An Electrifying Tale of How Our Homes Will Be Wired

Things are going to change and you should be ready for it.

Bensonwood Wall.

 Lloyd Alter

This is a boring photo of a mockup of a wall at the offices of Bensonwood, a builder of timber-frame and prefabricated homes in Walpole, New Hampshire. What's different about it is the way the blue electrical conduit comes down from the blue junction box into a space behind where the baseboard goes. This means that the wiring can be changed as needs and systems change. It's all part of what Tedd Benson calls OpenBuilt, which recognizes that parts of a home age at different rates, so you should design so they can adapt to change. In his recent talk for the BS* and Beer show, Tedd noted that he can move an outlet in his own house so easily that he doesn't bother with extension cords.

We have covered the concept before, as well as Stewart Brand's book How Buildings Learn, where he wrote that "All buildings are predictions. All predictions are wrong. There's no escape from this grim syllogism, but it can be softened."

You wouldn't think that electrical systems change that often, but they do; in my own house, I had to rip out all the knob-and-tube wiring and replace it with modern grounded wiring, which was expensive and destructive. In my recent renovation, I missed a few important outlets and switches and fixing it now after the fact is prohibitively expensive.

Install an entire lighting system without a wire stripper or screwdriver
Install an entire lighting system without a wire stripper or screwdriver. Weiland 

But the wiring is still expensive, connecting all of those boxes by hand. Electricians are highly skilled trades, and it takes time. That's why in Europe, in many commercial installations, they are beginning to use systems where everything is pluggable; the wires are all designed to plug right into the switch or the fixture or the outlet box. You never have to snip and strip a wire again; just grab the right length and plug it in.

Office furniture cabling
Office furniture cabling. Weiland 

It's not approved in North America yet, but Tedd has been trying it out in "live free or die" New Hampshire where apparently you can do anything. I thought that this might be applicable to offices or hospitals where work has to be really fast and there are lots of changes, but thought that there is no way it would work in homes. Tedd responded:

You'd be surprised. Electricians are expensive. If the manual labor of master electricians can be displaced by a system, it could end up being quite competitive.

Wiring Will Be Changing Again Soon

A few years ago I wrote that "the home of tomorrow will run on direct current" – in fact it pretty much already does; all our LED light bulbs are diodes, which by definition run on direct current. All of our electronics have wall warts or internal rectifiers. Many of us are switching our lights on and off with our phones or Alexa. Our existing wiring is all delivering 15 amps or 1800 watts to stuff that runs on 10 watts, it is a huge waste of material and money.

USB-C plate
USB-C plate. Datapro 

Soon we may have nothing in our walls but a USB-C outlet running USB-4.0 that can deliver 100 watts, enough to charge your Roomba and everything else in your home except the big white appliances. It won't have such a big dumb plate either, but probably some elegant and inconspicuous design.

Closer Than We Think

This is coming. It will happen because it will be cheaper and faster to install, it will save energy, it will get rid of wall warts and make the things we buy cheaper and more dependable.

And when it does, those of us with regular wiring are going to be spending a lot of money to rip our places apart to rewire, or we will be stapling it along the baseboards like everyone did with cable wiring. Perhaps it will come on a roll and we just tape it, though I suspect it will be a system much like the Weiland boxes where it is all plug-and-play, and that is hard to make into tape.

But in the meantime, anyone building a home should be thinking about Tedd Benson and Open Building, about designing their wiring so that they can get at it and change it, because change it you will.