Will Your First Smart Home Arrive on a Flatbed?

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By Jennifer Pattison Tuohy
Factory-made houses may have an advantage when it comes to automation.

The smart home has a problem. It promises to create a better living experience, save us time and energy, and provide ultimate control and convenience. And then it takes you an entire afternoon to sync your alarm clock to your coffee maker. But as demand for home automation increases, builders and tech companies are innovating and adapting new ways to produce smart homes. 

"The majority of our homes will be smarter within five to ten years," predicts Sara Gutterman, CEO of Green Builder Media, which partners with builders to develop prototypes of smart homes. "Look at the progress homebuilders like Lennar, KB, and Meritage have made already." These companies and others are now offering preinstalled smart devices powered by Apple’s HomeKit or Amazon’s Alexa as packages or even standard in all new homes.  

But is layering gadgets on top of a traditional construction the best route to a fully integrated smart home? Jeff Wilson, founder of prefab smart home startup Kasita, doesn’t think so. "It’s kind of screwed up how we think about housing," he says. "We haven’t productized it." His Austin-based company’s micro home doesn’t just incorporate technology; it is a piece of technology. "It’s both software and hardware," Wilson says.

 As with site-built smart homes, Kasita’s rectangular 374-square-foot houses are prewired with automated thermostats, lighting, shades, and speakers, all of which respond to voice control or can be managed with an app. The difference is that the whole system is controlled by Kasita and can be remotely updated and improved, just like a smartphone or an electric car. "One day you’ll be able to say ‘Good morning, Kasita,’ and it will tell you your home is now 10 percent more efficient due to a software update," Wilson predicts.

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And, because prefab homes are usually designed by a single team, there’s one control point, says Jennifer Dickson, cofounder of Acre Designs, a California tech company that creates smart homes. This helps overcome the issue of competing systems, subcontractors who aren’t familiar with the tech, and other common pitfalls of trying to shoehorn a smart home into a regular home. 

Acre, whose homes are flat-pack, has developed a preassembled "zeroBOX" to control the systems that manage its net-zero homes—including solar panels,an integrated smart home system, and an optional Tesla power wall. "We’ve made it plug-and-play," says Dickson. "Nobody’s stripping wires on-site, nobody’s soldering pipes, nobody’s forming duct work. It’s all snap fittings." 

"We have the advantage of wrapping in this technology experience that a homeowner has never had," says Kasita’s Wilson. "And if it’s way cheaper than anything else you can get in your market, then people are biting."

• Enthusiasm for smart homes is growing. Nearly half of U.S. consumers (48%) intend to buy at least one smart home device this year, a 66% rise over 2017, according to Parks Associates.
• But market researchers estimate that by 2025 only 10% of houses globally will be smart, compared to 82% of new cars—which share similarities in manufacturing with prefab homes—by 2021.