by Steven Harris


This is the final instalment of this series. It’s been fun writing it. Looking at the future – the real future, not the old-fashioned one – imagining arguments with your house, working out what your house’s point of view might be, and how this might actually be useful…

I know some of you ask (because I have spoken to you) if my smart house idea isn’t just gadget culture gone mad. Even though you may have picked up that I’m not exactly Mr  21st-century myself (my phone still has buttons, for goodness sake!) I don’t think it is. I know I still use maps; and my TV has a fake wooden box that is deeper than the curved screen is wide; but I don’t really use the TV – big Welsh mountains = no signal – except as a handy table to put the laptop on to watch iplayer. I’m not a complete throwback!

So why do our houses suddenly need to be able to talk to themselves? Why does it all need to be joined up like a big machine? Why can’t we carry on as we always have done? It seemed to work fine.

Well yes – it has worked, and maybe up to now I haven’t seen the need myself. As an architect you see a lot of sales reps – they come and try to sell their fancy lighting management systems, their fully networked ‘CAT5’ houses with full multimedia – but it always seemed a bit Dudley Moore to me. It was the wrong future, in fact.

But just possibly, this (to coin a phrase) new age we’re in, wirelessly connected with no fuss and little cost, has caught my imagination. In our new app’y world, we can solve problems that used to take hours – or cost thousands in equipment – with a $1.99 app on a smart phone (admittedly a gadget, but a ubiquitous one!).

But my interest is really sparked by another world – in fact, two worlds.

The first is the alternative world of van and boat dwellers. You’ll have seen them down along your local canal. Living a very basic, off-grid life, if they want power in their van or boat they have to use renewable energy – or ‘alt tech’, as I’ve heard it called. And they manage that finite power very carefully.

Building my own house, before I got a grid connection on-site, all the power for tools, laptop and lighting in the evening came from a solar panel clipped into the bike rack on the back of my camper van. (When we actually went camping, I wired up the panel to work the fridge.)

This all worked fine – but if the sun wasn’t strong, it might run out of charge and warning buzzers would start to scream, and I would have to go and do something with a spade instead. I always had to make sure I gave the battery some time to charge back up before the sun went down, or else face a romantic candlelit evening. On a nice sunny day, on the other hand, you could plan to sit and read a book that night.

In short – I was using (rudimentary) smart energy management.

The other world that inspires me is the developing world.

I know the Greek islands are not exactly in the developing world, but while I was on holiday I was talking to a local about the mobile phones everyone has. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘Greece has missed out the twentieth century and gone straight to the twenty-first’.

Many people in African and Asian countries could say the same. Why bother with all that heavy 20th-century infrastructure? Nowadays you can just put one phone mast on the highest hill, and everyone can have a phone!

It was reported on the radio recently that a main driver for peace in Afghanistan (as well as freedom movements elsewhere) is access to the internet and mobile phones. This is only possible with wireless, infrastructure-lite technology.

I suppose I’m trying to say that these technologies are not just gizmos, gadgets and frippery – they can have a literally empowering effect on people’s lives. It would be bourgeois to ignore the benefits they can bring, and they are real benefits – otherwise people who live in extreme conditions would not be using them.

So let’s look at the 21st century be like without smart home energy management.

Well – we wouldn’t be managing demand loads, so we’d want to upgrade with new coal and nuclear power stations, to deliver peak power demand. To feed those, we’d have to destroy more of our landscape to get the coal and rare earths we could no longer afford to import even if China were willing to export them. (China isn’t the only country that has rare earths; it’s just the only country prepared to lay waste to whole mountain ranges to extract them.)

We might start rationing energy with power cuts, like they did in the 1970s. This is a foolproof answer to anyone who says ‘people will be people’, and won’t stop using energy. They will if you switch it off!

Or – a mixture of the two – we could move to a more energy-efficient lifestyle where we forego some things we would like to do, but otherwise just carry on as usual, with a bit more austerity.

My view is actually, on one hand, more pessimistic than this vision.  I feel that we are perhaps living out the final years of a fossil-fuelled arrogance,  when we assume  that endless power can just be dug out of the ground. It’s not that there’s none left, but that what is left will be much harder – and increasingly expensive – to get hold of and then use. No more gushing oil wells, no more natural outcrops of coal. Instead, black sand that you have to expend almost as much energy getting the energy from it as it eventually manages to give.

I think we will face energy rationing, by price if nothing else. And we will have to manage by clever management of the energy we are able to get hold of.

The good news is that, because we are humans, we should be able to do it! But we need to find a new way to think about how we do things. And how much easier that will be if we let our houses take some of the strain!

At its most basic, it will be like me in my van, finding a job I can do with no electricity on a day when there’s less power. But with a clever house you may be able to carry on with what you’re doing,  prudently using energy that was  squirreled away by your clever house when the wind was blowing and power was cheap.

What’s that? I think I can hear my house saying something.

House: Wake up, it’s time to use your internet connection!
Me: Wha- ? Oh, thank goodness, I thought –
House: You were having a bad dream. If you hurry up you can have a bath, too. Now, shall I put the kettle on?