Smart homes: making them smart from the very beginning

Most smart homes are aftermarket affairs: cobbled together bits and pieces of Alexa and Google and Apple HomeKit to make our lights go on, our music play, our security systems work, and our blinds to go up and down.

What about building it in from the start?

KB Home has built over 650,000 homes in the US. The company was the first builder to make every home ENERGY STAR® certified, and is now making a concerted effort to make every home smart. In this episode of TechFirst with John Koetsier I chat with Dan Bridleman, the company’s SVP of technology.

Check out our conversation below, read the Forbes story here … and subscribe to my YouTube channel!


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Transcript: making smart homes smart from the ground up

(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

John Koetsier: For most of the past decade, smart home has been an aftermarket game … you buy gadgets; you fit them into an existing house; you re-engineer, renovate if necessary, maybe wiring, connectivity … and make it work, sort of.

What about building homes smart from the ground up? KB Home has built over 650,000 homes in the United States. They were the first builder to make every home Energy Star certified, and they’re now making a concerted effort to make every home smart. We’re chatting with Dan Bridleman, the company’s SVP of Technology and a bunch of other stuff.

Welcome, Dan, how are you?

Dan Bridleman: I’m fantastic. Thanks, John, how are you? 

John Koetsier: Hey, super pumped to have you with us. Let’s start here: what’s your definition — what’s a smart home to you?

Dan Bridleman: Boy, that’s the million dollar question, I think … a smart home could be as simple as somebody who has a thermostat that you can adjust easily, you know, with your voice. But I think for me, a smart home though, fundamentally, structurally, has to be built with smart technology in mind — meaning that at the infrastructure part of it, like, the great thing about being a home builder is that you get to develop a community.

And coming into the community at the same time you’re creating that community, why don’t you create that community with bandwidth in the first place? ‘Cause you know bandwidth is key. And so being able to put fiber optics into a community at the very beginning, before you even start it, so that you can offer the appropriate bandwidth to be as smart as you want into a smart home. You know, the word smart has so many meanings to it, and it could contextually mean something very different to a gamer versus a 55 move-up who wants some simple things.

But to me, I think it just depends on hey, lifestyle. What do you want? And how smart do you want it to be?

Because, first of all, a lot of smart things — I think you mentioned that first — could be shiny objects that looked really great, and you put it in your house and it lasts for a couple of days and you stop using it.

To me, the things that work are those things that continue to work, that are behind the scenes that help you grow and help you get smarter, that you just don’t even know that it’s there.

So, we all know the obvious ones: a smart garage door, a smart thermostat, a way for you to be able to access Alexis or Google via any room in the house and ask it for music. You know, you can raise shades, lower shades; change lighting scenes, have new lighting scenes; drive your car in the driveway, know it’s at your house and have the garage door open; set a scene for you as you walk in the door, your music is playing, the mood lighting is ready, you bought different colored LEDs … so, John, I think the range of that is really up to somebody that really wants that level. I might just want to be able to walk in and have my smart door lock just recognize my face, open the door for me and let me in.

So, that’s a — I hate saying it’s a great question, I think that’s a question that is individual, but having the foundation to say, ‘Let’s create something that allows you to build on that platform’ is probably the right way to go. Helpful? 

John Koetsier: I like that and I think it is helpful, and it is as unique as people are for what they want. Some people don’t want a lot of technology and some people can’t handle a lot of technology. But others who, maybe they’re not the most tech savvy in the world, would be shocked and pleasantly surprised if they’d walk up to their front door and boom, it opens because it recognizes them, right?

I found it interesting that you said the foundation of smart home was the community. And it’s interesting because we see that cars are getting smarter, and cars are smarter as each car is smarter and they’re sharing information so, you know, traffic jam down the road or whatever. It’s interesting to consider. If communities get smarter as houses get smarter and sharing ‘there’s somebody suspicious in the neighborhood’ or something like that.

What do you have to do to make a home smart from the ground up? I mean, like, we don’t want to always just be adding chunks and bits and components. So you’ve got the connectivity … is there anything else you want to put into a house from the ground up to make it smart? 

Dan Bridleman: I think so. I think you have to make sure that, and we had talked a little bit earlier about what makes it all work is how do these applications all work together and make it smart. And you’ve got to think about technology and who owns that technology, who owns that space, who owns that sort of ecosystem in the house.

And so, what you try to do is you try to look at partners that are smart about the products they make that go into a home, that kind of stay agnostic to whether or not you’re a Google person, or whether or not you’re an Amazon person, or whether or not you’re a HomeKit person. You have to find products that are agnostic so that you can offer a customer things that they’re used to. 

John Koetsier: Yeah. 

Dan Bridleman: The other thing you can’t really think about doing either is that you do need an ecosystem, fundamentally, because you can’t say, ‘Oh, here’s your brand new house, but oh, now you’ve got 300 apps with 300 passwords and you now need to connect them all up yourself, and you’ve got to figure out how all these things attach to your wireless network.’

And so, what we need to do is we need to have that seamless integration where there’s a singular app that you can go to today — and today, that singular app could be something as simple as HomeKit or Amazon or whatever it is, because there’s not this one ecosystem that runs today. And you have to be careful about not putting it in things you’re making people pay for that they don’t want. 

John Koetsier: Yep. 

Dan Bridleman: Right? So that’s the important thing. And I think at KB Home, our business model isn’t let’s build it and hope they will come and I’ll show you what’s the best for you. Nice thing about KB Home is our model is, I’m going to say, additive … meaning that we give you a great base smart home to begin with, but then you get to go to our studio and start to pick and choose those things that make it like your own DNA. What do I want to add on to this house that will make it mine?

And so, you’re not making somebody pay for all this automation at the base that they don’t need or they don’t want, but you can now go to a studio and say, ‘Okay, I do want to increase my — I want to have a gaming room. I want to have a smart room. I want to have the smart front door. I want to have a front door smart doorbell. I want to add on many, many things.’ So I think that you start to do this with understanding what your requirements are when you kind of walk in that front door.

But at the base though, fundamentally, is the ecosystem that runs all that has to be smart enough so you’re not having to say, ‘Oh, I need to have a separate app for everything’ That is the trick. 

John Koetsier: I love that answer because I probably have 20 apps right now to run my home. You know, there’s one for the garage door. There’s one for the front video doorbell, right, and that one also has Nest on it and a couple other things there. So, there’s some consolidation, not a ton. Every time the internet totally goes out or you have a new network coming into place you’ve got to do the dance and reconnect a lot of things, that’s not a lot of fun … that’s the opposite of fun.

I’ve often wondered if we need a home OS or something like that, you know, a home operating system that everything connects into and there’s sort of one place there. And I’ve also wondered if people want like an Apple home, a Google home, Amazon.

Maybe less ask this question: what percentage of people want a smart home to start with? I mean, and I guess that’s hard to define because we’ve already said that smart homes are as unique and individual, but if we just assume that there’s a fully smart home, fully connected … what percentage of people do you think, customers, do you think want that?

Dan Bridleman: So I’ll start with this … I would say that 95% of everybody that walks into a brand new home, they want it to be internet ready. Okay, so they want to be able to hook up their provider and have an internet-ready home. So, I think that, you could say, is ubiquitous today, everybody needs that.

From there, I would say … everybody wants a little bit of technology, and everybody gets a little bit of technology just by the nature of the things that are in the house.

So, most appliances today come internet-ready and smart. And it’s at the same cost of maybe an appliance that wasn’t — I’m going to use the word ‘smart’ that wasn’t intelligent. So you get some things just by the nature of the way the industry is moving. Right? And so, whether or not you turn them on or not, it’s completely up to the client.

So I would say that at its core, some things that are basic. You think about five years ago when a car came with the ability to have a map in it, or you were able to sync your phone to your car. At first, probably nobody did that, oh it’s too complex, but today, most everybody expects at least to sync your car with your phone.

So I would think at its core, what I see most people probably want is things like a smart thermostat. Right? I’d like to be able to manage the heat and the coolness of my house when I’m either there or away. Most people want to have a security system that’s smart. I mean, I want to be able to look at my security system when I’m at home or away. A lot of folks want to have a smart doorbell so I can see who’s at the house.

So, some of those basic things five years ago that we thought were cutting edge, to me today are … what I’m going to say is probably more basic and I see most people want those things. Right? 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.

Dan Bridleman: So things that are further out are more cutting edge things that we can talk about as well. But I’m going to say this, that entrance to the house, who’s at my house, your ability to control your heating and cooling, basic things like that most folks would expect to have and get.

John Koetsier: Let’s go way to the nth degree here. I think you’re right on where most people are. Let’s go way out to the, I don’t know, the small percentage who want everything totally smart.

I unterviewed the CEO of Miso Robotics recently — they make Flippy, it’s a hamburger making robot — and we talked about smart kitchens and essentially robotic smart kitchens that can cook for you. And that’s quasi available right now; there’s different bits and pieces. Do you see something like that becoming part of a basic home 10 years from now, 20 years from now? 

Dan Bridleman: 10 or 20 seems like the right thing. I would say today we have a great partner in Whirlpool. And some of the smarter things that Whirlpool has done with their appliances, for example, if you have a picture of a product you’re going to cook, and let’s say that you’re a novice, you don’t have any idea what to do with a roast, through a Yummly app or through a picture of the roast or what you have, it could give you exact instructions on what to do with that roast … press a button, put it in the oven, it will check the temperature and will tell you when it’s done. 

I see that happening more in the next five to 10 years than having a robot be able to come in and do that for you in the house. I wouldn’t say that’s not ever coming, but we all know that things change rapidly and some things that we didn’t expect just occur. So, 10 to 20 years, some kind of robotic … and I think it would be less Star Wars-like than more about preparation-like, meaning I’m using some level of robotics to help me get things in and out and in, not necessarily just this super AI person walking around the house asking me, you know, ‘Okay, can I make a Manhattan for you before I cook your steak?’ 

John Koetsier: [laughing] Hey, I’ll take that. 

Dan Bridleman: I think it would … yeah. I would like that. Can I have two please? But I do think that if you start to think about aging in place, and a crowd who is technologically advanced having assistance in the house in 10 to 20 years, that does include some robotics that’s not so crazy out there. That is within reach for sure. 

John Koetsier: Yup. It’s interesting when you consider, right? Because if you look at the amount of delivery that happens right now and the massive increase of home delivery that we’ve seen over the past 18 months, 24 months.

I’ve got a neighbor, there’s a UPS truck out there literally twice a day. I don’t know what they’re buying. I don’t know what they’re getting, but there’s a UPS truck there.

And you can imagine we’re getting self-driving cars at some point. Elon Musk eventually will come out of beta and we’ll see what goes on there. And we see that Amazon is working with self-driving technology for its deliveries as well. You can imagine a future in which they’ve got a self-driving delivery, maybe even a drone delivery — Google is initiating that in the U.S. this week, I believe. Hopefully I haven’t broken an embargo there, but this won’t launch for a while so I haven’t done that [crosstalk].

Dan Bridleman: Breaking embargoes, yeah. 

John Koetsier: Exactly. You can imagine a home that accepts that, autonomously.

You know, there’s a slot that opens on command or something like that and something slides in, and the kitchen stuff comes in from HelloFresh pre-packaged and the robotic arm on the counter knows what to do to mix it up. That is pretty futuristic.

But let’s take it back to a little bit of reality here and talk about simplicity. One of the things that goes out the window when we have smart technology is simplicity. My mom is 86 and she struggles with using her smartphone; she struggles with using other things like that as well. You mentioned you don’t want to give somebody 30 apps. Can you envision that KB ever comes up with an app that allows you to control just about everything from one interface? 

Dan Bridleman: Yeah, of course. I think that ultimately science will get us there. Right? Whether or not we’re the developer or we partner with an integrator, I definitely think that there will be technology out there that allows for that seamless integration to do those kinds of things.

It’s funny, we were talking a little bit about delivery, and I think it was three years ago  we did a what’s called KB Project, which was a home of the future at the Consumer Electronics Show. And, you know, just exactly what you talked about would be, we demonstrated how in a new home you could build a receiving unit up above for a drone to be able to take a code, unlock it, drop your package into a safe place, into a slot … and you know your packages would be safe, delivered, and it could be drone accessed or come down below, just a pullout drawer where you could receive those kind of packages from a land drone.

So, I don’t think that’s a 20 year thing. I think we’re going to see more and more of that in the next three to five years. So, again, going back to the infrastructure, I mean, it’s pretty hard to add on a drone delivery on top of your roof, but when you’re designing houses from the ground floor up, you can start to think about how do you get the right wiring, the right technology, and the things that you would need to do something like that.

You know, we’re partnering with a lot of folks to push edges of technology, certainly with solar today. And we’ve got several partners and SunPower is a great partner for us with solar, as is Tesla.

And, you know, think about in California where probably within the next three to five years it’ll be all electric, right? You’d have all electric. Pushing the edge of technology with microgrids, meaning that … think about resiliency. We’re talking about what makes you smarter, but think about in California today, resiliency, of what happens when the temperatures are 110 and there’s a Santa Ana, and the winds are coming 90 miles an hour through the canyons and electrical companies are shutting off grids because they don’t want to create a spark or a fire, and so you’re stuck without power.

The resiliency of a community at the startup though is you start to develop what’s called microgrids, where, through the use of solar on your roof, through the use of maybe battery backups in each house and battery backups at the community, and then you can start to store that energy you’re producing during the day, use it at night, or in case of emergency, or use it to arbitrage energy rates as the energy costs real high at seven o’clock at night … well just take the energy out of my battery instead.

Now, to do there though, you’ve got to have a smart load unit, a smart load center. So we partner with a company called Schneider Electric to put smart load centers in these communities where, when that technology comes available, you could do things like that. So I think, John, for me the point is that as a home builder, picking the right partners that have an eye for the future and understand technology is also going to be the key to all of this as well. 

John Koetsier: I love that you went there, ’cause I mentioned you’re the VP of Technology, you’re also the VP of Sustainability. And guess what? A smart house is a house that gathers its own energy, that dispenses it as needed, right?

Dan Bridleman: Yeah.

John Koetsier: And that continues working for you when the grid fails, when there’s a disaster, and making our lifestyles more sustainable but also more robust in the case of disasters, accidents, whatever — is a huge thing. Making solar default, storing that power, as you talked about. Absolutely loved that. Well, let’s stay a little bit grounded but look out maybe 10 years. What do you think a smart home looks like in a decade? 

Dan Bridleman: Well, if you think about where were we — think about 10 years prior to here. Okay, so we think about 10 years in the future, think about 10 years prior … what was the day in which I think Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, it has to be about 10 to 13 years ago. 

John Koetsier: 2008, I believe, yes.

Dan Bridleman: 2008. I mean, not that long ago before we had this little thing in our back pockets that had this much processing capacity.

And so, if you think about technology keeping at that pace, seamless entrance into your home, your car and your house … your car will share its power with the house, as it drives in you park it in the lot, you consume as part of your car. You know, as you walk through the home, scenes change. I think biome, I’d say more on the healthy home side. Circadian rhythm lighting, like, for example, when you come home at night, one of the things in the wintertime when it gets so dark so early, we start losing a little bit of that track of where it’s at, but why not create that same lighting that you get in the summertime. So, circadian rhythm lighting matching up with your own bio rhythms, cleansing the air that’s in the houses around you, just understanding your mood and what you want.

And the simple things, you know, you’ll be able to get probably the way that you get your groceries to your house today. Some people might go to Amazon and dial it up and get it delivered. Some people might call up your local store and have it delivered, but a smart appliance with you assigning what’s important each week when it goes away, like the milk and the broccoli, and coming out of your fridge that will be auto delivered to your house.

And, like you said, if you have robotics could be actually stored back in the fridge when it’s done, so … I mean, if you could just, if you can think it … it could be there. Now, some people may not want any of that, some people may still want to go to the store. So having the option to do it or not, I think, is probably the smartest thing. And you mentioned simplicity. I don’t know, Craig will back me up on this … every internal meeting I go to, I kinda quote da Vinci.

Okay, and I know that sounds a little cliché, but you know Leonardo da Vinci said, ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.’ 

John Koetsier: Yes it is. 

Dan Bridleman: And if you think about that, I love like when I would watch an old Apple … say YouTube, and the engineers would talk about the inside more than the outside, you know, how beautiful the inside is, the simplicity of how it was built. At KB Home the same thing is from the engineering up, the simplicity in how you design a house.

Look, for example, we haven’t talked about water. Last time I checked, none of us can survive without water. So water is probably the most precious resource we have. So how do we start to design systems around the capability for it to save as much water as possible? Maybe we actually create more water in a house than what you’re using and give it back. And so, how do you design systems so that plumbing systems are on top of each other; you’re minimizing the amount of runs; the water is heating instantly so you don’t waste it; any of the water that’s gray water that can be recycled and reused in the yard, in the toilets … is where I see 10 years from today too, is maximizing making the house work for you and work for the environment.

Cleaning the air that you put back into the air will be important. But ultimately, I think, John, I mean … if we think about reducing our carbon footprint, right? The best thing we can do is create a fantastic envelope where I don’t need that much energy to heat and cool this house. Because that means, number one, I’m not producing carbon but I’m also not taking carbon back out of the grid. So, great envelopes, very efficient systems, thinking about how we use water, and then using smart technologies to take advantage of all those types of — I’m going to say applications, will be really, really important. And I’m speaking like into the future, but some of that stuff today is real.

John Koetsier: Yeah. 

Dan Bridleman: And you asked me about solar. I would tell you that probably 99% of people who have solar are not putting it into a battery. You know, you have a, basically a net metering process where the solar on your roof actually feeds the grid, does not feed your house. So when electricity is shut off to your house, you really don’t have any electricity. So wouldn’t it be nice if that solar is going to a battery and in the event you have a shutdown, you now automatically use what you generate during the day. So, I think the area of solar and those type of technologies will be fantastic in the future. 

John Koetsier: Absolutely love it. Love the emphasis on water as well. Imagine that, reclaiming what comes down on your roof, putting that in a cistern locally, using that maybe for gardening, for lawns if you’ve got those … those sorts of things. Very, very interesting. It’s also interesting to consider in the future ambient intelligence, right?

Increasingly we’re making objects that are intelligent, but increasingly we’re subsuming that intelligence invisibly into the structures and things that we’re creating, and the wall maybe knows what load it has, and the window knows, okay, I need to become opaque because the sun is coming straight in right now, and the roof knows when it’s not doing so well anymore.

I look forward to seeing some of those things come out as well in the future. Daniel, this has been a lot of fun. It’s been eye-opening. It’s been super interesting. You’ve built 650,000 homes … when will you hit a million? 

Dan Bridleman: Very soon, I hope. 

John Koetsier: [laughter] Very good. Thank you for your time.

Dan Bridleman: John, thank you very much. I hope it was helpful and it was great talking to you today, and hopefully we’ll meet again sometime in the future. 

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