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Smart homes are now commonplace in the world of real estate and interior design. However, people have yet to effectively harness the potential of new technologies in today's homes.
The home of tomorrow is supposed to transform our everyday lives with unobtrusive, easy-to-use technologies that adapt to our lifestyles, says Anders Larsen, Director of Design and Technology at Ikon House in Dubai. And they are actually within our grasp.
''For me it's not about the technology or the features; it's about how it's applied,'' says Larsen on the sidelines of the recent Downtown Design exhibition in Dubai. ''I think there's still a misconception of what home automation is, as people think it is only about controlling your lights, air conditioning or shades. However, it's not only about that, it's also how you do it.''
The goal of a smart home is to achieve comfort and energy savings, he says.
Larsen shared insights on trends in the design industry at Downtown Design, where he and business partner Dorian Pauwels, Executive Director of Ikon House, exhibited an installation showcasing innovations and solutions that are possible in the ''home of tomorrow''.
Pauwels says, ''The integration of the technologies and innovations we showcased in our Home of Tomorrow exhibition are literally here today. It is very likely that what we presented at Downtown Design will become a standard in the luxury market and will attract investors and buyers seeking a certain lifestyle.''
Getting the basics right
Today's home automation technologies are actually intuitive to use, points out Cristina Romelli Gervasoni, Director of Downtown Design. ''We can imagine that the smart home of tomorrow will learn our habits and adapt to our lifestyles, blending seamlessly into our everyday lives. The key is to make sure that we never notice that all these technologies are there.''
According to Larsen, many people are now actively using smart devices such as smartphones and tablets to control their homes. However, he exhorts his clients ''to get the basics right and have proper integration''.
He explains that many households use technologies incorrectly. For example, there are those who use several buttons on their smart devices to control different lights in their homes.
''We insist on avoiding that kind of thing,'' he says, noting that ideally a button should have multiple control functions, such switching lights on or off, setting dimming levels for different times of day or automatically adjusting the temperature.
''All of these things are concepts that people have been talking about for the past 30 years, but it's still not applied correctly in most buildings,'' says Larsen. ''Most people have not experienced a properly installed smart home and this is a global phenomenon.''
It is essential to get a technology designer on board to work with the contractor, architect and interior designer from the beginning of a project.
''This way a concept can be built from the start,'' says Larsen. ''You'll have the right cabling and you can think the space through along with the designer.''
Getting a technology designer on board from the outset is also a lot more cost effective as opposed to retrofitting a home with smart technologies later on.
''It's impossible to do it right as a retrofit and it's also very expensive. If you do it right from the beginning, it doesn't have to be more expensive than a traditional system in terms of the extra civil works that goes into it.''
Cost of a smart home
Depending on a client's budget and requirements, adding smart technology to a home could cost as little as Dh10,000 or as high as Dh10 million, says Larsen.
''It's accessible and the cost of doing it is not that great. It's more about when you do it — whether after or during construction.''
Customers are often initially reluctant to implement certain smart features in their homes. Some even wrongly believe their homes are already smart because of basic features installed, such as light dimmers.
''The real smart home takes time and effort to create the right space, using available technology to give you the convenience of pressing just one button.''
Larsen also objects to the use of touchscreens exclusively in controlling different home functions.
''A lot of people prefer to use touchscreens on walls, but it makes no sense in my world,'' he says. ''For intricate control of temperatures and surveillance, it makes sense to use a tablet or remote control, but light needs a physical, tangible button.
''It's a small and necessary inconvenience for a smart home that I insist on.''
Customers, he says, need to ensure that their investment and efforts to create a smart home is worth it and it's the role of technology designers like him to provide a solution that is comfortable and energy efficient. Often, customers need some convincing to trust his advice and suggestions.
''My knowledge of technology is vast and I can give you something that you never would have expected,'' says Larsen. ''These are not things you can buy. It's a designed installation and you need someone in the know to apply this.''
Larsen says his company can take a project from the concept stage to handover. However, there are always challenges when working in commercial real estate.
''In the contract market, people are often pressed to the last dirham, so they want to walk away from the project as quickly as they can,'' says Larsen. ''In terms of technology, they only get a list of equipment, not functional specifications, and they deliver it and get it to work. So, yes, the technology is there, but it is not implemented properly.
''We, on the other hand, write our own functional specifications at the concept stage, so we can hand that over to the programmers, who are responsible for delivering the technology to the end user.''
Larsen says there are several homeowners in the UAE who are keen on adopting smart home technologies. ''There's a big uptake in the residential market and it's a huge market. We have two types of customers: those who own a vacation home and mainly want fancy features, and those who live here long term — they buy a house, gut it and we start from bare bones.
''In many cases, we can't show the clients the solution because we are inventing something new. Only when they move in do they get to experience it.''
Today's technologies are changing at a rapid pace. However, the core functions of many technologies are very sustainable as long as spare parts are available, says Larsen.
''Our concern is to give clients a good investment and a network cable is actually a good investment,'' he says. ''Using network cables for everything is now becoming more and more widespread. You can use a network cable for data and computer or to extend analogue audio and even HDMI and 4K content.
''Installing these cables, which has been a standard practice for many years, is probably the smartest move for anyone adopting this way of thinking.''
Larsen explains that while gadgets get outdated, the infrastructure supporting a smart home does not change easily.
''And that's of importance to us,'' says Larsen. ''You may have to change a few bits and pieces in the back end, but you will still have a 20-year lifespan for the infrastructure.''
The smart home experience
Based on inputs from experts, this is how you could enjoy a home equipped with smart technology:
It's the end of a gruelling day at work and all you look forward to is the sanctuary of your home. You walk through the front door, press a button at the entrance and the house comes alive — soft lighting in the living room and soothing jazz music streams from hidden speakers. You move towards the kitchen to make dinner and your smart home responds by dimming the lights in the living room and switching on those in the kitchen. You want to watch TV while cooking — no problem, the TV rack in the living room swivels towards you. After dinner, you move to the bedroom and hit the go-to-bed button. Light in the bedroom turns on at just the right dim level, the bathroom lighting switches on as well and the TV's motorised bracket moves to face the bed — the room is ready. Before you fall asleep, you enable the sleep function where the lights go off and the TV stays on for a certain time, after which the system shuts them off and send the TV back into its place in the living room. You wake up in the middle of the night and feeling thirsty. All you need to do is hit the ''to kitchen'' button and dimmed lights leading to the kitchen turn on. When you are done, you hit the button again to toggle it off. After a good night's sleep, your window blinds roll up as you wake up in the morning. The lights automatically switch off and the system asks if you want your window panes to be set to opaque or transparent. You head over to a mirror in the bathroom, which also acts as a TV screen to show you the morning news and even give you information about your health and allows you to control the room temperature.
Read about melding form with function - Design innovations that work showcased in Dubai
Source: Leigh Thomas, Special to Property Weekly