Amazon Key Is a Lousy 21st Century Solution to a 19th Century Problem

Promo image. National Archives/ Women delivering ice during the First World War

People used to have home deliveries all the time, and they solved the problem with design.

In the world of online shopping the biggest problem isn't the last mile; it's the last foot, getting past the front door. But now there is Amazon Key, where a cloud-connected video camera talks to a smart lock. When a courier arrives and enters a bar code, Amazon remotely unlocks the door, pings your phone and videos the delivery. This eliminates the possibility of "porch pirates" stealing your stuff.

Some people are creeped out by this, like Patrick at Lifehacker:

This all sounds well and good for the seemingly utopian society Amazon apparently believes we all inhabit, but there are simply too many ways this can go awry, whether via the actual hardware or the actions of people allowed into your home.
ice man

The iceman cometh to Houston, 1928/Public Domain

It all sounds like such a 21st century problem, but it was also a big 19th century problem, because before refrigerators were available many people had regular home deliveries of two common necessities: milk and ice. People were sometimes creeped out by the ice man too, and didn't necessarily want him tromping through the house. So they solved the problem with design.

house plan with side door

The Livable House/ Aymar Embury II Architect/Public Domain

That's why often the houses of the middle and upper class were designed for deliveries; there would be a side kitchen entrance where the ice man could leave the ice without getting into the house.

It's not just Amazon doing this either; Walmart is experimenting with home delivery right into your fridge. Now, instead of just dropping off packages, they are coming right into your kitchen.

Mccray fridge

McCray fridge is iced from the outside/Public Domain

But ice delivery got really sophisticated with the Maclary refrigerators, which had a door from the outside directly into the fridge. Imagine this today. Walmart or anyone else could stock your fridge without coming into your house.

Majestic Milkbox

Majestic Milkbox/Promo image

Even simpler and cheaper is the mailbox. My parents had one of these; it was very clever. The inside door stays locked while the outside door opens for the milkman and then a lock dropped into place, stopping milk pirates. Today one might insulate it and maybe even make it a little Phononic solid state fridge.

Ground floor

© Henry Fliess for CMHC

There is another approach that one might take today. If you look at the wonderful house plans from the sixties that we showed earlier this year, designed for the cold Canadian climate, almost all of them have vestibules, places to take off your snow-covered boots. When I practiced as an architect I always tried to design a big vestibule with a closet and an inner door to keep the cold out of the house. Perhaps every house or apartment could have a vestibule with an inner and outer door, both with locks, so that deliveries could be left there. And what if the kitchen was next to it, like in Henry Fliess's design, with a back door for food deliveries? It's all safe and secure.


Mailboxes in Malmo/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In apartments, one might see more of what is in the lobby of the Cykelehuset Ohboy! in Malmo; it is a mailbox system with little LCD displays on each box that tell residents that there is something inside for them, in a range of different sizes.

In their video, Amazon isn't just selling the Key system for deliveries, but also to let in people doing services like cleaning or repairs. But really, it is all about the deliveries, which are getting as common as ice was a hundred years ago. If it is going to be the new normal, then perhaps architects and designers should bake it right into their designs in the first place.