Are We All Living in Smart Homes Now?

It's time to change the way we think about smart tech.

Smart Home, 1990s style
Smart Home, 1990s style.

Corbis / Getty

One of the most popular posts I ever wrote about green building was In Praise of the Dumb Home, where I complained that smart thermostats work best in lousy houses, and are probably useless in super-efficient homes like those built to the Passive House standard.

"Then there is the Passivhaus, or Passive House. It's pretty dumb. A Nest thermostat probably wouldn't do much good there because with 18" of insulation, and careful placement of high-quality windows, you barely need to heat or cool it at all. A smart thermostat is going to be bored stupid."

This was followed by a series of posts, including In Praise of the Dumb City (design for walking instead of autonomous vehicles) and In Praise of the Dumb Box (keep your building forms simple) – I almost felt like I had a copyright on it. But I didn't, and now Stephen Moore has written In Praise of Dumb Tech with the subtitle, "Everything does not need to be smart." He writes:

"If an object exists, you can bet your life someone is attempting to make it smarter. While some companies get this fusion of object and internet connectivity right and produce incredible results, the trend also leads to a whole host of pointless and expensive gadgets that might be worse than their normal alternatives."
What is a smart home?
My first MNN Post. Screen Capture Lloyd Alter

It's funny to read this today, because when I started writing for Mother Nature Network six years ago, I was going to do a series on smart technology. I had just returned from CES where I saw all kinds of smart tech, and some that wasn't so smart, such as a $30,000 Dacor gas range that should last a lifetime, all controlled by a built-in android tablet with a lifespan of about two years. My first post on January 5, 2015 (alas, archived now) included:

"Really, there's no limit to the imagination of people trying to connect things to the Internet; some are silly, some are counterproductive, some are invasive and some are going to make a real difference in the way we live."
Connected toothbrush
Philips connected toothbrush. Lloyd Alter

Indeed, I think how silly it can get every time I brush my teeth with my accidentally purchased connected toothbrush, or should that be a bluetoothbrush. There have been a lot of silly products, and they are still being cranked out. The Juicero may be gone, but we still have the June, the toaster oven that thinks it's a computer. We covered a smart flat in London that did everything: "From the moment you get up it is watching you; the bed talks to the espresso machine so that if it detects that you had a bad night, it makes it extra strong." I thought this was all too much monitoring, too invasive, and concluded "I don't see these smart synergies, I don't see this stuff ever working. And like Garbo, I want to be alone."

Moore concludes with similar thoughts:

"The biggest problem with the 'smart' world is that very few have figured out how to build products that actually do anything useful enough to justify their price tags. In many cases, adding complexity to once-simple devices is leading to all kinds of unforeseen problems, meaning that many smart products try to 'do it all' and end up being not very good at any of it."

The Smart Home is Already Here, We Just Outsourced It

Black and white photo of a man and woman in a room with angular, futuristic furniture
Smithson House of the Future, 1956

I been saying the same thing for years, but through the course of the pandemic, trapped in my not-so-smart home, I have begun to reconsider the question. In another archived post in my Smart Home series from 2015, I concluded that it all started off on the wrong foot. I wrote that smart homes used to be designed by architects (like Alison Smithson did in 1956) but now were being done in bits and pieces by engineers.

"The thesis is that the Silicon Valley geniuses who are designing smart thermostats don’t know much about how heating systems work, and the people designing smart houses don’t know much about houses or the people who occupy them. In 1956, if someone wanted a vision of the smart house of the future, they would go to architects; now it’s all about interconnected sensors designed by engineers. As much as I continue to praise the dumb home, we are going into an era of tumultuous change in how our houses work and how we interact with the things in them."

I continued by noting how the home was changing and adapting, and predicted bigger changes to come.

"We are beginning to see how all this smart technology is beginning to change the way we live. Our TVs have become big enough and Netflix good enough that we never go to the movies anymore. Even takeout food is easier with the new apps. My mom has a necklace that knows where she is and calls me if she falls; that will probably be built into the broadloom soon. More and more of us are working from home, able to dispense with those things that made the office essential such as printers and file cabinets and meeting rooms. Instead, we do it all with the cloud, Slack and Skype."

I didn't know about Zoom in 2015, my mom is no longer with us, and those monitoring functions have been subsumed into my Apple Watch. But the rest of it not only happened but got a huge kick from the pandemic, when our homes became offices, classrooms, and gyms as well. So suddenly Peloton bikes were no longer a joke, and Apple is in the fitness business.

Many people have used the time at home to learn how to cook and bake, but for those who didn't, they didn't need June or Juiceroo when we have Deliveroo. We outsourced it. That's the smart kitchen of the future; as consultant Harry Balzer told Michael Pollan in 2009:

“We’re all looking for someone else to cook for us. The next American cook is going to be the supermarket. Takeout from the supermarket, that’s the future. All we need now is the drive-through supermarket.”

And now we have apps and delivery services and cloud kitchens as well as the supermarket. It will be this way with other smart tech; it will get outsourced or turned into an app on your phone.

Awair on Mantlepiece
Lloyd Alter

There are some smart home ideas that make sense in the post-pandemic world; people are much more concerned about air quality. We have noted how Dvele is building 300 sensors into their new homes to measure air quality and adjust the home ventilation system accordingly. I personally have become obsessed with my Awair Element air quality monitor and am trying to figure out how to connect it to my kitchen exhaust hood to just turn on when CO2 and VOC levels climb. Some smart stuff makes a lot of sense. Individual smart gadgets probably don't.

Back in 2015 when I was writing about the future of the smart home, I quoted a wonderful article by Justin McGuirk with the great title "Honeywell, I’m Home! The Internet of Things and the New Domestic Landscape." He wondered how it would actually affect the design of our homes and the role of architects.

"For the first time since the mid-twentieth century—with its labor-saving household appliances and rising quality of life—the domestic is once again the site of radical change. And though domestic space appears to fall within the realm of architecture, architects themselves have been almost mute on the implications of such change. Architecture, it seems, has given up its dreams of imagining how we might live, and so into that void technology is rushing. That tired old trope of 'the house of the future' has been replaced by what is now called the 'smart home.'"

As I did, he worried about how it would affect the actual design of homes.

"The question is, what are the implications for architecture? Do these developments have spatial ramifications? Should we plan and build in new ways to accommodate this technological surge, or is it just a case of running a few extra wires into the walls?"

Now, thanks to the pandemic, we are seeing these architectural changes, these spatial ramifications. The open plan may be giving way to more private spaces. Health and wellness have become top priorities. And of course, our home has turned into much more than just a place to eat and sleep.

The smart home isn't going to just be a collection of connected gadgets, or our fridge talking to the cat box. It is part of a much larger, connected world.