THERE ARE MORE THAN A few people in a range of industries who believe the concept of a “smart” house is no more than a dumb idea. They have good reason to think this way. The grand pronouncements that emanated from the hallowed halls of prestige think tanks such as the MIT Media Lab in the early 1990s have proved just that: Grand pronouncements, with much of what was predicted then, are now considered—in the parlance of Silicon Valley—vaporware. For builders, the concept has been little more than a diversion, although elements of smart house-ness have been creeping into production over the past decade, mostly in the area of digital controls. It has been used as a marketing gimmick, but to date, no production builder seems to have embraced the concept across its product line.

“The term ‘smart house' is one that carries a certain amount of baggage,” says Shawn Martin, director of applied technology for the NAHB's Research Center. That, he says, is “due to development work that was done previously that did not materialize.”

In other words, companies invested time and energy, and they were summarily skunked. Still, there is something to the evolving concept of the smart house, which can be seen in the growing sophistication of mechanical systems, energy management, and home entertainment, all of which rely increasingly on digital technology. That means that these systems can communicate with one another, although there is still debate as to whether or even why one would want them to do so. The much ballyhooed “Internet refrigerator,” introduced two years ago by LG Electronics, has so far been a bust, even though it promised to do everything from keep inventory to automatically order food when supplies ran low.

WIRED WORKS: Architect Michael McDonough's “E-House” is wired for digital control to maximize efficiency and environmental soundness. PHOTO: CORRINE TRANG “People don't want everything automated in their home,” says Mark Younger, director of the Smart House Project at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University. Younger and Duke have set forth boldly into redefining what a smart house could and should be. The school recently broke ground on a 4,500-square-foot facility in which technology will be tested by students and outside observers who actually live in the place ( It is slated to be complete next spring.

Evident in the Duke project is a relatively recent trend in smart house evolution: Smart now means much more than just digital control of everyday systems and appliances. The smart house and the “green” house are slowly merging into what one might call the “E-house”; the “E” being left open to interpretation as anything from electronic to efficient to ecologically sound. In fact, that is precisely what New York-based architect Michael McDonough ( calls his weekend home outside New York City, which has been chronicled in numerous publications including Builder magazine, and on TV ( Video/InsidersList.mpg). Nearing completion in New York's Hudson Valley, the house is wired for digital control and designed for maximum energy efficiency and environmental soundness. In this home, creature comforts such as whole-house audio and video systems, home theaters, and decorative lighting are not only not paramount, they are not there at all. But, owing to the manner in which the home has been designed, they could be added at any juncture, with minimal structural alteration.

“There are three things that make a house smart,” says McDonough. “First, the building envelope and its mechanical systems have to be extremely well built and energy efficient. Second, you are using a certain amount of computer intelligence, and the computer intelligence gathers information and reports back to an interpreter, and it makes a decision. And third, there has to be ease of use.”

LET'S GET PRACTICAL From its inception back in the mid-1980s, the smart house was thought to be a marvel of electronics and convenience, much whiz-bang stuff driven by information technology that cost a lot of money and really didn't make much difference in the life of the owner. Now the emphasis is shifting toward the practical. As evidenced in McDonough's E-house, and as will be in the Duke smart house, systems such as HVAC, security, lighting, and entertainment all now rely on some level of digital control. By linking them through a central computer, they can be controlled more efficiently. That translates into energy savings for the homeowner, which can add up quickly. The question for builders now is how and when to capitalize on these developments.

Rich Dooley, environmental analyst at the NAHB's Research Center, thinks he has an answer to the question of how. “The key element from a marketing standpoint has been to key on the element of quality,” he says. That would mean quality of construction, of course, but also quality of life and quality of systems.

Still, where is the money? Incorporating a high-tech HVAC system, for example, may not provide much of a financial benefit to the builder beyond what accrues from a plain vanilla, high-efficiency system. Likewise, if there is a significant margin to be made in equipping a home with a computer that controls everything, it has yet to be discovered. The day will come, but it is not here yet.

There is money to be made in the entertainment arena, however, with dedicated home theaters and less-elaborate media centers that incorporate big screen TVs, high-definition programming, and digital audio formats such as Dolby 5.1 and DTS. There is whole-house audio as well. An entire industry has grown up around such systems, and that industry is expanding into home information technology, security, and environmental controls. This industry is represented by the trade association, CEDIA (Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association), and its ranks are swelling, now with larger retail chains as well as the mom-and-pop operations and specialty retailers that gave it its start.