Published in: Seattle Magazine
April 2010 | By Marie Dolan |

Like a private jet or a megayacht, a high-tech home was once a trophy purchase for the extremely wealthy. Bill and Melinda Gates famously spent more than $60 million on their Medina mansion—a cost driven in part by the countless microcomputers controlling not only major household functions, but such whimsical features as chameleon-like screens, technological advancements have allowed even households on a budget to incorporate “smart home” technology—and its potential eco-benefits—into their lives.

One such advancement has been the advent of wireless, which can mean big savings when automating a home: Installers no longer need to tear down walls or build from scratch in order to control lighting, thermostats, media and security. Jennifer Griffin, president of Kirkland home technology design and installation firm Architechtronics, says that these days, they find “no significant cost difference between new construction and retrofitting” when installing their systems.

Architechtronics-installed packages are scalable, and costs are wide ranging. For a a 1,500-square-foot home, it could run around $1,000 to put all the audio and video equipment on a universal remote, or $1,500 for automated lighting in the entertainment spaces. Fees can run from $80,000 to $100,000 to automate a 6,000- to 8,000-square-foot house with features that would put the Jetsons’ maid, Rosie, to shame.

Lee and Sachi LeFever used Architechtronics to wire their Mount Baker home, which also serves as the headquarters for their educational video company, Common Craft. Having a home business is what convinced them to transform the house into a smart home during a recent remodel. “We’re here almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Lee says. Now lights in the LeFever home adjust accordingly to preset preferences and available daylight; one remote controls lights in every room and music across eight zones; and security is wireless, using keypads or keys.

Another reason for the lowered cost of home automation is a shift in focus. There are fewer calls for wizard-like innovations, such as refrigerators that place grocery orders, and more of an emphasis on streamlining the home electronics already in use. Brett Griffin, technology advisor at Architechtronics (and Jennifer’s husband), points out that many smart-home features are technologies we already take for granted in vehicles. “You get in the car and the light goes on, shut the door and it goes off. We operate locks remotely.” Griffin says. “We’ve been living with this in cars all this time, but our homes are stuck in the 1950’s.”

And given the number of new home buyers who were born significantly later than 1950, there’s an expectation in the market that houses will be wired. “Younger home buyers have grown up with computers and Internet interwoven into the fabric of their lives, so the idea of having a smart home does not seem foreign or futuristic to them,” says John Hubbard of Seattle-based Fusion 9 Design, another home automation design firm.

In addition, the smart home do-it-yourself market has evolved significantly since the invention of the Clapper. Online home automation superstores, such as Smarthome, specialize in such products, but even The Home Depot has a home automation category. One automatic “smart dimmer” for home lighting, which allows you to control lights with a remote, costs about $73. (Cost of therapy required after a weekend spent automating your own house not included.)Many products, whether DIY or part of an installation package, are now made to synchronize with applications for computers and smart phones, enabling owners to turn lights on and off, check security systems and change the thermostat remotely.

Even for people who don’t find manually unlocking the front door or flipping a light switch a retro annoyance, the potential for energy savings has appeal. Brett Griffin says systems that integrate thermostat, lighting, media and security contribute to saving 15 percent or more on energy use. (No more leaving lights blazing or the heat set at 70 degrees.)

Which brings us back to Bill Gates. One way improved home technology may green households in the near future is by linking automation to new home energy applications, such as Microsoft Hohm. In a pilot program now available through the City of Seattle, Hohm users download information about their electricity usage directly from Seattle City Light, along with analytics, through Hohm, that suggest ways to conserve (including city-offered rebates for energy-efficient applications). It is hoped that within the next several years, Seattle residences will get smart meters that track individual home energy consumption in real time. These could be linked to home automation systems programmed to adjust for conservation. Customers would be able to track their energy consumption—and presumably, feel guilty or thrifty enough to adjust accordingly.


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