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Smart House
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

It?s Halloween. You?re at a party. The lights slowly dim, and you begin to think the house is haunted. More likely?the house is equipped with programmable lighting systems.

?We have one system where the people programmed the lights to dim gradually at a certain time in the living room and brighten in the dining room. My question is how do you know when that?s going to be because nobody ever shows up to your house on time,? said Stephen Chambers, A.I.A. with Stephen B. Chambers Architects, Inc. ?And when you?re just getting in a good conversation, you don?t necessarily want the lights to start dimming.?

?My feeling about the smart house,? Smith goes on, ?three or four years ago, there was a big push for the smart house. And I guess it had to do with everybody falling in love with computers.?

Even before computers got in the act, lighting consultant, Dennis R. Jones at Dennis R. Jones & Associates, installed a wall sensor that detected a device on the key ring of the owner whose final approach to the front door would automatically set off a series of preset events?unlock the door, disarm the security system, turn on the air conditioning in summer or in winter open the flue of the fireplace while turning on the gas log and heat, and pipe in music.

?That was twelve years ago,? Jones said. ?We?ve been able to do it for years at all different costs. And the costs keep coming down.? In the above case, a device in the bedroom saw the owner get out of bed in the middle of the night and turned on the lights.

?It became annoying, so we ditched it,? Jones said. ?The reality of it is that everybody offers tons of things only because it?s easy to do programming wise. If you want to call up your Jacuzzi on your way home and have it nice and hot when you get there, you can. But the reality is?I?ve never heard of anybody doing it.?

?If a client comes to me?some people are really into that sort of thing?we certainly do it. But generally clients lead the way, and my clients aren?t asking for that stuff,? said architect, Lionel Morrison, A.I.A. and designer of Art House?15 single-story residences on a 10-story frame scheduled for occupancy in spring 2002 at 3750 Holland. Besides a sculpture garden and museum like lobby, Art House will offer residences with high ceilings, extensive glass, and in technologically?multiple phone lines, high-speed internet connections, satellite and/or cable TV connections, plus a special feature?private elevator service, which necessitates a sophisticated security system.

Security is part of the smart house, according to Chambers. In fact, a smart house can exist at all levels of smartness, practically speaking, beginning with lighting that goes on at night and off at dawn or lights with motion detectors that stay off all the time unless somebody comes up the alley to the garage in the middle of the night.

?Those are just really cheap things that you can do that are smart,? Chambers said. ?Lights that are controlled by motion or sunlight or the programmable thermostat are the kind of the bottom levels of a smart house.? In general, the smart house includes four basic systems: lighting, security, heating-ventilation-air conditioning, and entertainment. ?But then you can go to the other end and spend thousands to have everything on one system so you can sit down at a computer monitor or TV screen, so you can see who?s at your front door or gate in the back.?

?You can make your house as smart as you can afford,? Chambers said. ?It was a romantic idea that came up a long time ago?not because of need, but because the computers had the capability. We?re actually seeing maybe a little less romantic view of all the technology. I don?t know if that?s a statement in general. But, I?ve put some very complicated lighting systems in houses. And had people come back and say, ?Well, I like this. But if I was going to do it again, I?m not sure I would do it.??

?I?ve had clients that have installed, for example, very complicated lighting and heating, ventilating, air conditioning control, that sort of thing,? said Max Levy, A.I.A., architect. ?After about a year, they throw up their hands and have it all disconnected so they can just turn the lights off and on.?

?If you design a house to where you can actually turn off the air conditioning and heating every once in awhile, that definitely saves you money,? Levy said. The problem nowadays is that very few houses are designed for easy access to cross ventilation. ?You have a beautiful fall morning?but the thought of opening 30 windows and doors is so daunting, you don?t do it. So, you just leave the air conditioner on. When a house is designed for cross ventilation, usually by opening two large openings, the front and back, you can get a breeze going all the way through the house. That?s one of the theme?s I see here.?

?In north central Texas, we?re fond of saying that we have one day of fall and one day of spring,? Levy said. ?But what we overlook are slivers of fall and the slivers of spring every morning and evening even when the days are still summer-like. And that happens from September to November in the fall and from March to May in the spring. That?s six months of pleasant weather that occurs when you happen to be home in the morning and evening. And our architecture could help us enjoy that. The term ?smart house,? relative to what I?m talking about, is almost comical because how smart is it to be inside with the air conditioner on when it?s a beautiful day outside.?

A high-end market town home development going up in Deep Ellum on Commerce next to Exposition Plaza, designed by Ron Wommack, A.I.A., offers an optional smart package?kind of like a microprocessor with a few lights hooked together to light a path through the house as you come in and press a certain button. The package also includes telephone and intercom systems.

?But I wouldn?t consider it state of the art?like some systems I?ve seen,? Wommack said. ?When you say smart house, we?re not actually looking from the electronics point of view but more of an environmental point of view.? There are certain environmental things like shading of glass, porches, and paying attention to basic design criteria that are not considered too much any more. Instead, ?you put everything where you want it?throw in air conditioning?it?s done. But it?s not very smart.?

?We live in a world that more and more called the age of the despotic eye, meaning the eye is the dominant sense,? Wommack said. ?We only judge things on visual quality, particularly, since we deal with TV-media. And what that means is the rest of the senses dull.?

?Every house that we?re doing has a media room with lounge chairs,? said Cole Smith, A.I.A. architect with Smith, Ekblad, & Associates. ?It looks great? But behind that beautiful chrome knob, sometimes is just a cheap little diode or potentiometer or something that few people understand how it works. And the systems sometimes are outdated in a few years. Helping to demystify the smart home theater is the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA), which focused on the home theater in their CEDIA UK Expo 2000 held in September.

At CEDIA Expo ?97, the ?most innovative product? was the home wireless lighting control system, Radio RA?introduced by Lutron Electronics Co., Inc. So new to the Dallas market is Radio RA that Jones began promoting it only three to four months ago and is now getting the first installation programmed and running. Radio RA uses high frequency radio signals (418 MHZ) for dimmers and switches and can be totally retrofitted to existing home lighting systems because it doesn?t need a system of wires behind sheetrock. Although 90% of its application is currently in new homes, according to Jones, because it is such a new product, Radio RA has potential for application to all homes.

?But it?s not cheap, which keeps it from happening in the smaller homes,? Jones said. Roughly, the costs average $350 to $400 a switch, installed.

Radio RA already integrates with other home systems such as security and time clocks. Since all systems are now digital and currently ?talking? to each other, according to Jones, Radio RA has potential to intersect with all systems, and could revolutionize, once again, the concept of the smart home.

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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