The home improvements stores are full of gadgets and systems designed to automate boring tasks, such as adjusting blinds, locks and sprinklers. But what do people really want when it comes to home tech?
I visited three of the homes on the Modern Homes tour last weekend: a passive house (thick walls), a midcentury makeover, and a towering trophy home in Camas, AKA the Lake Oswego of Southwest Washington.
At their home in the Woodlawn neighborhood in Northeast Portland, Beth Williamson and her husband Seth Berman have very different needs at 4.30 a.m.. She needs to keep sleeping. He needs to get on with his job selling phones on east coast time.
"I'm a voice technology solutions provider, there's no easy way to say it," he said as he showed me to his semi-subterranean home office. (The house is a split level, with rooms staggered over four levels. The ground level outside his window is around chest height.) "We sell the tech that allows remote workers to do their jobs from anywhere."
His family business, Business Telephone Systems, sells VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) phones to other businesses. Headquarters are in Atlanta, and naturally, Berman uses his own product. It's a high-quality voice line with a portable area code that he can plug into an Ethernet jack anywhere there is Internet. He's a proud 770-er.
"I need very high speed Internet at all times," Berman says. Luckily, when the home remodel was happening, Century Link was installing gigabit service in the neighborhood. That's 1,000 megabits persecond or 10 times as fast as normal cable internet. He'd been waiting for Google but "they bailed on Portland."
But having the Internet come directly into his study wasn't enough, because the Wi-Fi in the rest of the house, while strong enough to stream TV shows, was not fast enough for his work download appetite.
"I work in the cloud, on big databases. I use huge files for installation. If it takes me 30 minutes extra because the 'net isn't that fast, it impacts my day."
So he had the cable company run Cat 6 cable through the crawl spaces so he could have Ethernet jacks next to the TVs downstairs and upstairs. That way he could also add routers and superfast Wi-Fi everywhere in their 3,300 square foot home. Now he could do proper work on a laptop upstairs if he wanted.
Thinking ahead, he says, "We pulled enough wire to be able to drop it in anywhere we wanted to in the future."
Full time work-from-home people like their creature conveniences, and he has one that technology has vastly improved. He's a huge fan of his Sonos audio system, which wirelessly syncs with Spotify. It plays the same music in different rooms without any lag, or different music in different rooms. And it's all controllable from the Spotify on Sonos app.
He pays $120 a month for TV and Internet, although he actually uses Dish Network for TV. It's a two-year promotional offer, he knows it will go up to about $180 a month. But it's worth it, to work remotely. In Atlanta he'd have to get up at 5 a.m. anyway just to be at the office by 7.30 a.m.. "People complain about traffic here, but it's only three lane highways. In Atlanta you have 7 million people coming in from 75 miles around, they're driving an hour and a half. There's no mass transit, everyone's on the road in their own car. It's just a disaster, a tough place to commute."
A passive house is one with two-foot-thick insulated walls, triple pane windows and vapor barriers everywhere. The idea is to keep a house warm in winter without using much more than human body heat and cool in summer. It's basically a 12th century European cottage, with shingles, Tyvek and cellulose insulation instead of a thatched roof, mud walls and a wood stove. So how temping is it to trick out the thick shell with digital bells and whistles?
Well, Scott Kosmecki, the architect with Hinge Build Group, largely resisted the temptation. For example, there are exterior blinds that can be rolled down on sunny days. Because they are outside they prevent the windows from heating up in the first place. Kosmecki placed plastic controllers, like mini TV remotes, on the inside of the window frame, in little holders. That way the homeowner can roll the blinds up or down when they want. But why no automated system running though a Nest, using national weather forecasts and accessed with an iPad?
"I didn't want people to be burdened with interfaces," he explained. "It couldn't be simpler. We purposely did that so you could be more aware of it."
Welcome to spec house
It was partly that he didn't know who was going to buy the house, so why saddle them with a complex system. (If he's building something and people ask for LEDs that change color and warmth from a phone app, etc., he gives it to them.)
But it's partly that technology ages horribly fast.
"If I told you five years ago that you'd be controlling your lights and blinds from a phone you'd think I was insane. But you have to assume any technology now will in five years be obsolete. You don't want to install something that has to be updated. That's just another expense and a run on the hamster wheel."
He did happily use some new technology. The house was designed and modeled in 3D in Sketchup and with the energy modeling software WUFI (which stands for Wärme Und Feuchtetransport Instationär, German for transient heat and moisture transport). "You can do daylight analysis in Sketchup (Google's free 3D modeling software). Because it's open sourced there are all sorts of plugins for Sketchup."
He also used REM/Rate and the one used by Earth Advantage, which certified the house to the American passive house standard, Cake.
Kosmecki proudly shows off the HRV or Heating Ventilation Recovery in the downstairs closet. It's a large grey box with gorgon-like white tubes coming out of the top, which bring air to and from the different rooms.
Stale air is filtered through MERV 13 filters, which he says are "five levels above HEPA." Inside the box, packed together in a hexagon like a honeycomb, are hundreds of plastic straws. Clean air passes through one set of straws, stale through the others right next to them, and energy is exchanged without cross contamination. This method keeps 92 percent of the energy in the house, and the air is cleaned every three hours.
When it does need warming, the house has a mini split heat pump, which is in the same closet.
"More people don't use heat pumps because they
are a little bit more expensive, and people don't pay
for electricity like they do in Europe and Japan. It's
10 times more expensive there. Well, we subsidize
Baby take control now
There are nine sensors around the house including in the walls. The architect likes to analyze the data, but the man of the house, Claire Paris's husband Matt Neff, also likes to pull up the numbers on a web interface.
"It's interesting for me to see where the energy is going," says Neff. "I found out the electric range uses power all the time, but a lot less than other brands, so we chose the right one there."
"You love your Strava," says his wife Claire Paris teasingly.
Neff admits he does: He has multiple bicycles and likes to log his trips on the Strava online system. "When I'm riding home from work I think, 'Do I feel like beating my record from MLK to 15th'?"
"When you're aware of it, you feel you could a little better," says Paris. "It's like when your car sends a message that you need an oil change. It's interacting to minimize use."
So even though there isn't much money to be saved, having the data readily available gamifies their approach to their home. They want to save more energy. He also likes that the whole house is wired with Cat 5 cable for Ethernet, so they can run multiple computer networks.
The look of the house is clean and minimal. Did the concept of the house as a kind of energy black box affect their attitude to stuff?
Paris, a realtor, says she came there from a larger house and had to really purge her belongings. Neff did the same, reducing the number of his bicycles — but not his multiple guitars. (He has a music room upstairs.)
Kosmecki is building another passive house, this time from the ground up in Sellwood. It's a spec house, meaning he and the Hinge partners don't know who will live in it.
"It makes it easier to make the harder decisions," Kosmeck says. "There are fewer people to make them."
We don't have to go out
The third house, in Camas, is lived in by the builder, Vito Tishenko of Modern Northwest. They build luxury custom homes. He is working with the same architect, Sergei Merinduke, on one at 4903 12th Ave., just off Northeast Alberta Street which he estimates will sell for $1.2 million. Tishenko lives in the Camas house with his wife and children aged 18, 11, 6 and 1. Built on a hairpin bend, it has a basketball half court at street level and a round, sunken lounge with picture windows, a black kitchen and deck with gas fire pit.
There's a tablet on the wall in the kitchen for controlling something, but Tishenko is otherwise uninterested.
"We don't even have a TV, we're not tech people," he says. "We try to keep our kids off the games and live the life I had growing up in (the former Soviet Republic) Georgia."
They do have Internet and wireless cameras, but, "We just don't have anything crazy."
The family has been living there two and a half years and he is happy. "The way we built it is the way we wanted it, and it works perfectly."
Sometimes even in a huge house, less is more.