Connected Home 2.0: Getting Smart About Smart Homes

By: Rich Binsacca, Editor-in-Chief, ProBuilder, and Peter Fabris UTOPIA Contributing Editor

Brookfield Residential piloted its brand-agnostic home technology platform, MyCommand, at its Latitude townhome community at Tesoro Ranch in San Marcos, Calif., earlier this year. Photo courtesy Brookfield Residential

For Joan Webb, the light bulb came on when her daughter was home for a visit and couldn’t get a reliable Wi-Fi signal. “It was painful for her to spend a week with us,” says the chief marketing officer for The New Home Company, a diversified builder/developer based in Southern California. “She was like, ‘You have dead zones all over the house!’”

Webb turned that experience into a lesson about what her company could and should do to finally dive into the connected (or smart) home pool after dipping (and stubbing) its toe with limited smart home features. “Everyone was anxious for us to find a solution, but I told them we were going to make the right call, and that it was going to take a little time.”

After researching and actually visiting the headquarters of Amazon, Apple, and Google to learn what each of those behemoths of smart devices could do for New Home, Webb and her team settled on… well, none of them. “I suddenly realized that if I was buying a home today, I certainly didn’t want it to tell me I’m Google or Amazon,” says Webb.

In the end, New Home went brand-agnostic in its approach to deliver connected home features for its buyers, enabling homeowners to bring their own existing gear (think: Alexa) without worrying if it will be compatible with their new home. “Our goal was to create a superior experience for our buyers,” says Webb. “That’s what’s important.”

Brand-agnostic Home Technology Solutions

Even builders that started down the road with a particular brand have hit the pause button and ultimately changed course to an agnostic solution.

Brookfield Residential, another diversified production builder/developer that operates in eight states, originally hitched its connected home wagon to Apple’s HomeKit solution for its Southern California region in 2017.

‘I suddenly realized that if I was buying a home today, I certainly didn’t want it to tell me I’m Google or Amazon.’
— Joan Webb, CMO, The New Home Company

But the rest of the company’s operations across North America were “kind of doing their own thing to deliver connected home features and functionality,” says David Rigby, connected home service manager based at the company’s Costa Mesa, Calif., office. That situation was hard to manage and maintain, and decreased Brookfield’s buying power. “We had success with HomeKit, but we needed a consolidated solution,” he says.

So this year, Brookfield made a corporate-wide switch to MyCommand, an in-house, brand-agnostic scheme that will eventually roll-out across the company. Rigby says its features and functionality are similar to Apple’s kit—connected light switches, door locks, thermostats, garage door opener—but now allows any automation hub and compatible aftermarket devices to plug-and-play. “It’s silly to force-fit one brand or device on buyers,” he says.

Brookfield Residential originally hitched its connected home wagon to Apple’s HomeKit solution for its Southern California region in 2017, but eventually launched its own platform, called MyCommand.

Brookfield piloted MyCommand for its Latitude townhome community at Tesoro Ranch in San Marcos, Calif., earlier this year, and plans to offer it as a standard feature in new communities across North American as they come online. “That depends somewhat on finding local support,” Rigby says, referring to either an in-house or third-party integrator to set up and troubleshoot the system.

Partnering for Smart Home Success

To date, builders anxious yet cautious to delve too deeply into a connected home strategy have been challenged by a technology that lacks uniform standards and can be difficult to implement and ensure interoperability among devices. Then, after closing, fielding and servicing warranty and technical support calls from homeowners to make their smart home systems work.

“If a buyer has to call a technician to turn on the TV, your smart home strategy is not going to work,” says Ryan Thompson, chief marketing officer at Blue Heron, a custom home builder and high-end single-family-home community developer in Las Vegas. Blue Heron has partnered with connected home integrator/vendor Savant to improve technology on the luxury builder/developer’s custom homes and those within its planned communities. Using a “meaningful feedback loop” between the companies, Savant has been able to improve its smart home technology interface, while Blue Heron delivers a better experience to its buyers.

MyCommand’s features and functionality are similar to Apple’s HomeKit, from connected light switches, to door locks, to thermostats. It’s compatible with virtually all automation hubs and compatible aftermarket devices.

The collaboration also includes Eagle Sentry, a local low-voltage design, installation, and service provider that supplies maintenance and technical support for Blue Heron’s homebuyers. The firm gives feedback to Blue Heron and Savant about connected home system performance  in the field and what customers like and don’t like about the technology’s usability and features.

For MyCommand at Latitude and its other Southern California communities, Brookfield found a local integrator to provide “white glove” service to its homebuyers, including an in-home appointment to set up the owner’s hub of choice and configure and walk them through various features the builder provided. The same company also handles support calls, “like any other trade,” says Rigby, though he admits that, to date, few such calls have come in. “It just works.”

Strong Signals for home technology

As Webb experienced with her daughter, and most new-home buyers bring from an older home experience, dead spots and weak Wi-Fi reception in a home can render wireless smart home products unreliable and perhaps unusable.

Builders that invest in assuring a strong Internet signal—using a combination of wired and wireless connections, repeaters and mesh networks to broaden those signals, and “heat mapping” to find and remedy dead spots within a floor plan—help differentiate new homes from older ones in a sales conversation.

That’s all great, but there’s still a disconnect, says Jim Baldwin, CEO of Domatic, smart home vendor/integrator and startup. “There’s no way to install smart home features and check out how they work [without an Internet connection in an owner’s new home]”— a service commonly brokered by homeowners after move-in, says Baldwin.

Domatic is developing a system to test and commission the smart home ecosystem before the home is hooked up to the Internet.

Both New Home and Brookfield, among other sales-and-service-savvy builders, have taken to setting up the signal with a local internet service provider (ISP) ahead of time. That way, the sales team can actually demonstrate and educate buyers on the system’s features and functionality during a home buyer’s final walk-through and have it online through move-in, after which the buyers can take over the service contract or broker their own.

“Wi-Fi is basic, like any other utility,” says Webb of New Home. “We turn on water and gas (in the home), and the owners have time to move it into their name. Wi-Fi is no different.”

Brookfield is following the same playbook. “We wanted to enable a signal for the orientation walkthrough (typically conducted a week before closing) so we can demo MyCommand,” says Rigby. The builder contracts with the local ISP for up to a month, allowing the new owners to switch the account to their name or find another provider.

Having a robust Wi-Fi backbone has been brought into sharper relief by stay-at-home, school-at-home, and work-at-home restrictions caused by the COVID-19 heath crisis. “It reinforced the need to have a strong, reliable Wi-Fi signal,” says Giles Sutton, SVP-Industry Engagement at CEDIA, a global trade association for residential technology. “On-demand services put a lot of pressure on that infrastructure.”

In a realm that so far has mystified many production builders, the key to success among those that have cracked the code is a combination of simplicity and flexibility.

“Don’t overthink it,” says Rigby. “Do your homework, pick quality products, and give your home buyers choice.”