Meg White is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.
The internet of things is arguably invisible. Smart locks on doors controlled by our phones mean the keys in our pocket can disappear. When refrigerators keep track of how many eggs are left in the carton, shopping lists become unnecessary and the appliance orders the groceries.
These “unseen” tech breakthroughs, paradoxically, will soon have a significant impact on the physical design of homes and other buildings as well as many of the amenities contained within them. Forward-thinking real estate builders and developers should be adapting their designs to the increasingly web-enabled world, says Sce Pike, founder and CEO of Portland, Ore.–based software company IOTAS. “Physical space is going to be changed by IoT,” she says. “Future physical changes will be much more drastic, and building owners and operators are already thinking about this.”
Utility costs are an important calculation in the comfort and cost of homes, and that’s why the switches on our walls may be the first place inside the home where tech-driven design changes are evident. IOTAS helps condo and apartment building owners unite a variety of smart-home products into one interface, a process that takes about an hour per residential unit and can be done by IOTAS workers or by property managers. But the user experience is a bigger, evolving consideration. Chad Curry, managing director of the National Association of REALTORS®’ Center for REALTOR® Technology, notes that as IoT devices proliferate, the number of switches and panels needed in a home will diminish. That’s because truly smart innovations will allow lighting and temperature changes to occur automatically, based on settings and environmental factors, without the need for human intervention. “These things will be less visible to us. I think thermostats will start to disappear in the next 10 years,” Curry says. While users will need to have some way to override these automatic controls, the end result will be fewer panels. While these features are generally still fixed design elements today, they’re becoming portable: Logitech’s unwired Pop Home Switch enables users to control lights, music, and more with a switch mounted anywhere or carried from room to room. The starter pack sells for $60 on Amazon.
What will also surely stir the excitement of sustainability-minded consumers is the potential for houses to create their own energy, and how this new ability will affect design. In the past, builders have purposefully minimized a home’s sun exposure in order to keep cooling costs down. But a residential space that incorporates solar panels might benefit from the opposite orientation. “If we build homes that are going to be energy harvesters, what does that look like?” Curry asks. “Edge-case builders are already thinking about this.”
Much of the need for change is driven by shifts in consumer habits, especially the way we eat. Increasing interest in home-delivered meal prep kits and grocery delivery challenges traditional drop-off sites. After all, drivers can’t just place a grocery store order in a communal fridge until the resident who ordered it is ready to put everything away; the ice cream will melt and the bananas will turn brown. In addition, the rise of ride-sharing services and autonomous vehicles will change how residents use parking lots, driveways, and entrances. In multifamily environments, drones and robotic concierge services will force design changes to rooftops and elevators, to ensure unmanned aerial vehicles can land and make deliveries safely and without disrupting the flow of human traffic. Some buildings may even see a return of the old-fashioned dumbwaiter, this time operated by delivery robots.
William Mainguy, vice president of strategy for Burrard Group, a real estate development company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, has these sorts of problems on his mind. His company is working with IOTAS to solve them for a new condo development in Seattle called NEXUS, incorporating high-tech communications, electronic guest passes that work with smart elevators, and interfaces for managing utility use and homeowners association needs into the building’s structure. “We’re thinking about how to more efficiently design the space and leverage smart furniture,” he says. “Anyone who’s trying to sell the residential product or tell the story has to become really savvy about the difference between simply adding the technology and truly integrating it.”
Pike applauds developers who are thinking ahead, creating smarter delivery holding areas that can change temperature based on how much and what type of food is stored in them. Drone landing pads and parking spaces specifically for electric and autonomous vehicles are being added in markets across the country.
Because Burrard Group plans to complete construction on NEXUS in mid-2019, Mainguy says they have to balance future predictions about parking with today’s transportation needs. “We had to look at when would be the right time to start shifting our designs,” he says, noting that cars may eventually become more of a service than an ownership product. “Right now I don’t think everyone’s going to be selling their cars. But we don’t have to have a parking spot for every unit.”
It’s not just those in new construction who need to think about these changes, Pike says. She estimates 40 percent of IOTAS’s business comes from retrofitting existing property. “Owners of older buildings are trying to compete against new buildings that are going up right next to them” by adding smart-home technology, she says.
The integration of IoT technology brings benefits back to developers, building managers, and real estate professionals. Mainguy says big data harvested from smart-home technology can help his company understand what residents really want. Some amenities, such as gyms and swimming pools, are perceived as being vital to compete in certain markets, even if they’re never used by residents. By tracking whether people use amenities in the aggregate (as well as how and when they use them), property managers and builders can rely less on popular opinions and make better informed decisions about potential features of new buildings or updated designs.
Mainguy also says new technologies can reduce the stress on the staff and real estate pros who work in residential developments. When residents can use systems to book private rooms themselves and make repair requests with a push of a button, concierge-type staffing needs may be reduced. Real estate agents who show well-designed high-tech homes to buyers can count on a smoother experience, too. “These tools can really make selling a home better,” Mainguy says, noting that apps can automatically enable HVAC, lighting, and locks ahead of a showing. “Every unit that you go into is already prepped, and automatically locks up when you’re done.” Even if you’re not yet working with listings that take advantage of smart-home devices, a move to simpler showings is a shift everyone can get behind.