Smart Apartment Homes

Formerly fictional home automation technologies are rapidly turning the smart homescape into a reality.

Twentieth century science fiction made promises, and today’s tech companies seem to be in lock-step with making sure to follow through on those commitments. At least so far.

From the video call scene between David Bowman and his daughter in 2001: A Space Odyssey—a feat pretty much likened to Skype or FaceTime by today’s standards—to the handheld or wristwatch devices of the Star Trek and James Bond movies that provided characters access to communication and information in the same way our smartphones and tablets (and the up-and-coming smart watches) do for us today, cutting edge technology is working its way into our everyday lives—though I wouldn’t worry about Skynet just yet, that’s probably still a ways off.

The future is here and while some of this sci-fi technology is increasingly gravitating into the realm of non-fiction, other predicted technologies have yet to manifest themselves. Take for instance the fictional account of the future home environment that was hinted at in the 1990 film Total Recall. One particular scene featured a home space that included voice-controlled projection-like screen on all wall surfaces where the residents could view live news updates, weather information (albeit on another planet) or simply project a serene nature setting.

This sort of technology has yet to arrive, but it may not be too far off. Companies like Nest and Control4 are moving both single- and multi-family dwellers toward that type of technology, which is helping to usher in the new era of the smart home that enables residents to control almost all aspects of the home environment, such as climate, lighting and security, from a single interface. What’s more, this rapidly growing smart-home field is in the midst of being able to control these interior elements from mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, allowing the home to become more efficient, which ultimately amounts to increased savings for renters, and increased NOI for owners and property managers.

“Smart home integration is definitely a trend of increasing demand in luxury and high-end condo developments in metropolitan areas across the U.S.,” says Kathryn Baker, vice president, client services at Polaris Pacific, a San Francisco-based real estate sales and marketing firm. “With companies like Google, Apple and Xfinity getting involved directly in this arena, it is a clear indication that the future involves a ‘connected’ home.”

Baker says these systems work together to create the perfect in-home environment. For example, automated window shades and a thermostat might work in collaboration to help cool off a room.

Prometheus Real Estate Group Vice President of Technology Craig Maness has a similar take on the direction of smart homes and apartments.

“If you look at how many new offerings there are on the market from vendors like Comcast, AT&T, Honeywell, and even Nest, anyone can see that automation trends are real and gaining momentum,” he says.

In multifamily specifically, Maness says that the automation trends emerged in the student housing sector, where the younger millennial generation has relied extensively on multitasking to conduct everyday tasks.  As that generation graduates and moves into the workforce and conventional multifamily housing, those automated conveniences have followed them.

These systems are widely available for single-family use, but have started their push into multifamily in areas such as luxury rentals, condos and tech-oriented markets such as the Bay Area.

Maness says that Prometheus, which primarily specializes in the acquisition, development and management of high-quality residential and commercial properties, has already started looking into devices for HVAC, lighting and audio/video controls for communities in its portfolio in order to better serve the company’s prospects and renters, which it calls “Future Neighbors” and “Neighbors,” respectively. The organization would like to take these types of systems a step further, though, and integrate services such as rent payment and maintenance requests into the interface.

“The wish list item revolves around getting the SaaS providers to allow us to hook this technology into our Property Management Software so our Neighbors can use Smart Control Panels to also pay their rent, place service requests as well as receive property notifications right in the comfort of their own apartments,” he says.

Polaris Pacific’s Baker says that this technology is working its way into its clients’ buildings as well, noting that Control4 and Savant systems will be incorporated into its client Tishman Speyer’s next condo tower in San Francisco. In the case of for-sale residences such as condos, the option of automation can be an additional selling point.

“Polaris Pacific recognized the demand for smart home features, and we’ve been introducing home automation packages as part of the upgrade offerings for homebuyers in properties,” she says. “Hitting a single button to create your desired home environment is fast becoming a powerful part of our daily lives.”

But this technology doesn’t have an impact on just the ownership, property management and marketing companies. As it progresses, building infrastructure and even design will need to be modified as well.

“In regards to what this means for development considerations, it has a large impact on how does a developer want to wire the central nervous system of the modern building relying on cabling to control lighting, HVAC, emergency life safety and telecommunications,” Maness says. “The importance of this wiring increases with every new product (automation) connecting into the central nervous system.”

Specifically, Maness notes that increased demand for connectivity will influence the types of wiring that is used in the building.  Traditional copper wiring is starting to give way to fiber, which, according to Maness, is capable of carrying “practically any type of data at broadband speeds and [is] compatible with future network interfaces.” He says Prometheus, which committed to automation systems from companies such as Creston as far back as 2009 for its communities’ common areas, has already made the choice to wire its communities with fiber going forward.

While wiring, for the most part, tends to be restricted to the bones of a building, the centralized nature of these smart home automation systems is starting to shift the way building designers are constructing the layouts of the home space.  Emerging technologies of the past had lasting impacts on the design of home layouts. Just as in-house plumbing gave rise to the water closet, and HVAC, water heaters and in-unit washers and dryers earned their respective rooms and spaces in home design, smart home and apartment automation is proving to be worthy of its own space as well—even if minimal.

“All that is going to be increasingly integrated as we move forward and we need to provide accommodation with AV closets and places where you can have the backbone of technology added into the unit,” says David Hobstetter, a 30-year architecture veteran and former principal at KMD architects in San Francisco, who recently started his own firm, Hobstetter Architecture Studio in San Francisco. “I wouldn’t say those are big impacts in terms of their impact on unit design. It’s pretty minimal. We’ve always had to provide space for a furnace or an air conditioning unit or an electrical panel, and this is really just a minor evolution on that.”

Into the future

So if the future is here, what’s in store for the future?

Legislative sustainability efforts that aim to curb energy consumption will likely play a large role in the future of smart homes.  These sorts of efforts have already worked their way into local and state laws across the nation.

For example, New York City’s local laws 47, 48, 51 and 52 of 2010 (among others) have collaboratively revised building codes that mandate that certain commercial and residential buildings meet stringent lighting standards, such as the installation of automatic occupant and photo sensors that automatically shut off light after a certain time period, in an attempt to increase energy efficiency and reduce demand.

Hobstetter envisions a future home and apartment where automation goes hand-in-hand with these mandatory conservation efforts and building codes. He predicts that automated systems will not only control functions such as climate and lighting, but will also provide up-to-the-minute usage tracking for energy and water that will enable a resident to determine the extent of conservation efforts.

“Sustainability and climate change are all big issues and having systems that will be tied to looking at your energy usage [will help] to optimize that,” he says. “I see in the future where you basically have a continuous read-out of your consumption so you can monitor how you’re doing over the month or the year. Now you’re more or less reliant on getting your energy bill or water bill … At some point, you will be able to grab that information on a moment-to-moment basis and see how you’re doing.”

Additionally, he says that greywater, blackwater and rain harvesting systems will become increasingly incorporated into building design and will potentially integrate with automation systems.

Baker predicts that future smart homes will build off of the current automation systems with cloud-based offerings that will be specifically tailored to individual occupants and will include features such as smart appliances that will be accessible via the Internet.

“These systems will recognize the homeowner and adjust the environment automatically to their liking,” she says. “Voice automation will be fully recognized. This will likely be true in all homes and it will only be the level of sophistication that varies between low- and high-end residences. In the case of multi-unit developments, the big challenge will be to make sure each unit, as well as the entire building, is connected.”

Maness’ view is not as cut-and-dry. While he sees fiber eventually replacing copper in apartments, he also hints that apartment owners and operators will go through a period of struggle to bring their communities in-line with the demands of automation and increased device usage.

“The Wi-Fi networks are great for now, but as more and more devices are added and adopted by renters, the chance for interrupted services caused by interference from saturation of devices accessing the same ‘free’ airwaves will most certainly cause frustration in the future,” he says. “Fiber is looked upon as expensive and difficult to work with, but in reality it is the best medium for future proofing an apartment building’s systems as well as the individual units themselves. It is just [that] getting the developers to understand the importance of future proofing can be the most challenging aspect.”