How can the smart home sector engage better with the architecture and design world?
A couple of months ago, a colleague and I attended an event co-hosted by Microsoft and the RIBA exploring how to ‘Rethink space through digital design’. Although heavily focused on how Microsoft’s technology could be used to design architectural spaces, a panel discussion also explored several issues around the future of residential and commercial buildings, and what elements the panel believed would be crucial in the coming years. Notably, the terms ‘smart home’ or ‘smart building’ were not mentioned once during this conversation.
This omission, while perhaps no longer surprising to those of us in the smart home community, reflects a wider habit within architecture and building design to relegate the role of technology integration to the sidelines. While modern architects are clearly concerned with finding new ways to conceptualise space in increasingly effective ways, the general inclination seems to be that it will be design-focused solutions, rather than intelligent technology systems, that will drive the next generation of future-ready homes.
That this is the prevailing thought among architectural circles should not be taken for a lack of effort on our part – the truth is that the CI community has made significant overtures to the architecture and design communities over the past few years. CEDIA has been a large proponent of this, with its RIBA-, RIAI- and BIID-certified Designing Integrated Future-Ready Homes CPD a significant door-opener when it comes to getting smart home integration in front of individual architects and their practices. Too often, however, these advances have been met with no more than mild interest and little in the way of commitment; simply put, our message might be getting through, but we need it to resonate more.
“…simply put, our message might be getting through, but we need it to resonate more.”
While our industry remains convinced that the smart home is the inevitable next step for residential and commercial properties alike, many architects and designers are still to be convinced that it is the right direction for their projects to take. Indeed, there are those who are outwardly hostile towards the possibilities that technology offers, including respected architect and founder of OMA, Rem Koolhaas:
"There is a potentially sinister dimension to, before you know it, being surrounded by a house full of sensors that can follow you on the moment of entry, to the moment you set your bedroom temperature, to the moment you set your likely return to your house."
Do architects dream of electric homes?
As a sector, perhaps one of the major mistakes that we have made is to only consider the home from our perspective, and to try and sell our services in these terms rather than considering what preoccupies architects. Our marketing and communications efforts invariably focus on how our technological solutions offer convenience, comfort and control – benefits that we know are of value to occupiers or those that will regularly make use of a space.
While these are all entirely valid selling points, they are centred solely around the end user experience. Rarely do we consider how an architect might also benefit from integrating smart home technology into their properties.
Humans are not innately selfish creatures, yet we usually require a reason beyond mere altruism before we embrace a new concept. The messaging we target towards architects often fails to mention how this technology might also benefit their design efforts. This may go some way towards explaining why many of them are left cold by the prospect of a technology-filled smart home.
“To engage better with architects, we need to put ourselves in their collective mindset, and understand how our services can help them solve problems.”
To engage better with architects, we need to put ourselves in their collective mindset, and understand how our services can help them solve problems. For example, when summarising the top ten architecture trends of the last year, Dezeen suggested that topics such as minimalist interiors, house extensions (aka retrofit solutions) and sustainability were important shifts in building design. These are all areas in which smart technology can have a positive influence and offer immediate ways in which we can position our solutions so that they address genuine requirements for modern architectural projects.
By focusing on how smart technology can let architects add flexibility and innovation to their designs (e.g. through reducing overall energy use, facilitating the creation of multi-purpose spaces or by automating the management of a home environment) we can seek to inspire the architecture community with the possibilities for collaborative design and show how we can work with them as partners, rather than as just another contractor.
Mutually assured construction
One of the major similarities between home technology installers and architects often goes unremarked – both sectors provide unique design services to customers in a society that is used to seeing everything they buy as just another product. This commonality cannot be stressed enough as, despite our differences, we both have very similar approaches to building design and construction.
Just as the rise of mass market smart home technology poses a challenge to custom installers, so too the rise of mass-produced uniform homes threatens the architecture community. The truth is that both of our professions come up with their best work when designing unique, interesting spaces that provide long-lasting value to our clients. Similarly, both professions face an identical challenge in persuading homeowners that are used to easy, off-the-shelf options that the service they provide is worth investing in. These are all areas of commonality that both sides often ignore, instead dwelling on the differences between our professions.
A further bond that we should recognise between smart home technologists and architects is that both professions are designers and specifiers. Like an architect, it is the job of the CI to research, analyse and select a range of materials, equipment and methods to find the perfect solution for a particular project. Our expertise is far more valuable than just our relationships with certain manufacturers, and the value of forward-thinking design for home technology is comparable to that of a well-crafted space or a beautiful interior design.
Establishing trust between design and technology
Many architects are increasingly reliant on subcontractors to supply whole sections of a building project these days, and smart home technology is no exception. With that in mind, it becomes easy to see how some architects might believe that we are their competitors, taking money away from a project that might traditionally have belonged to them.
“At best, smart home technology tends to be approached as a challenge for architects to overcome; at worst, it’s considered a threat to a well-designed home.”
At best, smart home technology tends to be approached as a challenge for architects to overcome; at worst, it’s considered a threat to a well-designed home. The difficulty comes in convincing an architect that our services are necessary to recommend to a client. The relentless hype around consumer-installed smart home solutions and the seeming complexity of custom smart home installation means that an architect could be tempted to leave technology provision up to the client, or else to propose off-the-shelf smart home solutions that eliminate the middle man (in this case, us).
To counteract this, we need to start demonstrating more forcefully how our expertise can be used to enhance an architect’s work, rather than limiting their ambitions. This does not mean pandering to their whims, but instead challenging their preconceptions about what it is that we provide to a construction project.
We need to take the focus away from what it is that we offer, and start a conversation about how the work we supply can have a positive effect on construction projects, from superior craftsmanship and design-sensitive installation to the many opportunities to collaborate.
Most importantly, however, we need to explain why we do what we do. By drawing the parallels between us we can help architects understand that we share the same essential ambition: to create beautiful homes that people love to spend time in. Do this right, and we can start a conversation that enables installers and architects alike to push the boundaries on what is possible in terms of intelligent home design.
Ben McCabe is the editorial and marketing lead at smart home installer Andrew Lucas London and at VR consultancy Andrew Lucas Studios.