Home smart home: The evolution of smart living

Living Well | Beverley Johanson | Photos: David Kulesza | Posted on 24 April 2020

The proliferation of smart technology is seeing our homes work smarter, not harder.

Our homes have never worked so hard. No longer are they simply places where we shelter from the elements, sleep and cook. We now expect them to be energy-conserving, technologically advanced hubs that respond to our every whim and, increasingly, protect us from devastating weather conditions.

Modern timber home built into hill

We want our homes to be time-saving and instantly comfortable, with the temperature just as we like it on arrival, maybe even with music playing and a meal ready. We want to speak our commands instead of fiddling with switches. And we want our houses to generate energy and save resources wherever possible

These demands mean houses are constantly evolving, says Peter Maddison, founding director of Maddison Architects and host of Grand Designs Australia.  

In today’s ideal home, the technology is hidden in the walls and the sustainable features are unobtrusive, but the positive effects are obvious. Living areas are more streamlined and the entertainment system of old has effectively vanished.  

“The TV is no longer the hero of the room with the family all facing it, sharing the same experience. The TV is quite likely off in a separate, smaller room. The mobile is insidious, and more invasive than the big screen,” Peter says. “The family may be sitting around together, but everyone is looking at different things on their screens.”   

The TV is no longer the hero of the room with the family all facing it, sharing the same experience.

Twenty-first-century homes are less formal. The dining room has vanished as eating and entertaining become more casual. Just as diaries and filing cabinets have been reduced to a phone and laptop, the book-lined study is now a built-in desk.  

“What is really changing is the science,” says Peter. “Things like insulation, heating, sealing and glazing are evolving all the time. Innovation in these areas is constantly making new homes more efficient. For example, the latest insulation is made of pockets of coconut oil and soybean oil.” 

Peter sees prefabricated homes playing a huge role in this evolution, with modules built in the controlled conditions of a factory, making construction faster, safer and cheaper. Craning prefab buildings into back gardens can help people cut costs and make the most of tightly held land.  

Michele Summerton, specialist in public and architectural history, says it’s clear we must adapt our living spaces as energy prices rise and the climate changes. “We need to look at new approaches to designing homes that are light on energy and finite resources but still provide comfort and expediency,” she says. 

“We want it to be appropriately utilitarian and technologically responsive while we rely on the benefits of mass production and affordability. We also want the choice to combine craftsmanship and industry.”  

Concrete staircase in modern home
Staircase in modern house
Living room with grey couches

Bushfire, too, will continue to change the way homes in ever-more vulnerable areas are put together. ‘Earth-sheltered buildings’ set into the ground with openings protected by fire-rated shutters are one response to the threat.

We can also expect to see rural homes built low and simply formed with uncomplicated rooflines to cut the risk of embers settling, and incorporating non-combustible materials, gutter guards, water tanks, even roofs covered with soil. Timber decks and verandah, a weak point for embers, may become traditions of the past.   

Architect Sean Godsell has designed everything from a “house on a park bench” – converting a bench to rudimentary shelter for a homeless person – to public buildings and stunning sculptural residences. He designed Mornington Peninsula’s House on the Coast, a holiday home built into a steep sand dune, using the best technology available with heating, irrigation, pool temperature, security, lighting and entertainment all controlled by a smartphone from any location. 

“The owner can water the garden, check security, adjust sunscreens – and do it all from Melbourne. This has direct implications on the environment, particularly energy usage,” says Sean. 

He says that keeping track of fast-evolving technology is front-of-mind for building designers. “It’s a daily battle for architects to determine what is going to remain meaningful. With the House on the Coast, all the technology will remain relevant because it is fundamental to the function of the house.”

Architects can make a feature of technology, he says, or integrate it so that it is invisible. But there are design dangers. “When architects try to express the latest technologies, you get into the realm of sci-fi very quickly,” he says.

Study nook with chair pulled out
Man and woman sitting in chairs reading
Bedroom with ceiling height window looking over green rural setting

Cabin fever

When Jennie Goble and partner Ian McBride wanted to extend a 1970s log cabin at Blairgowrie on the Mornington Peninsula they commissioned an architect trained in sculpture and landscape design. 

The brief was to create a living area with kitchenette, bedroom and bathroom that was entirely different from the original cabin. Other than that, there were no limits placed on transforming the modest 110-square-metre space, except to retain the property’s moonah trees. 

The result is an exciting and beautifully sculptural building. “The space is very cocooning,” says Jennie. “It’s like being in a precious piece of joinery.” 

The house is oriented for solar gain, with a concrete slab exposed to absorb sun during the day and release it at night. Being built of timber, half the building’s carbon mass is locked away. The only paint used is on the front door – a beguiling orange which the couple chose to reference their love of Italy, as this shade is seen on coffee machines there. 

Sashless sliding windows in the upper bedroom create a ‘thermo-syphon’ effect, flushing fresh air through the house. And externally mounted sliding screens control sun penetration. 

All noxious weeds have been removed, with indigenous species planted and irrigated by tank water.

Then and now

Then we scrabbled about for keys to the front door... 
... Now our fingerprint can allow easy access.

Then we pushed a vacuum cleaner around...
... Now Robotic vacuums tootle around by themselves. 

Then we struggled by hand with the garage door, or its temperamental remote...
... Now our number-plate sensor can do the heavy lifting for us. 

Then the dog got bored until we came home... 
... Now Interactive gadgets like the Furbo treat-tossing camera can show us on our phone what a good mutt Fluffy is being, or send us an alert if Fluffy starts barking.

Then we went to the loo and flushed... 
... Now a smart toilet has front and rear wash, adjustable water temperature, oscillating massage and a drying function – all by remote control. Also in development is a toilet that monitors waste and even takes health readings.