Technology is Creepy- Our homes in the future! Are you ready for this?

In my travels I find two basic camps on the topic of technology. Some yearn for it and envision where it will take us next while others view technology with suspicion, inconvenience that cannot be avoided.

Think about technology. We don’t do much that’s devoid of engineering and science, good and bad. Technology is intricately woven within our lives. Whether you’re swinging a cold-forged steel hammer, insulating with soy-based two-part expanding polyurethane foam, reading this post on your new iPad, or using your favorite liquid level…you know, the one with the floating laser in it…technology is always nearby.

While writing this piece I enjoyed a few threads on Remodel Crazy, a progressive blog and a favorite of mine. The members of the RC forum are a cantankerous but dedicated, passionate and helpful bunch today’s topic made me realize that the group I learn from every day, did not and could not exist without technology.

It’s Friday evening and my companion for this essay is Long Trail Ale, a small reward after a very hectic week. Maybe it’s the beer thinking, but on the subject of technology I notice the ale would be warm without the marvel of man-made refrigeration. The recyclable amber bottle itself is amazing, preserving the contents, enabling safe transport, and providing an effective platform for brand building. The centuries old glass manufacturing used to make the bottle is closely related to the purified silica draw process that produces hair thin strands of optical fiber to which we owe the high speed of the internet backbone. Fast, reliable, easy collaboration between individuals separated by oceans.

We take communication and the world wide web for granted. Peer under the hood and it’s mind blowing. Compared to our forbears we live in exponential times with technology poised to accelerate for generations to come.
Technology and the homes we build

The previous section makes the point that we are lost without technology. From here we focus on technology and the home. Specifically, the networked technologies that have entered the home and thoughts on what may soon happen. Technology is here to stay, will evolve rapidly, and change many times within the lifespan of most homes. Of this we are certain.

What the Future May Hold
Home design and construction undergo change as homeowners, architects and builders react to broad lifestyle trends. Since the turn of the twenty-first century dramatic technologies including audio, video, networking, security and automation are commonplace and increasingly important. There’s no reliable way to know what new and helpful technologies will eventually enter our homes but we’re confident a stream of new stuff will arrive.

Think of these images as underlying spheres influencing our decision process. These are not exhaustive, more a way see how influence on home design shifts as lifestyles change. Looking back twenty years, sustainability, technology and broadband would go unmentioned.

Today we’re more connected; sustainability gains urgency; broadband hastens technological development; homeowners value their housing investments differently, and adaptability in home design is central to us.

Home Design
Homes are known to stand the test of time, not for being nimble. It’s time to design and build agility in?
Before widespread use of electricity we created structures with no consideration for wires of any sort. Electricity became common, entered homes as a retrofit, evolved, eventually becoming standard. Following electricity a new wave of technology as telephony hit. Retrofit to start with permanent in-wall wiring to follow. In the 1970s cable television made its debut…retrofit to start and so on. Today we contend with wiring for cable television, telephone, data networking, security, automation, and audio to name a few. A recurring pattern with the underlying trend of accelerating change.

Sustainability
When you consider the growing scarcity of nonrenewable energy, the cost to extract and transport it, and the environmental affect of consumption, the notion of sustainability, while controversial in the eyes of many, is reasonable. Energy is a primary focus in today’s news but sustainability gets beyond energy conservation and considers cradle-to-cradle systems of which housing is a large part. What’s my stuff made of, how was it extracted, how much energy did it consume when produced, is it renewable, is it recycled, how does it affect the health of individuals who install it, how does it affect my health and the environment while I use it, is it recyclable, where does it go when I’m done with it, how much energy will it take to get there?

Whether you like the idea of “green” design and build or not, it’s here to stay. Savvy customers, comfortable with the web, take full advantage of the materials and conversations available to them and are better prepared to make informed decisions. Homeowners now approach the process of designing and building with heightened expectations, sustainability among them, and through both environmental and economic lenses.

Technology
Pervasive, popular, changing, maddening, helpful, entertaining, advancing, disruptive, indispensable. Just a few terms used to describe technology and its affect on society. Within the home we see examples through new computers, web enabled TV’s, WiFi capable mobile phones, home automation modules, LAN’s and whole-house audio. Technology stakes claim throughout the home but the structure often fails to recognize or take advantage of these trends. Today we use “structured wiring” and wireless techniques to address known and anticipated technology needs. An improvement for sure but limited when considering the long term needs of homeowners.

Did you know that Intel is near completion on a low cost next generation technology called “Light Peak”that promises performance orders of magnitude better than USB 3.0…and USB 3.0 has not yet reached the market. The new Intel scheme uses fiber optics to reach longer with markedly faster performance than possible with the most advanced USB. We’ll need this as consumer electronics and software combine to provide faster, richer, more entertaining applications.
We know that technology will evolve but have no clarity on how or when. Is there opportunity to provide lasting value for homeowners by providing structures designed for change?

Digitization
For my work with Homepath Products I spend lots of time taking and cleaning up photographs…errrr, digital images. For the past few years I’ve been connecting the camera to my laptop, uploading files, and using software called Aperture 2 to organize, clean-up, and label images. For the $200 price tag I’m convinced of the productivity gain and find more uses for it each week.

The latest revision of the software adds a few new features. The first is facial recognition where the user can label a face in one photo and the softwares sorts through and tags matching faces within the database with the same name. It’s not perfect but pretty darned close, it’s also easy when it comes to making corrections.
The second add-on, like face labeling, allows for the inclusion of GPS coordinates to each photo. This happens automatically when using a GPS enabled camera or manually by entering an address or searching from pre-loaded world maps.

Creepy?
With effortless high resolution digital images (big files), time/date stamping, facial recognition, and geo-location tagging, through digital photography we enter an entirely new era. What does this mean?

I recently had the pleasure of attending a JLCLive green build seminar with noted design/build architect and speaker Michael Anschel. The session opened my eyes to many elements of sustainability that I hadn’t considered and confirmed suspicions about building green. Namely, that canned answers don’t exist and a formulaic approach isn’t always practical. A system level view is necessary to make frugal and environmentally sound decisions when considering the design and construction process. It was an open and interactive discussion with a small group of dedicated builders/remodelers and, like Remodel Crazy, the passion among the participants was heartening.

One theme, related more to business practices than sustainability, was the growing need to document projects thoroughly. As the topic was raised the room groaned in unison but relented, acknowledging that documentation was a necessary but time consuming evil. What was installed, how was it installed, when was it installed, who installed it, etc. Documentation used to validate warranties, provide evidence of completed work, and “ya’ never know” keepsakes for distant legal wrangling.
It struck me that the new combination of imagery, facial recognition, and geo-location could carve out enormous time from the non value-add effort to document work on job sites. Not so creepy after all.

Broadband
Broadband is a term that’s easily tossed around in conversation, a phrase that receives different definition with each person discussing it. In the broadest sense it comes down to the speed at which data travels along a network that combines private and public segments. In the US we have incumbent internet service providers (ISP’s) like AT & T, Verizon, Qwest, Comcast, and Cablevision. We pay monthly service charges for a link to the world wide web and, beyond access, the value we get is data rate, or speed. On average, US customers receive broadband speeds of about 3 Megabits per second (Mbps). Some pockets of the country are relegated to dial-up service (not considered broadband) while more densely populated areas see significant advancements with speeds approaching 20, 30 and 50 Megabits per second (Mbps). Faster speeds enable shorter file transfer times, transfer of larger files, and smoother streaming of music, video and web page updates. Faster speeds also encourage creation of richer and more complicated web applications…a leap frog game of sorts. As you read on, keep in mind that today’s sought-after speeds are tomorrow’s dial-up…and tomorrow will arrive sooner than you think.

Recall a time when home entertainment meant a trip to the corner video store for a movie rental. This model was turned on its head when Netflix entered the market with convenient web-based ordering and direct home mailbox delivery. You may have noticed that NetFlix and others have begun adding web-streamed movies, edging toward immediate gratification but not yet offering true high definition. The only thing delaying the next wave of change, full HD and soon HD-3D, is broadband…big enough data pipes to transport huge files efficiently. A singular example of how technology unceasingly enters the home.
Internet access, once a luxury and curiosity, now behaves much like a utility. Imagine a day without it.

At present the US is a middle-of-the-pack broadband country. This is widely viewed as a strategic disadvantage. To address this the Federal Communications Commission recently proposed a National Broadband Plan with the intent of making affordable broadband accessible to most citizens with dramatically increased data transfer speeds. Doing so will enable future technology development while enhancing national technical and commercial competitiveness.

A specific goal of the plan is to provide affordable access and a data rate of 100 Mbps to at least 100 million US citizens by 2020. This noteworthy objective is arguably unambitious given Google’s recent announcement to enter the fray promising a more immediate test market with speeds ten times faster and open service provider choice for consumers. Google’s plan promises a meaningful leap in performance given the amount of digital information surging around the web…and it will happen well before 2020.

Watch this space, it’s heating up, homeowners want more and technology is commercially available to provide it.

Adaptability
Have you had the sensation of taking on a familiar task, one that slowly evolved. Through experience you witnessed the incremental changes and now recognize that the work and effort involved eclipses the original intent. A realization that completion of the task had quietly become wasteful, costly, and suboptimal for the value of the finished result?
Review how we wire homes today and a few observations can be made. For one, electrical wiring for power is well formed and rarely changes within the lifespan of most homes. Therefore, permanently installing it by stapling line voltage wires to wall studs and surrounding them with thermal insulation is reasonable. Wires are wires, right?

Consider low voltage wiring and a life-cycle mismatch emerges. Wiring for cable TV, LAN, security, entertainment…the cables homeowners use for lifestyle enhancement are all subject to change or substitution well within the life of the home. Is best practice to install these permanently like electrical wiring? Would the homeowner be better served by having the means to move, add, or upgrade as their needs change? Perhaps this is an opportunity to add lasting value through adaptability.

The Integrative Approach
The next time you have the opportunity to get involved in the design and build of a new space or major renovation keep this in mind. Rather than using the linear process depicted above get some dialog going and approach the team by suggesting a new way to solve problems they have yet to recognize. Integrate sustainability and technology in a space designed to completely satisfy the homeowner for the long haul…and possibly save them money in the process. Plan for known needs and add adaptability instead of installing many underutilized cables…provide a valuable hedge against future technology change.

The Spaces in Between
Consider this. Viewed as a linear process or chain, hand-offs from one design or trade element to the next is destined to create pockets of discontent. Viewed holistically, the process of designing and building opens opportunity to identify real need and allows for combined expertise and synergy. Change in perspective opens opportunity to solve new challenges as they emerge and the spaces between each sphere are where opportunities present themselves. The opportunities are in there but easily missed without conscious effort to unearth them.

Technology will not disappear but it will change and continue creeping in everywhere. Sustainability is more important to homeowners than ever before. Broadband is in its infancy. Adaptability adds long-term value for homeowners and, likewise, including adaptability in your business model will prove itself as the most important tool in your kit.

About the Author: Mike Hines, ExaPath (HomePath Products, LLC)

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