Living in a Smart House (Part 1)

eindhoven-smart-home.jpgIn 2010 I was invited to visit Eindhoven in The Netherlands. My accommodations for the visit was to stay in their new Smart Home developed with Phillips and other Dutch technologies. It was explained to me that I was the first tenant of this new, unique smart house and the data generated from my visit would help researchers in exploring the convergence of computing, communications and their new products in a unique residential environment. I would be a test case experiencing all levels of the new ubiquitous technologies in terms of tele-working, distance healthcare, tele-communicating, distance education, tele-shopping and entertaining in this unique residential ecosystem. The demonstration site would also generate data and reports during my visit, especially from an independent living perspective, with distance care-givers monitoring my health and activities while in the smart home. I would be monitored on how I coped with the smart home’s automation, communications, entertainment, education, health and security systems. Despite the many changes in technology since then, these are still the same key areas that smart houses would likely offer its tenants, today and into the future.

Every device and service I accessed created data about my stay. In the evening, when I stirred in bed, miniature sensors measured my movement. Today there are devices to measure sleep patterns, heartbeats, perspiration and other indicators that may be able to accurately monitor a person’s health without connecting wires to them while in bed. When I got out of the bed at night, there was a small set of LED lights that helped to direct me to the washroom or to other parts of the house along a heated tile floor. Today, lighting companies have integrated lighting not only to help as directional support and to provide light for dark rooms, but they also can be used to set the mood, change the color of the room and provide other lighting solutions for health and safety. I could view who was at the door from any location in the house and using an application on a smart home device, I could unlock the door from any location in the house. This is now a common application. You can even see who is at your door from halfway around the world. You can also set your thermostat, feed the cat, charge your electric car and wash your clothes from apps on your smartphone from halfway around the world. Through the Internet of Things applications, especially with the coming of 5G, many devices will be able to work behind the scenes and at long distance, from your refrigerator ordering fresh milk from your nearby grocer, to your entertainment system recording favorite live performances for your VR reviewer in your absence or while you sleep.

Smart houses also include solar panels, wind turbines and other features that can contribute to the smart grid in the community. Battery systems can also save the energy for use in the home later, allowing it to be off the grid. Some advanced smart home complexes may include bio-digesters which help to contribute to the environment by dealing with organic waste that could be directed to a water filtering system and aquifer thermal energy storage systems beneath your house, will help to heat and cool it throughout the year. Larger smart home complexes may even use vacuum systems, such as Enervac, to take the garbage directly from the source and send it to an energy from waste facility. The layout and architecture of the smart home can also be designed as a passive technology to aid in redirecting snow and wind; capturing rain for use in the garden; capturing sunlight through strategically locating windows; and insulating the smart home from severe weather through designing solid walls to face the predominate wind directions. Architects and interior designers will also be able to take advantage of advancements in materials, engineering and structural design to provide fantastic designs for smart homes.

smart-home-interior.jpgThe Smart Home in the Netherlands included many applications that were being tested as a pilot to help the elderly and other challenged, house-bound individuals, but it was also a major opportunity for Dutch vendors to learn from the demonstration site. The Big Data generated from products and services used in residential environments everywhere today are producing a wealth of information to be used in design improvements and for marketing purposes. Significant volumes of data are also being generated through the Internet of Things where homes contain appliances and objects which function intelligently in their own right. They exchange information between one another, increasing functionality, but also increasing our understanding of the synergy between devices and the benefits of their use in our daily lives.

Many homes around the world, whether you call them smart homes or just regular homes with some smart gadgets, already are generating data even without your knowledge or while you sleep. Many communities have installed smart meters to monitor water and electricity consumption, especially for monitoring heat or air conditioning consumption. You probably have many gadgets around the home already that monitor many activities in your lives now: a smart kitchen appliance that can connect to your grocery provider to alert them to restock provisions; you may have a smart television which knows what entertainment you like; and you may have allowed your smart phone to know exactly where you are currently located and where you have recently been. It also knows what you purchased recently and likely your shopping habits. It can also offer you many applications that monitor your health or you can purchase wearables such as Fitbit that monitors your exercise progress and can even become your personal trainer, reminding you to do your exercises! When you arrive back at home, it interacts with your laptop or home computer to upload the data to the cloud or to a service to provide further advice and services, all while it is charging up for your next run.

People are already banking online from home or via their mobile phones as well as making on-line purchases, setting up appointments over web-based calendars, with digital applications helping you to meet your deadlines and remind us to take our medicine. These and many other applications are able to do these things with or without smart houses. Young, highly mobile people can do all of these things on the fly. Their entertainment, information, health awareness and communications can take place anywhere, at any time. These will be even more possible with the emerging 5G over the next couple of years. Their interest in smart houses will likely be based on different criteria: architecturally designed as cool, efficient, secure, cost effective and environmentally sensitive structures, meeting their lifestyle needs. They may also want to live in more expensive, but highly walkable central areas or hip city neighborhoods and may be willing to give up personal space in their accommodations to be able to afford the ability to access more social space in their building such as exercise space, common meeting areas and co-working space. They also benefit from cost-saving for advanced communications and high-speed broadband charges, security and other design features usually incorporated in these accommodations as part of their common maintenance charges.

future-building-slice.jpgBut not all advances in technology are about the use and application of high speed broadband and the latest in computational devices. Advances in technology in building materials and in structural design and engineering are creating new opportunities for the evolution of residential accommodations today. For instance, North American developers using new smart materials and advanced building designs are meeting a new demand by creating micro-units in major U.S. cities such as New York and Chicago. Hence, more affordable and efficient dormitory-styled accommodations, as small as 90 square feet, but more likely ranging between 250-500 sq.ft., are making headway across North America, even though they have been more commonplace in Europe and Asia already where urban densities have demanded shared accommodations and smaller sized units for many years. In less dense environments, the use of advanced materials has helped to create small and more affordable and efficient houses. Some are called tiny homes (120 sq.ft) that can cost around $7000 USD to construct on a trailer and moved to locations willing to accept them. In some cases, much larger rural buildings have adapted advanced materials and designs similar to those used in the aeronautics industry to construct family-sized housing for under $20,000.

However, while designers have researched and proven advanced materials can help to make the production of these units more efficient and effective, in some parts of the world, however, zoning bylaws and building codes preclude these innovative and less expensive housing options from becoming more commonplace. Small and micro housing account for less than 1% of housing in North America, even though 28% of American households in 2010 were single occupants. Nevertheless, small, dormitory style housing, which share common spaces in residential buildings such as kitchens and living rooms are making small, but significant impacts in places such as Seattle, Boston, San Francisco and New York where micro-housing, smaller than 400 square feet are becoming a growing trend. In Seattle, through a quirk of the city's zoning bylaw, a developer was able to create 64 small and affordable living spaces for single occupants into their development which would normally accommodate 8 units through creative designs sharing kitchen and living room space.

Housing is both a physical shelter as well as providing psychological and sociologic support. Researchers have determined that the best way to help the poor and homeless is to provide them with permanent housing. Some enlightened jurisdictions have realized the tremendous costs that the homeless are to society and provide free or heavily discounted homes as a means to permanently lift people out of poverty. For instance, in Ithaca, New York, a development of small houses called Second Wind Cottages, aims to assist the chronically homeless. Each of the small houses cost less than $10,000 to build, which is a fraction of the cost to house them in homeless shelters, hotels or new apartment buildings. The land is donated and the homes were constructed by volunteers. This is similar to the approach that Habitat for Humanity International has developed for over 600,000 houses worldwide. Since 2012, Colombia has an initiative to provide 100,000 homeless families with free homes on an annual basis. And in India the Amrita Kuteeram project aims to build 100,000 free houses for the homeless and slum-dwellers throughout the country. With their accommodation taken care of, homeless members of their society can focus on other ways to help lift themselves out of perpetual poverty including upgrading their skills and potential employment, which increasingly demands access to digital skills.

(Based on the article first published in MyLiveableCity Magazine July-September 2017 pages 28-33. For more information:

John G. Jung
Urban Planner; Urban Designer; Economic Developer; Author; Speaker; re. Smart & Intelligent Cities; Co-Founder/Chair ICF; ICF Canada, Global Cities Navigator.
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