Entering a model home always feels a bit like opening the door into a fantasy world where every surface is pristine and every room is decorated to a level of perfection impossible for most of us to achieve. But when you open the door to a model home and it talks back to you, you’ve entered the realm of science fiction.
Smart home technology, once the purview of the wealthiest and most tech-savvy homeowners, has spread to the masses with the availability of products that allow you to answer and unlock your front door remotely and adjust the temperature of your house before you get home from work. Now voice-controlled technology is transforming our homes into futuristic places that go far beyond the once cutting-edge yet laughable “clap-on, clap-off” light fixtures.
Brookfield Residential has collaborated with Amazon to design the Brookfield Residential Smart House, which integrates Amazon’s Alexa platform with a Kensington model single-family home at the Avendale community in Bristow in Prince William County, Va.
“We wanted to do something cool to differentiate ourselves from other builders and to anticipate how people will be living moving forward,” says Gregg Hughes, vice president of sales and marketing for Brookfield Residential. “We reached out to someone at Amazon who had worked with builders on a voice-activated custom home, but this is the first time this technology is being used in a production home.”
Amazon’s Alexa platform is part of the Echo voice-recognition system introduced by Amazon in late 2014. The Consumer Intelligence Research Partners estimates that 8.2 million Echo devices had been purchased by the end of 2016. (Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
“Voice automation means that everything in the house is controlled wirelessly by your voice, so anyone can use it to ask it to do something or ask a question,” says Hughes. “You can use it for safety to control lights and a security system, for audiovisual uses such as turning on music, and to do things like preheat your appliances and close or raise your blinds.”
Hughes says that Brookfield decided to build the smart house model at Avendale rather than at one of the company’s custom home communities to demonstrate that smart home technology isn’t reserved for expensive houses.
“We consciously chose a midpriced community where the model home would have the most impact,” he says. “We plan to roll it out in other new communities and will retrofit some of our existing communities by offering the technology on homes that have yet to be built.”
Base prices at Avendale range from $429,990 to $539,990.
Hughes says the number of visitors to Avendale has increased by 80 percent since the smart house model opened.
“People are telling us they like to see how people will live in the future,” he says. “We’ve found that while some people who come in are very tech-savvy and are fluent in using Alexa, the technology seems to appeal to all ages. We’re planning to bring it to our active adult communities because we think it could be nice for older people to rely on using their voice to do things like shut the blinds and preheat the oven.”
The basic level of smart home technology is a standard feature on all new homes at Avendale. Brookfield plans to offer voice-activated technology at their homes in other communities as well.
Hughes says they offer “smart, smarter and smartest” packages, each of which will cost about $1,500 to $2,000. The lowest level will have the Alexa voice-activated system, a few voice-controlled dimmers for lights, a wireless thermostat and a video camera for the front door. Each additional package adds a few more items, such as more dimmers on lights and motorized blinds.
“Buyers can upgrade with a package or they can upgrade with a la carte choices,” Hughes says. “Buyers can also decide to wait and see what else will be added in the future. All our homes will be WiFi-enabled so buyers can buy plug-and-play upgrades whenever they want.”
Hughes says Brookfield upgraded the wiring at Avendale to “Category 6” and plans to upgrade to that level of wiring at all their new communities.
“Category 6 wiring has greater capabilities to provide wireless broadcast access,” he says. “Instead of having jacks all over the house, you can have a smart TV anywhere that uses WiFi from a router.”
The model home at Avendale has been programmed to make it easier for visitors to see Alexa in action. Homeowners can program their own system or use Alexa for individual commands, Hughes says.
Once visitors enter the model home, they use the command, “Alexa, turn on the smart home,” which lowers the shades on the windows and turns on the gas fireplace, the fan, the lights and the television. Visitors can also use the commands, “Alexa, ask Brookfield to tell me about the smart home” and “Alexa, ask Brookfield to tell me about Brookfield Residential” to listen to basic information about the home and the company. Other commands visitors can experiment with on the main level include asking for security cameras to be activated, raising and lowering the garage door, and requesting an explanation of the “Drop Zone,” a secure area of the garage where deliveries can be accepted even when no one is home.
“We set up themes to show how simple life could be with a voice-activated system,” says Hughes. “For example, you can say, ‘Alexa, good morning,’ and this will automatically start your coffee maker, turn on the shower so the water is the right temperature when you get in and raise your blinds. You can customize this to whatever you want it to do.”
Visitors to the model home can try out individual commands in the model home, too.
On the upper level, visitors can say, “Alexa, turn on the force,” in a Star Wars-themed bedroom to lower the shades, dim the lights and activate music and special lighting. Saying “Alexa, turn on relax” dims the lights, illuminates star panels and starts playing soothing music that you might hear in a spa.
“People can really see the potential of this technology to make their lives easier,” Hughes says. “Our model home starts a dialogue with buyers about how they want to live. This model home is just the tip of the iceberg. Technology is changing so rapidly that we are focused on future-proofing our homes to make them ready for the next phase.”