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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Sep. 12, 2017 1 week ago

Building the smarter smart home

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Ease of integration and controls brings residential builders into the smart home market.
by: Andrew Warfield Staff Writer

Glenn Layton is the go-to guy when it comes to building smart homes.

Literally.

In 2013, Layton was selected by HGTV for its first-ever smart home build, a 2,350-square-foot computer surrounded by an energy-efficient exterior in what was then the fledgling Paradise Key development in Jacksonville Beach.

As a result of the prominence that accompanied the project, Glenn Layton Homes often is regarded as the smart-home builder in Jacksonville.

Layton is quick to point out, though, that he is far from alone in the smart homes construction market.

“We have kind of been dubbed the smart-home builder because of the HGTV Smart House, but there are a lot of builders out there doing some great stuff,” he   said.

That “great stuff” includes anything from the simple remote control of lighting, security and door locks to comprehensive whole house automation features, including thermostats, water heating, window shades, scene lighting, audio/video and more.

Most builders, if not all, are responding to, on some level, their customers’ demands for smart home technology.

And it’s only the beginning.

Back when HGTV selected Jacksonville and Layton for its inaugural smart house give-away promotion, Layton said the  technology required cumbersome central controls.

In the four years since completing that build, rapid advancements in technology — namely hand-held devices and the avalanche of apps they can operate — quickly scaled down smart home controls that can be operated by a smartphone or tablet. All of the included features can be controlled via Wi-Fi with no pre-wiring for connectivity required.

Affordability followed.

“We spent about $120,000 alone in automation for the HGTV house,” Layton said. “We can do the same thing today more efficiently and with better equipment for probably $15,000 to $16,000.”

But most of his customers spend far less — anywhere from about $1,000 for a basic package of limited lighting, security and door lock controls to more than $8,000 for a comprehensive package.

“You can link your phone or tablet to anything: lighting controls, audio/video, cameras … and you can mix and match anything you want,” Layton said. “On a $500,000 build, typically a customer would have a $7,500 package, and it’s pretty inclusive. It’s very rare these days we get over $10,000.”

Jason Moore of Moore Electric, whose company was part of the construction team of that first HGTV Smart House, participated in the network’s second and third smart house promotions.

As both an integrator and electrician installing smart home technology in new construction and existing homes, he identified two features that are particularly popular.

“Our two fastest-growing areas in smart home technology are lighting control and motorized window treatments,” Moore said. “That’s both for convenience and aesthetics. We’re moving into a world where there is an app for everything and your light switch is something you interact with all day long. The convenience of having an app to do that and to control your window coverings, along with security features, is becoming an expectation.”

Greater expectations

Although rapidly gaining popularity, whole home automation isn’t for everyone.

“We’ve had some older clients who say they will take security, door locks and one or two lighting controls, but that’s it,” Layton said. “The millennials want everything.”

That means it’s critical for builders looking to capture the tech-savvy homebuyer to offer everything as well.

Home automation is gaining popularity because it requires wireless connectivity to operate, meaning Wi-Fi networks in smart homes also are fully connected homes in every room. There can be no troublesome dead spots as can happen with a single wireless router placed in a remote room of the home.

“People used to get excited when we would tell them we are putting technology in their home, that it’s included,” Layton said, adding that about 90 percent of his customers seek some level of home automation.

“Now it’s expected. With our base package we put in the house, we are going to guarantee full coverage of Wi-Fi in the home. That grabs everyone.”

The expectation of home automation for today’s buyer is what has begun to move national builders toward offering standard smart home packages.

Both D.R. Horton and Lennar recently announced the integration of smart home technology in their builds.

“Historically, we have offered various smart home technology options within our homes,” D.R. Horton wrote in a statement. “However, this is the first time D.R. Horton’s North Florida division is offering it as part of a standard package.”

Horton is offering the packages in its Freedom and Emerald Homes communities at no additional cost.

The customer has the option to add additional home technology features if desired. The standard package includes a remote automated entry, smartphone video monitoring and home automation control system that allows the homeowner to add additional features.

National builder Lennar also recently announced it will include Amazon Echo-controlled technology in its Wi-Fi Certified Home Design program.

Glenn Layton Homes’ 2013 HGTV Smart House included wall-mounted control panels. Four years later, the same home automation features can be controlled by hand-held devices.

The company announced in July a select market rollout of the smart home features into its “everything’s included” approach to homebuilding. The company expects the program to be available nationally by year’s end.

“We live in a connected world, but most existing homes simply weren’t built for that world, leading to frustrating dead spots,” said David Kaiserman, president of Lennar Ventures in a news release.

“By engineering state-of-the-art Wi-Fi right into the design and construction of every new Lennar home the way we do plumbing and ventilation … families will be able to enjoy a connected lifestyle to the fullest,” he said.

Joe Blanco, COO of Daytona Beach-based ICI Homes, said his company’s customers seek varying degrees of smart home technology, largely depending upon price point. The company builds homes from the $300,000s to more than $1.2 million.

He said ICI’s higher-end customers often spend more than $20,000 for whole-house systems.

“We get into Control4 on the higher end but otherwise it’s a la carte,” Blanco said. “Some will want to make sure their house is safe so they are interested in cameras and others just want to make sure they closed their garage door. With the Nest system, you can get just the thermostat or just the cameras or smoke detectors or lighting controls.”

Layton features the Control4 home automation system, which is IOS-based and can be operated by iPhone or iPad.

Updates are as simple as accessing the app store and programming features is user-friendly.

In one of his recently completed homes in Nocatee’s Twenty Mile Village, an iPad magnetically mounted on the wall controls the home’s automated features.

“Anything you can connect to Wi-Fi you can control with your phone or tablet,” Layton said. “You never have to drive home to a dark house. You get a few blocks away and you pull out your device and hit a button and the whole house is lit up when you get there. You can have cameras come on, it alerts everyone who is in the house and provides you with a safe environment. That’s the kind of thing that means something to people these days.”

Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant technology made controlling home automation with the company’s Echo product even easier. Once linked to smart home devices, all that is required are voice commands.

“Alexa is now starting to be integrated into systems that are voice controlled,” said Layton. “It wasn’t like that until the end of last year when it became affordable and everybody was buying it. Anything that’s under voice control can integrate with these systems.”

Even smarter homes

While it may seem like anything that can be automated in the home has been, Layton sees much more in the future of smart home technology.

He regularly attends TechHomeX, a smart home trade show and seminar, and points to “intuitive water heating” as an example. The tankless system “learns” from the occupants’ daily routine and adjusts its operation accordingly.

“If you repeat the same patterns on a day-to-day basis, the water is going to be pre-heated and at the valve when you get to the shower,” Layton said.

Beyond artificial intelligence for the shower, intuitive smart home technology promises benefits for utility costs and energy and water conservation.

“From lighting control to air conditioning to water usage, people are focusing on those things right now because those resources are becoming more expensive,” Layton said.

“Smart irrigation is coming. Environmental issues are hot buttons and the ease of use of all of these functions are what people are looking for,” he said.

“It does have value, and that’s what we try to sell.”

Glenn Layton demonstrates smart home controls from the wall-mounted tablet in his Twenty Mile Village home. The tablet can be removed and taken anywhere without losing connectivity to home automation devices.

That value is applicable to the resale market as well. Moore, whose company installs smart home integration in both new and existing homes, said home automation infrastructure will soon be just as important as the home’s visible physical features when competing against both new construction and resales.

“When we do these homes, I hear people often say they don’t want their kids to have access to TV and other kinds of technology in their bedrooms and the conversation becomes, ‘Well, what if you don’t live here forever?’, ” Moore said.

“The next owner, odds are they will want some kind of communication in that bedroom, even if it’s just internet access to do homework. They will be competing against homes that are fully integrated, and that could place them at a disadvantage,” he said.

Wireless systems can be installed in existing, nonsmart homes for resale, but Moore advised caution.

“If a Realtor was looking to create distinction with their product with home automation, there is a retrofit market and there are some really solid wireless products,” Moore said.

“But you need to be careful because while there are solid wireless products, there are also a lot of wireless products that aren’t. They are easy to get installed but it needs to be done carefully by an industry expert instead of just Googling lights that work with Alexa,” he said.

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