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The Washington Scene

U.S. Builders Get 'Smart' on Imports

October 25, 1987|JOHN BETZ WILLMANN | Special to The Times

Aware of an increasing Japanese push to get a piece of the often booming American new-home market, U.S. builders are hitting the high-tech road to develop a "smart house" that may help to forestall foreign competition.

In a major research-and-development effort, the National Assn. of Home Builders already has completed a house that will become a laboratory for innovations that are expected to change new houses by adding a package of sophisticated electronic advances. The basic component of the smart house is the wiring.

Americans long have been accustomed to AC (alternating current) power cables that provide low-voltage wiring for everything from doorbells to interior and exterior lighting. Our clocks, thermostats and TV sets operate on what has been graphically described as "so much spaghetti" strung in our homes.

That's why initial designs of the smart house wiring system focus on a unified cable (one big wire) that will distribute power, control-data signals and all audio-visual telephone signals. This new multipurpose home wiring system will demand specially designed outlets and connectors. Any outlet will serve any use, from telephone to TV screen to stereo speakers.

The smart house will have the capability of shutting off your TV or your electric food processing appliance when the telephone rings, and it is said that appliance outlets will be such that a child can put a finger into one without suffering a possible shock. And, of course, the smart house will have a stove that will get your dinner started while you are on the way home from work.

For instance, a motion detector could show that an older person has not moved for a longer than normal time, or the same detector might enable baby-sitting grandparents to keep an electronic eye on a sleeping grandchild in another part of the house.

Ideas used in the smart house are expected to be transferred into hospital and nursing home construction. For instance, an automated voice might ask an old, or sick person if everything's all right--and then put out a signal for assistance if no response is received.

Meanwhile, U.S. builders are aware that Japanese and European manufacturers are producing systems and prototype items that are part of modern home construction. American builders are also aware--as the result of a recent market study--that current homeowners are strongly interested in getting into new houses that will make their living easier and more productive.

Before the year 2000 gets here, yur house may be smarter than you are, but it will be too smart to tell you that it is.

But don't go looking for a smart house this year or next. Just think about them until all the R&D work is done and builders learn how to put those technically advanced houses together. And that will be a major challenge for U.S. builders who often have a tough time finishing a conventional home without a lot of bugs and operating deficiencies. Meanwhile, Japanese building firms are known to be working on electronic/electro components for export to other countries.

In order to keep foreign builders out of their business here, U.S. home developers are looking forward to the day--probably in 1990--when a washing machine can be programmed to notify its owner via a TV screen that the load of wash is finished and ready to be put in the dryer.

NAHB's technical staff is working at its new research lab just outside the Washington Beltway and at the first "lab house" to bring more high-tech services to tomorrow's home buyers. And scores of appliance makers and manufacturers of home components are part of that effort with the NAHB technical staff.

But what about cost? You always have to pay more for new things. Right? That will be true for the first few years when the cost of an intelligent dwelling is likely to be at least $5,000 more than houses with less high-tech equipment. But by 1995, when production is expected to get rolling in a big way, the smart homes may be only a few hundred dollars more than those with run-of-the-mill wiring.

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