Smart is a word in transition. Once almost exclusively applied to human (and some animal) intelligence, today everything and anything is called “smart.” With the growing field of AI (artificial or augmented intelligence) predicting self-learning inanimate objects, smart might be a minimum term with genius close behind.
In construction, the application of computer technology to every facet of the trade is achieving inroads at companies large and small. But the focus is now turning to the implementation and installation of smart technology in the actual buildings. The Smart Home and Smart Office are getting closer.
A major effort to standardize the protocols used to connect dissimilar systems so they can operate as a network, the IoT (Internet of Things) we hear about, is one element. Another is the proliferation of smart appliances and controls, ranging from refrigerators that order milk when low to thermostats that raise the temperature when the owner’s (smart, of course) phone nears on a cold day. Several issues still need to be addressed before everything is smart, however.
Architects and designers need to understand what is available and what is, probably, coming. The homes and commercial buildings on the drawing boards, to use an almost archaic term, need to have the proper infrastructure built-in to prevent immediate obsolescence. Add-on smart functionality will need preparation done before the foundation is poured so the wiring and plumbing are ready when the technology is.
Vendors and retailers are advertising add-ons and networking devices for every room. But while wireless networking is becoming a standard, the fabled “last 50-ft.” of cable from the curb terminal to the building remains a barrier. The building’s devices might reside on a wireless network but getting connected to the internet, where much of the benefit resides, is still dependent on vendors outside the builder’s control. In-place infrastructure can be the weakest point in the smart building concept.
If contractors install smart outlets and lights with adequate wiring for growth, the tenants will benefit. The more intelligence that is put behind the walls, the easier upgrading will be in the future. But remember, access is also important. If modular technology can be used, so much the better; pull out and plug in beats hard wired when it comes to tech updating.
While retailers like Amazon are becoming vendors of their own branded smart products—Hello, Alexa—old line manufacturers are competing with new devices and approaches as well. Even a room as common as the bathroom can be smart these days. For example, Kohler, a 145-year-old company known for its plumbing fixtures, has added smart products to its traditional bathroom and kitchen appliances to make homes smarter.
Kohler’s Konnect line uses voice commands, hands-free motion control, and personalized presets managed through an application for iOS and Android devices. Utilizing the Microsoft Azure cloud platform and Azure IoT services, it also offers support for Amazon Alexa, the Google Assistant, and Apple HomeKit in some fixtures.
Kohler’s intelligent toilet, Numi 2.0, offers water efficiency, personalized cleansing and dryer functions, a heated seat, and high-quality built-in speakers. The lighting features have been upgraded from static colors to dynamic multi-colored ambient and surround lighting. Paired with the new speakers, these lighting and audio enhancements create an immersive experience, claims Kohler.
When designing the new smart home, wiring and access to modules that have the greatest potential for future upgrades is critical. But all the gadgets available will be dumb if—and in most locations, when—the power fails. Storms and weak infrastructure can wreak havoc with electrical power lines, many of which are still hung from poles aboveground. Although most smart devices include a battery backup, building in a generator in locations most susceptible to power outages can make the smart last longer.
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