In praise of the Dumb Home

Bonapart House Interior
© Harrison Architects build a dumb house and forget the furnace.

It's all so wonderful, the smart home where all of our appliances talk to each other and turn on and off automatically. Bosch wants to wire up our windows so that the Internet of things can close them if it starts raining. Dacor wants us to control our oven through a tablet computer. Matt Hickman shows us a wifi-connected Crock Pot.

Now Google is buying Nest Labs, with its thermostats and smoke detectors, hopping on the smart home bandwagon. One of the main justifications for the smart home is to save energy, and to increase comfort. But the Nest thermostat, as one example of a connected device, isn't the most effective way to do either.

As Victor Olgyay noted exactly 50 years ago in his book Design with Climate, comfort is not determined by temperature alone, but by a combination of temperature, humidity and air movement. The Nest thermostat turns an air conditioner or furnace on or off, where you might be just as comfortable opening a window or turning on a fan. That's what you would do in a dumb home. Instead, the Nest causes you to use energy to do what used to be free.

Then there is the Passivhaus, or Passive House. It's pretty dumb. A Nest thermostat probably wouldn't do much good there because with 18" of insulation, and careful placement of high quality windows, you barely need to heat or cool it at all. A smart thermostat is going to be bored stupid.

There is also another problem with the smart thermostat: people no longer put on such smart sweater sets like Patti Page used to wear. As Steve Mouzon has noted, "because we are too lazy to put on a sweater or take off a jacket, we have let the thermostat and the mechanical engineer behind it change the way we make buildings." A smart thermostat might actually increase the energy used, not because it drops the temperature when you are not home, but because it increases it while you are there, when you could in fact get just as comfortable by putting on a smart looking sweater. It makes sense; as Kris De Decker notes,

Insulation of the body is much more energy efficient than insulation of the space in which this body finds itself. Insulating the body only requires a small layer of air to be heated, while a heating system has to warm all the air in a room to achieve the same result.

Until the smart thermostat connects to the webcam on your computer and knows what you are wearing, it really won't know what it should be set at. Fortunately with google ownership that kind of technology and information sharing is right around the corner.

And while we are on the subject of Nest, there is the issue of their smoke detector...

big step building sprinkers

The smart smoke detector is obviously a huge improvement over the ones we have now. However across North America, fire chiefs have been promoting residential sprinklers as the most effective way to deal with fire. If everyone had sprinklers then we could stop using poisonous flame retardants. Sprinklers are dumb, they work without batteries. They aren't set off by the toaster so they don't have to be smart enough to know how bad a cook you are.

It's taken a couple of days to recover from CES, where Mike Eliason of the Brute Force Collaborative insists I drank the Kool-aid of Gizmo Green. But in the end, we need the Dumb Home Done Right before we need the Smart Home.

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