Houses that think The words “smart home” generally conjure up images of remote control blinds and domestic appliances covered in sensors. But the term is about a lot more than that – namely comfort, atmosphere, and increased energy efficiency.
The future has dawned in Vienna – and for the Horx family, it is not high-tech, but smart-tech. Everything starts with the Quooker, a faucet that dispenses boiling water and allows the family to save a lot of energy and time in the kitchen. “It’s essentially a very basic technology that replaces the kettle,” says Oona Strathern-Horx. “For me, smart-tech is simple. I don’t want to come home and have to mess around with five different remotes. I want to relax.”
Anyone who visits the Horx’s Future Evolution House will quickly realize that it is not a showcase for electronic gadgets where the milk arranges itself in the fridge and the washing machine can be controlled via cell phone. Futurist Matthias Horx and his wife Oona live here with their two children. “Many of the one-stop solutions you can buy need a lot of maintenance and don’t have that many advantages,” says Matthias, who deliberately avoids them for those reasons. Nevertheless, the house, which lies on the edge of the Austrian capital and is divided into four separate modules, is something quite special. It was built as an answer to the question of how the trends for individualization, mobility, health, ecology, and a flexible working world are affecting domestic architecture.
The Horx family designed the house themselves, and built it with their architect, Hans Peter Wörndl. But an “evolution house” is never finished. A constant stream of small new innovations is all part of the idea. “We’re living in our own domestic experiment,” says Matthias. And this applies to every part of the house – its energy, its media, the home control system, the design and materials. Everything about the building has been reduced to the bare essentials. “We’re in love with our house. It will change as we do, and will grow old with us,” says Oona.
It is probably unusual for a smart home and its residents to form such a harmonious whole –although the idea of intelligent houses is gaining more and more supporters. Consultancy PwC predicts that one in three newly built or renovated houses will be equipped with automated and networked electronics in 2030. The share of smart homes currently stands at just 3 percent. What we are seeing, though, is that more and more solutions are becoming available, and more and more model projects and building contractors are equipping their own homes with smart IT and energy-saving heating technology. Michael Krödel, a professor of building automation at Rosenheim University of Applied Sciences, confirms this. “It’s a huge topic, and it’s really starting to pick up speed. In the future, everything will be connected to everything else.” However, superficial media reports and snappy advertisements often give consumers the wrong idea. “There’s this mistaken belief that smart homes let you control everything with a smartphone. But that’s utter nonsense,” says Krödel.
From remote control sockets to LED lights, smart-home applications are generally very attractive for consumers. For instance, people interested in the technology would be prepared to spend between €500 and €3,000 on smart-living devices. This is a finding from a study carried out by market research firm YouGov, which surveyed a representative sample of over a thousand homeowners. However, YouGov also found that people’s willingness to buy smart-home solutions depended on their being able to test them first. Sixty-five percent of homeowners said this was very important, and over one-quarter said that it was a prerequisite for a purchase.
In terms of interconnectivity, one is forced to wonder why manufacturers such as Miele, LG, Intel, and Philips cannot agree on uniform standards that would allow users to control all devices centrally.
They are making the situation unnecessarily complex. “Overall, the technology needs to become much more simple and user-friendly,” says Krödel, explaining that few normal users will feel like getting to grips with all the different ways of operating the apps. Matthias Horx sees things from a similar perspective. He suggests starting with stand-alone solutions – simple devices that can connect via Wi-Fi. For Lars Beckmannshagen, a project manager at Zebau GmbH, monitoring is also a key issue. “The more technology you install, the more you have to check whether it’s functioning profitably, and whether the residents can operate it properly.” The same also applies to heating systems. In addition to renewables, pellets, and district heating, using natural gas to supply heat in a smart home can also make sense. “Underfloor heating with a condensing gas boiler is an especially good option, as the -technology is extremely efficient,” says Jörg Stette, team leader for application engineering in Uponor GmbH’s indoor climate division.
The Effizienzhaus Plus in Berlin, however, uses solar energy. The house, which is funded by Germany’s ministry for building and the environment, was opened by Chancellor Merkel in December of 2011, and is intended to serve as an example for the public. As part of a pilot project, two test families were selected, and each of them lived in the house for one year. Not everything ran smoothly. For instance, the first family complained about dependency on technicians, the loss of control, and dry air. Summer was particularly bad for problems with -ventilation. And sometimes the residents played with appliances, such as a smart tumble dryer, even though there was no real reason to use them. So smart-home users must first adapt their everyday behavior to fit the new technology in their new home. “It’s a learning process that needs to be factored in,” says Beckmanns-hagen.
Smart Homes can learn
The futuristic-looking Effizienz-haus Plus offers 130 square meters of living space. It is almost entirely recyclable and is equipped with the latest energy-efficiency technology. Unlike the Horx family home in Vienna, this house in Berlin is fitted with all manner of monitoring devices – including 160 sensors for moisture and temperature. Rooftop photovoltaic panels should mean that the house generates significantly more electricity than its residents consume. However, the first family only managed 900 kilowatt-hours of excess electricity. The second fared better, clocking up a surplus of 5,500 kilowatt-hours. As a result, the plan to store the energy in high-performance batteries and use it to charge electric vehicles at the on-site charging station only partially worked out. The heating supply was another problem area, and the unregulated air-to-water heat pump was replaced by a modulating pump. “It reacts automatically to changing needs,” says Beckmannshagen.
The Effizienzhaus Plus is now empty. Living there was an entirely new experience for the families, who, after monitoring their consumption every day, are now keen to lead more energy-conscious lives.
Nevertheless, convenience is an important driver for the smart homes of the future. A lot of things are still at the testing stage. The experts are certain that the idea of smart homes will receive an
enormous boost once it is possible for people to control their refrigerators, televisions, heating, and lights via a universal operating system that is capable of learning.
Text: Katrin Nürnberger
Professor Lutz Heuser, managing director and CTO of the Urban Software Institute, on the market for smart homes, the lack of standards, and the ideal heating supply.
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