SAN FRANCISCO – It was a poetic convergence of tech trends at the corner of Fourth and Howard streets.
Over in Moscone Center West, Google was getting its Internet-of-things groove on at its developers conference, touting plans to tie digital devices together with products like TV sets inside our homes.
Meanwhile, across the street in Moscone North, thousands of the people who will actually be building these tech-savvy abodes – developers, architects, manufacturers and contractors – were having their annual powwow, giving each other a peek of what awaits us all just inside our front doors of tomorrow.
All across the exhibitors floor at the annual builders trade show late last month, amid the nontechy stalwarts like roof tiles and toilets, you could almost hear the mantra humming just below the surface: "When it comes to the home of the future, all ... is ... one."
"We put the backbone wiring inside the new home so that everything we use in that home is more connected," said Joey Hill, a market representative with Legrand North America, a global rock star of switches and sockets. It's partnering with General Electric on cutting-edge home security and home entertainment technologies, the very stuff that the Googlers were crowing about nearby. "We provide the infrastructure that supports things like Netflix on your Apple TV," Hill said. "This is where the industry is going: You'll control your home lighting, security and audio, all from your smartphone or tablet."
While this trend has been picking up steam in the past year, Hill and others at the show painted a picture of an ever-rapid advancement in the digitally driven household. And borrowing a page from companies like Apple, where powerful computing is dressed up in sleek designs, Hill said, "It's not just cool gadgets around the house, but we'll be seeing much more of a focus on style."
And with that, Hill demonstrated a "pop-out outlet," a wall socket that's tucked into the wall and emerges – abracadabra! – with the push of a finger. "This technology has to be beautiful," he said, "if it's going inside your house."
Standing nearby, Shannon Stafford was nodding her head in agreement. "I've got that system installed in my own house," said the owner/president of Illuminations Lighting, an electrical equipment supplier in El Dorado Hills, Calif. "I can completely control my entire house with my phone."
Stafford sounded like a kid in a candy store, describing the magic-wand features coming soon to new homes across the country. "I can dim any of the lights down to 10 percent. I can customize every switch, outlet and night-light."
Heck, this was a candy store for the home-tech crowd. On display a few booths over were new magical doorknobs that you can bump into with your rear end to open if your hands are full of groceries. Security, of course, is big, with sophisticated alarm systems and closed-circuit cameras that can turn a home into Fort Knox.
Grady Smith, district sales manager with Viking SupplyNet, showed off the latest in fire-suppression gadgets for the home, another big trend coming down the pike. That's especially true here in California, he said, where ever since 2011 all new one- and two-family homes and townhomes are required by law to have fire sprinklers.
"The latest versions of sprinklers are more aesthetically pleasing and can be installed in more places inside the house," Smith said, pulling out a pop-out sprinkler head that's embedded within a wall and covered with a thin flat cap. "It comes in any color so it's almost invisible on the wall."
The trade show was crawling with the straight-talking, big-shoulder guys who are out there building single-family homes and multifamily apartment complexes. And there was plenty of cutting-edge tech for them, too. Forty-two-year-old Tyson Jacobsen took his years of home-building chops in Orange County, Calif., and created a startup called Fulcrum. On the surface, it's a fairly dry construction-management software program whose motto is "The Shortest Distance Between Two Points Is Online."
But as he put it through its paces on a tablet, Jacobsen's Web-based planner provided a dizzying array of details, using many of the same technologies that builders are putting inside those houses.
"This tool helps the developer and builder manage a project," he said. "With all the different parties sharing the information in real-time online, you can get plans to the right people, find the best prices for materials, get work schedules and status updates on a job, find out what plans are missing, and even connect directly with the owners and the bank."
He pulled up a 370-unit project underway in San Marcos and said, "Here's a list of 275 questions I have that involve a lot of back-and-forth correspondence with the architects and the guys at the site. I can see the number of workers each subcontractor has at the site at any given time, so if there's ever a dispute, I can go back and see exactly how many were there on a certain day."
On one end of the showroom floor, manufacturers of the biggest members of the family of household equipment and systems – air-conditioning, heating and large appliances – were gathered to strut their latest stuff. For John Boyd with GE Appliances, just like most everyone else in the room, that included things that were all about "connecting."
"With apps on our phones, ovens and refrigerators are all increasingly connected to us," he said, adding that he can now turn on his oven to preheat while he's driving home from work. "Soon you'll be able to start a load of laundry and get a text saying it's time to move the clothes to the dryer."
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