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.