Networked, but disenchanted

A graphic designer decides to build a house in Frankfurt. The architects create a basic homely configuration. A digital enthusiast, he tailors the compact build to his needs, including well-conceived facility automation. Thomas Edelmann talked with Martin Walter about the networked home.

Your house is in Fechenheim on Frankfurt’s eastern limits. Why there? Why in that shape?

Martin Walter: The project started with a search for an appropriate piece of land. I didn’t really care where the house would be. By chance I discovered a small garden plot here that was up for sale. Although it was not designated as a plot for development, the city put no bureaucratic obstacles in my way.

And how did you find a suitable architect?

Martin Walter: What decided me was the Hessen Architecture Open Day. I checked out the various successful projects. The architectural office of liquid & fay Architekten from Darmstadt, which is made up of Kerstin Schultz and Werner Schulz as well as Harald Fay, had recently realized a large-scale project, namely the new ape house at Frankfurt Zoo, and were now looking to focus back on a smaller project.

And you already had a clear idea what you wanted?

Martin Walter: We came up with a lot together. I had already devised a proposal, but the architects then came up with a split level and many details that really make the place what it is. They focused on homeliness, on visual axes, on the long strip of windows, the visual relationships within the building and toward the outside world.

How did the elaborate house automation technology come into play?

Martin Walter: My brother, who is a regulation and control engineer, built a house ten years ago. That’s why the question of how we would connect up the electricity arose early on. Back then he did not yet have the opportunity to hook things up at today’s KNX standard. It is still an expensive item and he advised me here and there. “I know you,” he said, “you’ll want to control and tweak this or that in the morning. Conventional cables will not be good enough.”

Sweet smart home: The „Living box“ at Fechenheim is a two storied building with a glass joint in the middle is designed with various technical refinements. Also the window façade to the terrace can be hidden automatically. The Photo © Eibe Sönneken/Liquid Architekten

So what did you end up choosing?

Martin Walter: The electrician made me various offers. I was surprised that the complete facility technology would be only one third more expensive than conventional cabling. I’d included empty tubes anyway, so just a data cable and switches were needed. He then calculated the actual controls later and I chose Hager. And Gira switches. Using a KNK bus system you can combine components by different makers. Originally the controls were meant to cover just the lights and sockets. But I wanted a flexible updatable system from the outset, into which I could then later integrate other systems, say large wall displays. KNX is the current standard and will be for the time being. So I was prepared to spend the add-on to include it.

During the interior work flexibility proved important. Why?

Martin Walter: That has to do with the side windows meant to ventilate the house. Originally the idea was for them to be opened by hand. To save costs, during construction I omitted a podium inside. As a result the window was suddenly too high up and the building’s carcass was already in place. So I had an electric cable run up to it enabling the window to be controlled by motor. Retrospectively, the best thing that could have happened. The small window only opens at a 20° angle. So I can get air in the house at no risk and close the window remotely while on the way to work. And if I should forget it hardly matters in summer, even if it isn’t so good in winter. The original idea was to have the window close automatically after an hour, but no one has yet worked out how to do that.

That doesn’t sound like such a tall task, though?

Martin Walter: Not really. We’ll return to that … Initially, heat accumulation indoors was a problem.

And how did you counteract that?

Martin Walter: When I had already moved in it transpired that the solar irradiation on the narrow southwest side of the building was a bit fierce. A construction physicist had suggested I seal at least one third of that side off. The first summer was quite insufferable. I certainly didn’t want blinds as I wanted the house to feel open all the time. In my opinion there’s nothing worse than when at 5 p.m. the blinds go down – it’s as if the city had suddenly died. In Holland or Denmark no one does that.

So time for another special solution?

Martin Walter: Yes, there’s now a curtain on the outside on the southwest side made of translucent but opaque material that is otherwise used to cover tennis courts. Installing blinds or lamella blinds would have been too elaborate, too heavy or too difficult in terms of construction. For me, the curtain is the most appealing solution. At 10 euros a square meter it is also very cheap and the way the light is refracted is gorgeous. Here, again, the bus controls helped. However, there are contacts that switch off the motor as soon as the curtain is opened or closed. And unfortunately the curtain fastenings on the outside are prone to fail and it therefore gets left closed at the moment.

So what are your experiences with technology?

Martin Walter: Sadly most of what I have to say is negative. The basic idea is great but in practical terms it has all sorts of weaknesses. Starting with the fact that the electrician owns my house controls. In my case they were part of the overall project. But even if I had paid for them separately, I’m obliged to rely on the electrician initially chosen. So what happens if he goes bankrupt? If he moves, or I decide I want to rely on someone else? That is not a contractual option. Here the idea of customer loyalty certainly goes skew-whiff.


Martin Walter: Another electrician cannot see from the data on the house what the programming is. So he would have to start again from scratch. In my case, the two partners in the company in question came to metaphorical blows. The one retired, and apparently simply deleted all the data he still had. So if I now want to change something we have to start all over again. A structural problem that is extremely user-unfriendly. Every single light switch would then have to be reprogrammed. Is it a dimmer or not, and what does it control? What scenarios are there?

So you rapidly evolved from user to expert?

Martin Walter: Well, you find out the one or other thing. It’s not an open system. The electrician has to pay about 1.000 euros per license for the programming software. And thus most electrical companies have a single laptop and a single guy who knows how it works.

Aha, so you have to learn to hack your own house?

Martin Walter: Well, this has an impact on my house. I want to add a timer and outdoor lighting with motion sensors in the not too distant future. But I won’t be hooking them up to the bus system. You choose such a system because you think that you can then always remain state-of-the-art, and then reality turns out to be quite different. The ads said I can control my house from my iPhone …

What? You can’t?

Martin Walter: Today, it would all be a lot simpler and cheaper using standard cables and individual control components. And there are tricks in the tail of such a system. For example if I want to do something myself. I might want to change the programming of a light source once, just like I change the setting on my alarm clock. But with the system I can’t.

But surely one-time reprogramming is pretty special?

Martin Walter: Not really. And what is also annoying: For almost a year now I have been unable to access the house remotely. And yet that is precisely the comfort I want, the ability to turn on the heating in winter before I get home. Or to be able to open a window and air the place in summer before I arrive. Now I would need to dial up the electrician first. He then does a reset, which I cannot. And that costs 130 euros each time round for him to drive by and do the works. At the moment a complete set of buttons is out of action and I have no idea why.

With only 300 square meter building area, you need a special architecture concept: The slim building is divided by a transparent joint, which lightens up the massive grey façade. Photo © Eibe Sönneken/Liquid Architekten

What do you think of connecting kitchen appliances to the house controls?

Martin Walter: When I first heard about it I was really enthusiastic. But the longer you think about it the clearer it becomes that there are limits. A networked fridge photographs its contents. But things are stored one behind the other. So how does it see them all? I have a covered butter tray. So how exactly will it photograph inside to see the state of play on my butter stocks? The fact is each product would need a chip that says: I am here or I have ceased to exist. Not that this would clarify how much milk is left in the carton, half full or half empty. And maybe, just maybe, now and again I want to buy something different? I believe the thinking is overly mechanical here. A chip that says whether the cheese is moldy or not. A nice idea, but imagine the effort involved to get the settings right. I’d be better off employing a housekeeper who taps things into a display after checking the fridge.

So what have you done instead?

Martin Walter: I’ve a list on my iPhone that I share with my partner. When one of us passes by a store and buys something, he ticks it off on the list. It’s simple, flexible – and more to the point it works.

So your take on it all? What do you want manufacturers and tradesmen to do?

Martin Walter: The digital world is absolutely crucial for me as a graphic designer. But I consider carefully what is meaningful for me and what is not. I think it’s great that switches can subsequently be programmed to do new tasks. Here in the house we have the “Don”. The electrician, who’s Italian, called him that – the main switch next to the bed, which enables me to turn everything off or on. If I ask myself: Did I turn the light off in the kitchen? Or if I hear a suspicious sound I hit ‘on’ and the whole house lights up. It’s brilliant.

Many things such as the door controls can’t be integrated into the KNX system. And the maker of my motorized garden gate doesn’t have a module, either. The heating controls by App – not that they function at the moment – are ultimately practical. An automatic system that knows the users’ habits would be better than Smartphone controls and could handle lowering or raising the temperature itself. But such a system needs to be open for exceptions, too.

There are lots of good ideas, just as there are in the world of fashion. What you see on the catwalk is slightly different from what you can later buy in the stores and wear. It’s only a fraction of the maximum solutions. Which is good, as it drives development. So you have to make certain you’re very well informed and decided what dependencies you can accept and what you don’t want. You have to ask yourself: where is networking a positive and helps, and where does it only mean extra effort in daily life?

What I find annoying is that many manufacturers live entirely in the “Windows” world. Yet precisely the intuitive functionality that users from the Apple world know is still anything but common in the world of house controls. Perhaps it would make sense for the manufacturers to work more for that especially discerning clientele. Even as a kid I hated having four different remotes and a cordless phone to choose from. Bang & Olufsen was the great exception. They managed to make the audio components and light sensors compatible with new products, too. I have to constantly change Apps even for my iPhone. And however exciting that may still be for me, at some point you sober up somewhat.

Liquid Architekten divided the building into various split-levels and designed the shower as a “gallery” with view at the living room. Photo © Eibe Sönneken/Liquid Architekten
An open floor plan with four displaced axially levels creates much space. Lighting, air conditioning and sunblind at the windows are connected via Bussystem KNX and can be controlled automatically. Photo © Eibe Sönneken/Liquid Architekten
Walter could not reach the windows at the sidewalls to open them with hand. Connected via KNX, the air conditioning can be controlled automatically – a quite clever solution, which make ups the unexpected mistake while building the house. Photo © Eibe Sönneken/Liquid Architekten
The lateral entrance is made up with fresh green color tones. In the near future, Martin Walter wants more to integrate more security systems, with a timer, a good outdoor lighting and a motion system. Photo © Eibe Sönneken/Liquid Architekten

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