not a bad report card for a firm led by a Luddite. We become hesitant, and even resistant, however, when we are asked to pursue the oft-hyped full-automation version referred to as the “smart home.” Whereas off-the-shelf applications works marvelously to control the various technologies of the modern home, efforts to integrate numerous technologies onto one platform can result in complexity and expense with only nominal benefit. Integrating systems to have them perform to the best of their capability invariable involves programing, which is usually no small endeavor. I have visions of building a closet in people’s homes for the programmer to reside. Less facetiously and more predictably, is the finger pointing that follows home automation integration. When a homeowner experiences a problem – invariably on the coldest day of the year when the heating won’t work, or on the hottest day of the year when the AC is failing, or even while the TV fails during the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards party – the usual suspects gather to blame each other for the problem. And this happens a few days after the party has ended or the cold snap/heat wave has broken. Can anything be more frustrating to a homeowner than the professionals they have hired, and to whom they have paid a king’s ransom, to play the blame game?

Our response is to stay current with technology, but to lobby for dis-integration and de-centralization. We think it is perfectly reasonable to mate one application on our phone with one system and to scroll through the aps sequentially. Troubleshooting is both easier and less necessary, and our homeowners can watch TV and listen to music in a clean well-lighted space with wonderful mood lighting – just not at the touch of a (single) button.

DF, 10-29-2019