Smart tech is changing fast – and for the better

TV architect Charlie Luxton explains why those who see home automation as gimmicky are missing the point

Home automation is an area of architecture that, until recently, I have been ambivalent about. There were a number of good reasons for this.

Firstly, architecture doesn’t always go as smoothly as planned and there can be complications with planning issues etc. The second is that when everyone was talking about smart homes and ‘the Internet of Things’, the best reason they gave for embracing this brave new world was (drum roll)… when you run out of milk your fridge will order more!

I am very happy ordering my own milk and if this is the best that ‘smart homes’ and the ‘Internet of Things’ can do, I’d rather stay with the ‘internet of amusing animal videos’ and ‘ridiculous homes’.

The only people really embracing this brave new automated world were tech enthusiasts. The kind of middle-aged man (and it is nearly always a middle-aged man) with very expensive speakers who when in their house would say, ‘watch this, I can open the windows and shut the curtains, turn on lights and music all with this handy remote control’, only for nothing to happen. Cue the jabbing of buttons, cursing, and an awkward moment as my fear of complicated stuff is reinforced. It appeared to me expensive, mainly pointless and unreliable.

As hinted at, this was until recently because smart-home technology is really changing fast and for the better. It has relied upon huge amounts of wiring and lots of disconnected separate control systems, resulting in a significant lack of flexibility. Houses are prototypes and unique – no home is the same. Home automation needed to reflect this fact and accommodate all types of houses. The introduction of wireless controls and open-platform programming, so that myriad devices from different manufacturers can be linked into one control system, is doing just that. What’s more it is becoming affordable… and reliable.

The possibility of your music following you from room to room, of the lights and oven coming on as you’re on your way home, doors unlocking to let in the cleaner, all controlled by your phone and not some gargantuan suitcase of a controller, is actually here.

The ‘nice-to-have’ entertainment and security potential of smart homes is great, but where home automation is becoming fundamental is for sustainable housing. To really drive down energy needs, some level of automation is key.

As the energy requirements for heating homes gets smaller and their ability to generate heat and power from solar PV, solar thermal and solar gain grows, you want to try and balance production and demand. For example, if it is going to be a sunny day, you want just enough hot water for your morning showers, and you want the house to know that there will be lots of energy later in the day for the washing machine and dishwasher. If the forecast is dull and cold, the house can either heat up overnight on cheap green, off-peak energy, or use its power locally to preheat hot water tanks and the fabric of the buildings, rather than exporting energy to the grid.

As modern architects, today we are designing houses to optimise the use of passive solar gain (the sun) for space heating, and indeed energy. Large windows, combined with solar shading, aim to use the sun to provide as much warmth as possible. Inherent in this strategy is the potential for the sun to provide too much warmth, so it’s also important that a building has the ability to carefully balance heat and ventilation. Add to this, the fact that super-insulated homes need so little heat that too many people inside, breathing, bathing, cooking and talking, can make them overheat. Heating and cooling therefore becomes a real balancing act. We have designed houses that are perfect for the intended three or four residents, but add in a few more and, without additional ventilation, the house can become uncomfortably hot.

In traditional homes, a large amount of heat is transferred in to keep them warm. Older homes can lose energy for various reasons, such as poorly insulated walls, gaps not being filled, lofts not being converted, older windows, etc. As they are losing so much heat because of this, they require more energy to be used to plug the gaps and keep spaces warm. In low-energy houses that require almost no heating, the margins are smaller and transferring warmth from other areas of the home rather than providing it is the most commonly used route for fine-tuning temperature. I believe it is here that home automation has its most fundamental role.

Mini building management systems (BMS) can constantly monitor and react to fluctuations in temperature, even CO2 levels and general internal air quality. By opening and closing windows, heat can be shifted, fresh air admitted and the internal environment and occupants made as comfortable as possible. Not only does this maintain the right temperature, it can have positive impacts on our health and well-being.

Take here, for example, the Velux CarbonLight Homes project in Kettering with the Glazebrook family. This experiment showed that a house that retains heat by being super-insulated and airtight, feels very different to a house that doesn’t, even if they are the same average temperature. Leaky, badly-insulated houses are far less energy-efficient, and also much less comfortable, as they have cold spots and draughts, as the heat flows through the buildings and out. Living in a home with no cold areas made a huge difference to the CarbonLight Homes’ inhabitants, which I completely understand.

With huge floor to ceiling glazing now common, the ability to ventilate becomes increasingly important. Having big windows and doors (opening) both functionally and from a security perspective, is difficult. To that end, in our practice at Charlie Luxton Design, we are increasingly using roof lights to provide more than much needed natural light, but also to provide secure, responsive ventilation. Simple internet enabled actuators connected to rain sensors and thermostats are turning windows and increasingly roof lights into a crucial part of sustainable homes.

Affordable, reliable and understandable without the need for miles of cabling, the new smart home really will be a better home, even if you still have to order your own milk.

  • Charlie Luxton has combined his design work with writing and presenting TV programmes for the past 15 years and currently fronts Building the Dream and Homes by the Sea for More4. He regularly gives talks and presentations to a wide range of audiences about all aspects of the built environment and sustainability