Jerry Godsey is betting that the public is ready for a system he's deploying in a joint venture with IBM's Pervasive Computing division that lets new homeowners manage their households over the Web.

Godsey, president of Commonwealth Builders in Roanoke, Va., is offering the new Web-based homes at the Village at Tinker Creek, a $60 million, 170-unit traditional neighborhood development he's building on 50 acres in Roanoke County, just a few miles north of the city of Roanoke.

"Tinker Creek is different from other attempts at home automation, because the focus is more on using the Web to manage everyday practical tasks--not to fill the homes with expensive lighting and home entertainment systems," Godsey explains.

The development is also one of the first major pilot programs where a builder is deploying Web-based home automation and wireless technologies on a mainstream construction project at an affordable price. Homes at Tinker Creek start at $195,000.

"It's not about putting a 57-inch plasma screen on the wall," says Gene Cox, director of mobile solutions for IBM's Pervasive Computing division. "What you see at Tinker Creek are practical applications to help people manage their lives."

Tony Barra, chief strategy officer at the nonprofit Internet Home Alliance, which seeks to advance home technologies, agrees.

"There are other projects rolling out Web applications for home technology, but Tinker Creek is about testing these Web-based home management solutions and learning where they are going," Barra says.

"Tinker Creek is much more far reaching, where they are looking at meter reading, automated billing, appliance monitoring, and laying down the infrastructure for the automated kitchen applications we're testing with our Mealtime pilot up in Boston," continues Barra.

The full system

Each home is pre-wired with Category-5 wire for Ethernet networking and RG6 for cable connectivity. And for an up-front cost of $4,500--roughly $20 a month over the life of a 30-year mortgage--homeowners will get the full home automation system.

Residents log on to their own personal Web page that lets them manage their e-mail and appointments and gives them access to a community intranet where they can learn about or post community events and activities. The system lets users manage their security, lighting, and heating and cooling, as well as control surveillance cameras and read gas meters online. Godsey estimates that homeowners can save up to 30 percent on their monthly heating bills by more precisely managing their HVAC over the Web.

The system is also connected to panic buttons that can be installed throughout the house, so if someone suffered a heart attack in the kitchen, pressing the panic button will direct the system to send out pre-programmed e-mail alerts. "My dad could have e-mails sent to me, his wife, and my younger sister, as well as to a dispatcher who would send on the proper people to take care of the emergency," says Blair Godsey, Jerry's son and vice president of sales and marketing for Commonwealth Builders.

The basic home automation panel also includes a standard wireless hub, so homeowners can use their laptops or handheld devices anywhere in the home. The goal is for the entire community to be set up for wireless so Tinker Creek residents can use their wireless devices anywhere in the development, even at the community center.

At time of writing, Commonwealth has completed 20 homes, 17 of which were sold, and 11 families are living in their new homes. Tinker Creek will be built in three phases over four years. Jerry Godsey says Commonwealth started offering the Web-based features to homeowners this fall. Right now, the Web applications are hosted at IBM's pilot center in Charlotte, N.C., and, ultimately, the system will be hosted by either a cable operator or a telecom company.

Will it sell?

Tinker Creek has an ITT plant and a budding biotech center nearby, so there's definitely a portion of the local workforce that may find the new Web-based applications appealing. Godsey also thinks the general population will go for the new-home applications, but he says they have to be trained, something Commonwealth will offer new residents later this year.

"The technology is ... not something that everyone will participate in," says Godsey. "We have people in their 70s who won't buy into this. But my mother is 80 years old and I gave her a computer and the training five years ago and now it's her place to get away. I feel we can offer something similar if we give people the training. We will work to increase everyone's operating knowledge of the computer."

For now, the new residents, some of them older couples in their 50s and 60s, are less sure about how successful the project will be.

Rodney Furr, 56, an engineer who moved into his new home in mid-April with his wife and his daughter, a recent college graduate, loves the neighborhood concept and agrees that pre-wiring the homes for the Web-based technology will increase his home's resale value--but he's less sure of any immediate return on his investment.

"For us, the traditional neighborhood concept is what appealed," says Furr. "As for the technology, the community intranet is very appealing, and monitoring my heating and cooling over the Web makes sense, once I get my hands around the costs. We've only been here a few months so we don't have enough of a track record to base what the savings will be."

Maurice Barnhart, 65, a retired certified public accountant, also questions what the technology at Tinker Creek will really do for him.

"I'm interested in the new technology, but it didn't influence me [in my purchase]," says Barnhart. "The potential savings on heating and cooling are interesting."

Kim Lynn, 38, a U.S. Postal Service worker with two boys, ages 11 and 13, says high-speed Internet access is a nice feature, and she thinks that some of the home technology applications will be useful in the years ahead. "Mostly, I think the technology will be good as a resale feature," she says.

The jury's out on whether Tinker Creek will succeed. It's just too early to tell. If Godsey fails in the short-term, he's more than confident he will be vindicated in the long run.

"Ten years down the road, when the older generation moves on, is when you'll see the true rewards of being invested in Internet-related goods and services," says Godsey. "Because the younger generation is going to expect them."

National Exposure Agreement to market IBM's home technology puts Tinker Creek on the tech map.

Commonwealth Builders has received national exposure over the past several months from its agreement with IBM's Pervasive Computing division to market IBM's Web-based home automation applications for the Village at Tinker Creek project.

The solution, a joint venture between IBM and Commonwealth Builders, is a mix of IBM-developed products and best-of-breed technology that IBM selected for the pilot. The technology control panels for the new homes were assembled by Commonwealth Builders.

IBM's goal is to take technology that has been proven in the corporate world and extend it to the home. Each household that signs up for the technology will have a residential service gateway from Taiwan-based C.P. Technology that runs IBM's WebSphere Everyplace Embedded software. The WebSphere software is the interface the homeowners use to program such things as lights, heating and cooling, and security alarms. The gateway will also have home automation control software from Shanghai Video Audio that manages all the in-home devices behind the scenes. Along with the gateway, users can opt for a standard Netgear wireless hub for wireless computing and communications.

Gene Cox, director of mobile solutions for IBM's Pervasive Computing division, says the best way to understand the system is that the basic infrastructure offers four different ways to access applications: broadband networking via DSL or cable; wireless Ethernet access to the home network; an Ethernet connection for home networking; and two control networks--one for all the data devices, the other for electrical devices such as lamps and switches. Cox says users browse the Internet via DSL or cable connection, but they access the Tinker Creek community intranet through the residential gateway.

Homeowners will pay roughly $4,500 for the full automation system. Users will also be charged $20 a month for security, which includes a 24-hour emergency service; $35 a month for high-speed Internet access; and $20 monthly for the basic portal service.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Roanoke, VA.

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