Would You Want to Live in an Alexa-Powered Smart Home?

A Plant Prefab modular home in Santa Monica, California. The housing startup is poised to integrate Amazon virtual assistant Alexa and other smart home technology into its customizable dwellings. (Photo: Plant Prefab)

In addition to offering everything under the sun to populate your home with, online retail behemoth Amazon also sells homes. Yes, actual homes that you can place into your virtual shopping cart along with electronic toothbrush head refills, paperback books and nose-shaped shower gel dispensers.

In fact, Amazon has sported a sizable inventory of habitable structures (via third-party sellers) for a while now. These offerings, however, are limited to furnished container dwellings, pint-sized kit homes, build-it-yourself cabins and very large sheds that can be erected in suburban backyards as accommodations for visiting mothers-in-law. And believe it or not, most of these homes even come with free shipping.

Amazon, however, has yet to offer a home that it can truly claim as its own. That may soon change.

In late September, sustainable prefabricated homebuilder Plant Prefab announced that it had received funding from Amazon's Alexa Fund, a venture capital firm dedicated to supporting companies that "fuel voice technology innovation. The Alexa Fund joins a small group of private investors and Obvious Ventures, an enterprise that funds so-called "#worldpositive" businesses, in providing the Rialto, California-headquartered housing startup with a total sum of $6.7 million in Series A funding. This marks the first time that Amazon has invested in a homebuilding company.

Plant Prefab is a 2-year-old offshoot of LivingHomes, a modular home development and design firm that was an early leading force in the green prefab movement known for collaborating with celebrated architects. The past year has been a busy one for the fledgling startup — it has built and installed 26 single-family homes across California and Utah as well as a multifamily project in the Bay Area per a press release.

Plant Prefab has also made its presence known in Napa and Sonoma counties following a spate of ferocious wildfires that leveled thousands of homes across Northern California in late 2017. As a means of assisting those who were displaced by the inferno and are now looking for permanent housing, the company is offering special pricing and incentives while touting the benefits of speedy and efficient modular home building in the wake of natural disasters.

Writes the company: "... Plant Prefab is helping residents overcome severe contractor shortages due to the wildfire aftermath. By leveraging its off-site build facility and full-time staff, Plant Prefab is enabling wildfire victims — who don't have the luxury of extra time or capital — to leave temporary housing situations and access permanent, long-term homes."

Planet Prefab install in Napa
A Plant Prefab home is installed in Napa, California. The company bills itself as the 'first home factory in the nation focused on sustainable construction, materials, processes and operations.'. (Photo: Plant Prefab)

Voiced-controlled domesticity

With a financial assist from the Alexa Fund, Plant Prefab is now diving headfirst into the smart home market by developing and marketing homes with voice-controlled virtual assistant technology — i.e. Alexa — built-in right from the start.

"We will work with Amazon to integrate Alexa and other smart home technology they have into our standard home platforms," Steve Glenn, CEO of Plant Prefab, tells Fast Company. "We'll be working with them to create better integrated Alexa and other smart home technology solutions to help improve the quality of life and utility of people who live in the homes we build."

While unclear if consumers will eventually be able to purchase an Alexa-powered prefab home directly from Amazon, it's apparent that the Seattle-based retail giant is confident that a growing number of homeowners are interested in filling their homes with voice-controlled gizmos and gadgets, and that a smartly designed modular home pre-wired to accommodate such devices will be nothing short of attractive.

Alexa-enabled microwave by Amazon
Voice-powered cookery: An Alexa-enabled AmazonBasics microwave was one of dozens of smart home products unveiled by the online retailer earlier this fall. (Photo: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

News of the Alexa Fund's investment in Plant Prefab came shortly after an announcement that Amazon plans to release a slew of Alexa-enabled devices before the end of the year including a microwave oven, a wall clock and a range of home audio gear including subwoofers and amplifiers.

"Voice has emerged as a delightful technology in the home, and there are now more than 20,000 Alexa-compatible smart home devices from 3,500 different brands," Paul Bernard, director of the Alexa Fund, explains. "Plant Prefab is a leader in home design and an emerging, innovative player in home manufacturing. We're thrilled to support them as they make sustainable, connected homes more accessible to customers and developers."

Plant Prefab factory, Rialto, California
A recent round of funding from Amazon's Alexa Fund and others could help Plant Prefab expand beyond its single production facility in San Bernardino County, California. (Photo: Plant Prefab)

A cure for the urban housing crunch?

In a statement released by Plant Prefab, CEO Steve Glenn details the myriad benefits of modular homebuilding:

"In the housing-crunched major cities like Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, along with areas like Silicon Valley, it takes too much time to build a home from groundbreaking to occupancy, and labor shortages, construction delays and increased construction costs are exacerbating this trend even further — and making homes increasingly less affordable."

Plant Prefab notes that factory-producing homes in lieu of building them on site can slash costs by 10 to 25 percent while reducing construction time by 50 percent. These qualities are vital in situations where time is of the essence, such as in — as mentioned above — areas where residents are rebounding from wildfires and other natural disasters. And as Glenn makes clear, quick and efficient prefab housing can have a positive impact in cities that need more housing and need it fast.

On the non-prefab front, Amazon also recently established a partnership with Lennar, the largest home construction company in the United States, to include Alexa-compatible smart locks, doorbells, lights, thermostats and more as standard features in all of its homes.

Again, it's too early to tell what Plant Prefab's Alexa-enabled abodes will look like or how much they'll cost compared to a standard prefab home sans all the smart home bells and whistles. (Glenn notes that financial backing from the Alexa Fund and others will allow the company to, among other things, build more factories and, in turn, expand its reach and further lower costs for the homes themselves.)

More so than lowered costs, however, it seems that the biggest boon for potential homeowners will be the seamless conveniences offered by a sleek, stylish and environmentally sustainable modular home custom-designed to support integrated voice technology.

Writing for Bloomberg, Noah Buhayar hits the proverbial nail on the head: "... getting its [Amazon's] voice-controlled devices into homes while they're being built could make it more likely that they'll be used in concert, rather than on their own for just a few tasks. While it's possible to string together a bunch of Internet-connected gadgets — from thermostats to doorbells — many people struggle to do so."

It's easy to see the perks of being able to voice-operate your entire home without so much as having to lift a finger. Just pray Alexa never goes rogue or that you come down with an extended bout of laryngitis.