Apple and The Future of Homebuilding

Apple announces HomeKit

Apple senior vice president of Software Engineering Craig Federighi speaks about the Apple HomeKit at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

Can Apple influence the future of homebuilding? 

I’ve long been critical of SmartHome marketing hype, and I’ve not been a fan of using speech commands to control home devices, but a Forbes article last week got me thinking and inspired today’s posting. (See Here’s How Apple’s Siri Will Control Your House Under HomeKit Program.)

Apple Understands Accessibility

Homebuilders can learn a lot from Apple when it comes to making homes more accessible and easier to live in. For the most part builders still focus too much on what potential buyers can see in the model home, such as marble entries, granite countertops, textured walls with rounded corners, and Moën faucets with lever handles. They don’t focus enough on foundations, insulation, infrastructure, and design elements for aging-in-place, although this is starting to change.

Apple, by contrast, designs its product to be simple, intuitive and easy to use for people of all sizes, ages and abilities. Apple products not only have accessible features but are also designed from the ground up with accessible principles. The company also promotes accessibility apps from its partners. How might builders emulate this?

Universal Design

A few weeks ago Yvonne and I drove up to Georgetown to tour the Del Webb planned community of Sun City, and we noticed that most of the Pulte homes there were built with Universal Design principles, including wider doorways and one-step entries that make them more wheelchair accessible. Our current home was also built by Pulte, and we’ve enjoyed the wide-open floor plan and the fact that all rooms are on the first floor. We chose a 1-story floor plan because accessibility for future needs, or to accommodate visitors, was a requirement for us up front.

Cities too are catching onto the population benefits of Universal Design. Austin, for example, is one of the first to change building codes, now requiring new homes to be accessible and ADA compliant. This move is consistent with the message of Independent for Life, a book co-authored by Henry Cisneros, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and four-term mayor of San Antonio.

MIT’s House_n and Disruptive Innovations

Homebuilders have been slow to adopt new innovation, possibly because they’re ultra-conservative, or maybe because they worry that tech is evolving so quickly that it could make the house itself obsolete too quickly, matching arguments I made in my article about the Smart Refrigerator. Building innovation, much of it coming from MIT’s House_n, has shown promise but not market adoption.

House_n is a Department of Architecture research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that explores how new technologies related to the design, building materials, fabrication & construction techniques, digital electronics, and livability of evolving places that respond to the complexities of life. Major House_n initiatives include The PlaceLab and the Open Source Building Alliance.

The Elusive Smart Home

Some may look at the future of homebuilding and wonder if we’ll ever get to the future envisioned by marketing hype, just as I wrote in The Elusive Smart Home, because we’ve made almost no progress toward the vision portrayed by the RCA-Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen 58 years ago at the World’s Fair.

  • Why do today’s homes still use wood framing with 2x4s and not more modern building materials?
  • Why do we still have one thermostat for the home (or one for each floor if there are two separate systems) when what’s needed is one thermostat for each room? After all, we’ve not been in those other rooms for hours or days.
  • Why do homes still need electricity provided by a power company when the home could be generating its own?
  • Why are there still so few one-story homes, so many stairs, and so few two stories without elevators?
  • Questions about building innovation go on and on.

The Need for Standards

110v outletLook around in today’s home and you’ll see several examples of standards, such as the 110-volt power supply, cabling, A/C outlets, and screw-in light bulbs, even as the bulbs themselves are changing from incandescent varieties to halogen, compact fluorescent, and now LED. But you’ll also see problems when standards change or where there’s a lack of standards.

It seems that you almost need a PhD these days just to go into HomeDepot and buy a light bulb, because the once-simple decision (60W incandescent, or maybe 40W, 75W or 100W) has become incredibly complex, and we now have to consider watts v. lumens, color temperature, dimmability, etc.

The task of connecting devices screams for network standards, but that makes things even worse, because of the different types of devices and their varied networking needs. Computers and televisions, for example, need high-speed communication for web browsing and video streaming, while doorknobs, security sensors, window blinds, lights, and switches only need to send a few characters (for open/closed, or on/off/dim) if they communicate at all.

Homebuilders have had no control over this, because product manufacturers choose standards that work for their own needs without considering interoperability beyond their domain. Some choose wired cabling while others prefer wireless. Some need long battery life while others plug into electric power. And some need network security while others don’t worry about that.

Apple can encourage convergence among the many home networking wireless standards by leveraging its popular iPhone, iPad and Apple TV, each of which already support Bluetooth LE (Low Energy) and Wi-Fi. I don’t see them adding more radios for Insteon, ZigBee, Z-Wave and other wireless standards, because that would prolong the use of these standards. Apple will more likely just encourage the evolution of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi standards to eventually replace the others, eventually eliminating the need for any gateway products.

Complexity & Systems Integration

Yes, it’s possible to install gateway devices to bridge between different network protocols. That way, for example, a bed sensor could talk to bathroom lights when you get up at night to pee, or a smoke alarm sensor could trigger a call to the fire department while blinking the outside lights so they can find you and turning off ventilation so not to spread the fire. But such connectivity, and the additional products to make it possible, can be too complex for most homeowners.

Who then makes it all work? Is it the builder? Or is it the utility company, the phone/TV/broadband provider, the home security company, or some other 3rd party? Or is the homeowner stuck with doing it herself? Without better answers than we have now, we’ll never reach the Smart Home vision or any Apple vision of the Future of Homebuilding.

Apple, with its HomeKit and HealthKit, can help promote the vision by encouraging interoperability standards, simplifying setup & use, and adding a voice interface with Siri. I’ve not been a fan of speech recognition to control devices, and my favorite example was when a sick child has finally gone to sleep. It makes no sense to go into the room and say “lights out” when you can just hit the switch.

But Apple goes way beyond that by including Siri in the Apple Watch. Now without getting up from the couch, you can turn off the light in Suzie’s room, or turn on the porch lights, or adjust the temperature, or… The same voice commands can work across the house, across town, or across the globe, and that adds new convenience for homeowners, as well as benefits for builders too if they exploit the opportunities.

Builders as Systems Integrator

Builders can also learn from the evolution of cars, because manufacturers now put in all sorts of electronics and do the technology selection and systems integration on behalf of their customers. Consumers have less interest in after-market products themselves because the included features are better-integrated, easier to use, and end up costing less because of the bargaining power of the manufacturers.

Big homebuilders could do the same thing, but will they? If they don’t, we might see a new builder brand appear (call it Smarter Homes) to take on D.R.Horton, Pulte & Lennar.

Making homes smarter means adding intelligence somewhere (in the device, the home hub, or the Internet Cloud), but it also means installing environment & health sensors for motion, sound, light/vision, temp, moisture, gasses (CO2), pressure, etc. To me, it makes most sense for the builder to do that, and maybe they could partner with a third-party to do it for them. Might Apple become that 3rd party? Does Apple even have an interest in this? (Probably not.) Such deals, however, might be like Apple’s partnerships with record levels.

Builders could also partner with electric utilities so homes generating their own renewable/green energy can sell excess power back to the utilities. The utilities, however, may be less interested and see such homes as competition if the excess power is instead stored in batteries.

Unresolved Issues

What happens to the sensors, devices and learned intelligence when you move? Can you take it with you? And what happens when you sell the home? Will the 2nd or 3rd owner value any of the futurist features installed? Or will they remove them? When Yvonne and I downsized to a smaller 1-story, from our large 2-story, which had been written up as an example of home automation possibilities, the buyer ended up removing all the sensors and automation I had installed.

For Apple to influence the future of homebuilding, it needs to change consumer mindsets and show the value proposition. It’s not easy to show off the benefits of smarter and better-integrated homes when the subsystems come from different manufacturers and are shown in different parts of retail stores like BestBuy or Lowes. Apple will need a better way for people to see it all working together. And consumers will need to experience the benefits of a home’s learned behavior. Apple may be able to do this with effective use of its website, demo videos, and customer testimonials, but they’re not doing it yet, and I don’t see evidence that they truly understand what it will take to make The Elusive Smart Home a reality.

Apple v. Competition

The automated home market is cluttered with competition with no single stand-out. One of the newer entrants is Oomi — promoted as Smart Home Simplified and Redefined. As you watch the video, notice that the iPhone or iPad can do everything that Oomi Touch can do and more. And the next version of Apple TV will likely have some of the sensors included in Oomi Cube. But much more important is that Apple as an army of 3rd party developers creating products for its ecosystem. Few other competitors can even come close to saying that. All of this strengthens my belief that Apple is more likely to influence the future of smart home systems, and homebuilding itself.

Google, as shown in the infographic below, is also a worthy Apple challenger but doesn’t really seem to understand this market either. So in conclusion, I don’t see the future of homebuilding as a truly Smart Home but just a-bit-smarter one, although I do see Apple influencing it. The real question is, “by how much?”

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