Home Smart Home

Electronic controllers are creating high-tech houses that do everything but tuck you in at night (though they will turn off the lights)
| By Daren Fonda | From Laurence Fishburne, Jan/Feb 00

Most mornings, Jerry Rich follows a routine his house knows well. As the sun rises over the cornfields on his Illinois estate, the 60-year-old executive and computer systems engineer heads for a workout in his huge exercise room. Dubbed "The Lagoon" for its indoor pool, Jacuzzi and miniature waterfalls, the room prepares for his arrival. It knows he likes the room a temperate 68 degrees and has preheated itself accordingly. Its electronic brain has been programmed to tune the TV to CNBC, his choice for stock quotes. The high hats in the ceiling illuminate to 75 percent, as Rich prefers a subdued dawn scene. The pool's temperature rises to 70 degrees and the waterfalls start cascading. The Lagoon, in effect, knows that Rich likes watching the falls while he exercises, but will shut them down when he leaves.  

Programmable rooms aren't uncommon in Rich's house. If any dwelling resembles what the French architect Le Corbusier called a "machine for living in," it is this two-story rambler. Situated on a 3,000-acre estate outside Chicago, it serves as both a private residence and showcase for TronArch, its electronic management system. At 53,000 square feet, the home is the size of a small hotel: big enough for an exotic car museum, full-size carousel and 15-seat home theater. TronArch governs everything from the house's climate and alarm system to its TVs, stereo systems, appliances and more than 400 lights. Linking it all together is a web of high-grade cables, electrical wires and sensors embedded in the windows, walls and floors.  

Wall-mounted touch screens allow occupants to program rooms to their liking: lights can be timed, temperatures set, music or movies selected--all at their fingertips.   "This isn't 'The Jetsons,' " says Keith Rich, Jerry's son and president and chief executive officer of I.S.R., the company that designed TronArch for the Pavilion, as the house is known. "But it's the smartest home control system you'll find today."   What it does, he says, is make a home "think" for its residents.

A "bedtime" routine, for instance, might include closing the blinds, setting the alarm, heating a bath and switching the TV channel to the news. In a guest room, tapping the touch screen's "snack" icon will light a path to the kitchen late at night. A "romance" button might close the draperies, dim the lights and pipe Bolèro through speakers in the walls. Pressing the "dog-walk" icon could deactivate a backdoor alarm and shine a path to the kennel. Tapping the "away" icon locks the house down like a fortress.  

"With TronArch," says Keith Rich, "you never have to worry about whether it's dark out, it's cold, or ask questions like: Did I close the garage door? Did I close the gates? The system is like your home psychologist." Whatever your house's "problems," TronArch is designed to solve them, he says. With light and temperature sensors strategically placed around the home's perimeter and tied into its computer network, the house automatically adjusts for seasonal changes.

And when residents do want to change the settings, they can do so, even from a distance, via a telephone and PC. (The system's Pentium-based computers run on the Internet protocol, allowing residents to dial into the house's management system.) Vacationing homeowners might call to disarm the security system for a maintenance worker, for example, or they could time classical music to turn on for their arrival.  

The younger Rich hesitates to put a price tag on all this convenience. The system, he explains, is customized for every house, with I.S.R.'s engineers typically spending weeks learning clients' living habits before configuring the software to match their routines. That said, on a $10 million to $30 million house, installing TronArch could add between $350,000 to $4 million to construction costs, depending on the project.

"Only a few thousand homes in the country warrant our service," says Rich. Indeed, as an industrial-grade system--installed in buildings such as Chicago's Union Square Station--TronArch is ideally suited for homes larger than 10,000 square feet. With sensors embedded in electrical appliances, windows and floors, a TronArch-equipped house can literally communicate with itself--a major advantage in a large home, where feedback gives assurance that the lights at the other end of the house have actually shut down when commanded.  

TronArch has been called the Rolls-Royce of home control systems. But adding brain power to your house needn't cost a fortune. In the past few years, the home automation industry has developed a number of products that, for less than $5,000, can transform even the lowest-tech houses into semblances of computerized Xanadus. More than 50 automation systems are available, ranging from $100 software that can turn your computer into a nerve center for the entire house to $20,000-plus models such as the Home Boss, which coordinates systems from lawn sprinklers to climate controls.  

Americans spent an estimated $727 million on central home controllers in the past two years, according to Parks Associates, a Dallas research firm. And more than 300,000 new homes were fitted with electronic butlers in that time. So far, less than 1 percent of U.S. homes have been fully automated, says Parks. But the figure is expected to double by 2005, and with prices falling and the technology advancing, the industry is betting that home automation will be part of standard architectural planning within a few decades.  

For now, most "smart homes" (as the industry calls them) remain comparatively dumb. Even systems like TronArch can't recommend what groceries you need or if your walls could use replastering. Not that anyone would necessarily want a house that brainy. Just think of Ray Bradbury's short story "There Will Come Soft Rains" in The Martian Chronicles, and the smart-home idea starts to sound like a science fiction nightmare. Bradbury describes a house that continues serving meals and cleaning floors long after its residents have died. Luddites can rest assured, though: today's so-called intelligent homes are benign creatures, humble servants dedicated to alleviating drudgery.  

What does a typical automated home look like? In some ways, not that different from Jerry Rich's mansion, albeit on a smaller scale. Peggy and Clark Graham of Mobile, Alabama, installed a Vantage Vision system when they remodeled their 6,500-square-foot ranch house in 1997. The home's brain is a control panel in the utility closet, which links all its "subsystems"--the air conditioning, lighting and security--and distributes commands to and from wall-mounted keypads in various rooms. The Grahams use the keypads to set lighting and to control their audio/video sources, draperies and storm shutters, and other appliances. Hitting the "sleep" button in their master bedroom arms the outdoor security system and shuts off all unnecessary lights.

The "projector" button in the bedroom pulls down a 100-inch screen, dims the lights, closes the curtains and starts the video projector, mounted in the canopy above their bed. After dark, motion detectors in the driveway trigger the kitchen lights, which are programmed to turn on when the couple enters. Pressing a panic button will set off flashing lights in every room and alert the Grahams' security company.   But for all its high-tech wizardry, an automated home should still look like a home. "The idea is to keep the house as normal-looking as possible," says Mike Esposito, a Vantage installer in Pleasantville, New York. "You don't want to have the screens everywhere, because that scares people."

Installing a Vantage controller for the whole house could cost more than $40,000 if walls and floors need to be opened to route through sensors and electrical cables. But the system's main attraction--its high level of automation--is also its Achilles' heel. If the system crashes or you decide you don't like a preprogrammed "scene," your installation guru will have to make the repairs or adjustments. Unlike TronArch, Vantage's software is inaccessible to homeowners, and a professional installer is probably the only one (unless you're an engineering genius) who'll understand how the system works.  

Less complex, and a lot cheaper, is turning your PC into a home manager. One funky system, a real-life version of HAL--the computer that goes berserk in 2001: A Space Odyssey--can network your house into a virtual spaceship. Like its cheeky film cousin, the HAL 2000 system operates through voice commands: you hook it up to your PC and modem, then issue commands from microphones anywhere in the house. HAL is programmed to understand spoken phrases such as "turn bathroom lights on" and can link thermostats, security sensors and other electronic appliances. You can also phone HAL and ask it to retrieve e-mail, stock reports and Internet data.  

Unless your PC turns evil and decides to play homewrecker, HAL probably won't run amok; it simply isn't brainy enough. In industry language, HAL is a "retrofit" system, making use of the house's existing electrical wiring to send commands between appliances and subsystems.

Automating lights or timing the coffee to start percolating when the alarm clock rings is simple: you plug in a module (available from Radio Shack under the "plugn power" label or directly from X-10, the manufacturer, at www.x10.com) between the appliance and the wall and then send on/off commands from a transmitter or wireless remote via radio frequency, infrared network or power lines. Timing the porch lights to come on at night or setting the thermostat back to save energy during the day are common applications.

You can also network the modules using PC software. With X-10's ActiveHome program, homeowners can write scripts for their houses to act out: opening the garage door could disarm the security system, trigger indoor lights and start music on a CD player. IBM's Home Director software features a "lifestyle" function that learns the way lights and appliances are used and can replay the same patterns, making the home look occupied when residents are away.  

Today, more than 5 million homes contain at least one X-10 module, usually for remote-controlled lighting or timed thermostats. But turning your house into an intelligent machine will require more advanced circuitry. "Right now, we don't have smart houses," says Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future, a California think tank. "What we have are smart archipelagos or islands of automation. We're still slouching toward the ambitious home."  

The problem, say Saffo and other industry experts, is that we live in electronic Towers of Babel. Appliances, from your air conditioner to TV, all speak different languages. Until your clothes dryer can beam a signal to your TV, for example, informing you with a little icon that your laundry's done, your house won't be smart by most measures. Homes prewired with a central controller can work around that problem--given skilled software--but appliances incompatible with the systems' communications protocol will remain out of the loop.  

One solution would be for manufacturers to adopt a universal standard so all of your house's appliances and subsystems could communicate. But that hasn't happened, despite the development of several promising technologies. The so-called CEBus standard, developed by a consortium of consumer electronic companies, and its rival, LonWorks, made by the Echelon company, are locked in a VHS-versus-Betamax-type pre-market war. "They're both good systems," says industry analyst Tricia Parks. "But neither one has reached a critical mass." When that happens, she says, houses will really get smart.  

"The degree of external information waiting to get into our homes is immense," Parks says. Imagine, she says, that your house could receive local weather broadcasts. The sprinklers would know not to turn on if it's raining. If there's a fire, thermostats will sense excess heat, but instead of activating the air conditioners or fans, it will shut them down. Your house will also know how to manage energy. Utility companies are already experimenting with "real-time" pricing--offering discounts for power use during nonpeak hours. When energy prices are lowest, your electricity meter will instruct your washing machine that it's time to turn on.  

"Homes of the future will have a neurological system with distributed nerves like our bodies," predicts Chris Luebkeman, professor of architecture and building technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The home will react in ways which are completely subconscious." Along with Kent Larson, a research scientist with the school's architecture department, Luebkeman and a team of MIT designers are already designing prototypes. In these homes, he explains, "walls will know they're walls; the house will know if it has a leak, just like your body knows when it's wounded." Microprocessors and sensors will be embedded in structural elements from the foundation to the roof shingles, distributing intelligence throughout the home. You might wear sensors like jewelry that can monitor your body temperature and communicate with the home's climate control system to maintain a certain comfort level.

The house could also be linked to the National Weather Service. If a storm is forecast, the home could automatically close the shutters to protect itself. It would check all the windows and doors to make sure they're shut and send you a signal at work, notifying you to stock up on candles and other provisions. In the kitchen, flat screens will be embedded in cabinets and connected to the Internet. Sensors might tell the computer what groceries you have and send the information to a recipes Web site; you'll then see a video showing five meals to make with the food you've got at home.   Your house will be plugged in, turned on and wired like a finely calibrated machine. "This will be as radical a change to American living as the introduction of the automobile," predicts Luebkeman.  

No one knows when we'll move into these computerized pods. Technological advances found in futuristic houses of the past have had a hit or miss track record of acceptance by the American public. Still, the idea of the smart home is nothing new. Architectural historians date it to the nineteenth century, citing Thomas Jefferson's 33-room mansion, Monticello, as the nation's first "intelligent home."   Completed in 1809, the house was designed by Jefferson "with an eye toward convenience," integrating a number of then-cutting edge technologies. A chain beneath the floor operates automatic double doors opening onto the parlor. Double-glazed storm windows were installed for insulation.

There are light-maximizing mirrors and space-saving alcove beds. Dumbwaiters, built into the fireplace, connect the wine cellar to the dining room directly above it. Slaves could bring in food through underground passageways and place hot plates on shelves built on a revolving door. In his bedroom, Jefferson installed a "turning machine," a device for hanging clothes. He placed a weather vane atop the east portico and connected it to a compass, enabling him to gauge wind direction from the entrance halls. His dual-faced calendar clock, hanging above the main entrance from an 18 1/2-foot-high ceiling, chimed a gong on the roof every hour, while its cannonball-sized weights along the wall served as markers for the days of the week.  

This century's visionary dwellings expanded Jefferson's ideal of comfort and convenience, sometimes to comical effect. In 1922, Buster Keaton tapped the idea for his two-reel film The Electric House. Asked to install electricity in his college dean's home, Keaton winds up in a house with a will of its own: stairs move uncontrollably, a tub slides on tracks from the bathroom to the bedroom, and double doors nearly decapitate him. The kitchen features machines that are supposed to wash, rinse, dry and put dishes back on the shelf but predictably go haywire. Outside, a pool drains and fills seemingly at will.  

Hollywood aside, by the 1930s American companies were designing futuristic homes to showcase new products. In 1934, Westinghouse Electric's Home of Tomorrow featured a host of conveniences--central air conditioning, an intercom system and electric garage door opener--that heralded the domestic technology revolution of the 1950s. Not all the home's gadgetry, though, was successful. Its automatic double doors, which connected the pantry and dining room, never found a market. Its kitchen, with an electrically heated serving wagon and a self-cleaning garbage disposal, would remain an oddity.

That same year at the Century of Progress Exhibition, another house of tomorrow featured a hangar (one of the architects, George Keck, believed that everyone would fly personal planes in the future). The house also had living room walls made of polished plate glass for easy cleaning and a built-in aquarium in the children's room--a hit at the exhibition.  

More techno-homes followed after the Second World War, though few would be considered livable. Some, like Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Dwelling Machine, resembled tinny space pods, with Plexiglass windows, aluminum walls and a rooftop ventilator whose rotating fins supplied a continuous stream of fresh air. As Fortune magazine observed at the time: "When you go into the house it feels as if you had walked into the twentieth century." There were a few old-time holdovers, however. In a nod to Jefferson's clothes-turning machine, the Dymaxion's closets featured rotating clothing and shoe racks.  

Fuller's Dymaxion machines never caught on, despite the promise of cheap construction and sophisticated technology. Americans may have found them too outlandish for everyday living. Contemporary homes of tomorrow, however, suggest a finer balance of the futuristic and traditional, evident in a recent project in Coppell, Texas.  

Jointly constructed by Centex Homes, Builder and Home magazines, and B3 Architects + Planners, the 4,073-square-foot home resembles a miniature family village--with separate wings for adults and children, casitas flanking a courtyard and two 25-foot-high turrets that anchor the residence like a medieval fortress. Despite the heavy Old World styling, however, the home is thoroughly modern. A centralized controller governs its lighting, climate, alarms and audio/video feeds. The home's energy management system is also state-of-the-art. Photovoltaic shingles on the roof provide about 12 percent of the house's power.

The shingles collect enough solar energy to run an entire circuit of the house, including its computers and security equipment, and serve as a backup in case of power failure. A geothermal system uses the earth's constant temperature for energy-efficient heating in winter and cooling in summer. Triple-glazed windows, filled with insulating gases, improve the house's overall energy efficiency. The great room boasts movable walls. In the second-floor turret, kids can play in a spaceship-styled playroom. Overall, more than three and a half miles of wiring can accommodate 24 locations for computer equipment. And the home will be outfitted with fiber-optic cable for super-fast Internet connections.  

Without question, though, the smartest house on the block still belongs to the world's wealthiest man, Bill Gates. Built into a hillside in Medina, Washington, with a living space of about 20,000 square feet, the home ranks in grandeur with some of this century's most spectacular residences. (With respect to the spirit of technological innovation, Gates himself compares his dwelling with newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst Sr.'s 165-room mansion in San Simeon, California, which featured such extravagant conveniences--for the time--as telephones in almost every room.)

Among the Gates estate's more impressive features: a 30-car underground garage tunneled into the hill; a reception hall with 24 video screens to display changing artwork, as well as news and business information; a 60-foot indoor pool with an underwater music system; two elevators; a movie theater; a 25-foot-high trampoline room; a practice putting green; and a trout spawning area.  

In the Gates residence, more than 100 computers guide everything from the lights and climate controls to the security system. (But not without occasional glitches, according to some reports.) The house continually runs diagnostic tests on itself, pinpointing areas that need upgrading or repair. When occupants receive a phone call, only the handset closest to them will ring.

At night, when residents walk down a hallway, the lights come on and then darken behind them. Music and video choices are available on demand in any room. The house's most Big Brotherish feature, however, was its people-tracking system: upon entering, guests were reportedly given an electronic pin that can track and monitor their movements anywhere in the compound. With these miniature bugs, your music, movie or art choices can follow you to any room. Ideally, the house is supposed to adapt to your preferences and store information about your tastes for future reference.

Since that time, the pin idea has reportedly been scrapped. Even so, few doubt that computers will eventually guide our homes, much as they already govern our automobiles' brakes or ignition systems. By then, it's a good bet that today's smart-home technology--even Gates's--will seem primitive. Our dwellings should finally function like the home machines Le Corbusier once dreamed of.

Daren Fonda is a freelance writer based in New York City.