When Andee Hefler refurbished her farmhouse in Lower Gwynedd, she kept the outside walls intact but gutted the inside. The result: Housed in a 17th-century home is a contemporary kitchen complete with a smorgasbord of automated elements.
"My husband, Brad, loves automation, so we put some really fun things in the house," said Hefler, owner of Andrea Lynn Interiors.
The smart home's Control4 system operates everything from lighting to raising and lowering the shades to controlling the TV, all by touching buttons on a wall panel in the kitchen doorway. Among the goodies:
A five-foot-long automated pantry fits into the underbelly of the cabinet, sitting flush with the countertop. Hefler pushes a button to raise the lift, accessing her appliances. "It gives me a ton of counter space," she said. And no need to lift a heavy mixer.
To turn on and off the faucet, she touches it with her elbow. You know, for "when you're cooking and your hands are dirty or you're cutting chicken or meat and don't want to touch the handle," Hefler said.
Whenever Daisy, the family's golden mountain doodle, takes a sip of water, her bowl is refilled. A pressurized weighted system calibrates the amount needed, "but we have a drain for overflow just in case," Hefler said.
Approach the patio door with a tray of food ready to barbecue, and a sensor activates the door to open and then close behind you. Her favorite convenience, though, is her built-in automated coffee machine, which grinds fresh beans every morning. "It makes the best coffee I've ever had," she said.
With so many conveniences, what's to worry about? Losing electricity, she said. But, of course, that's everybody's concern. "Otherwise, every day is a pleasure."
Automated cabinetry and appliances, which have come to the U.S. from Europe over the last 10 years, have moved from exotic to everyday, offering homeowners convenience, less clutter (no handles or visible wires), and higher resale value.
"With Pinterest, Houzz, and HGTV shows, they've become more accessible," said Scott Kaminski, spokesman for furniture fittings and architectural hardware company Hafele in Archdale, N.C. In the last year, consumer questions about automated products on Hafele's social-media site have gone from one or two a month to 10 or 12.
In new kitchens, "75 percent are integrating some of this technology," said Peter Cardamone, owner of Blue Bell Kitchens in Spring House and the designer of Hefler's kitchen. At the very least, lighting is finding its way into helpful places: When you open a drawer or peer into a dark corner cabinet, a sensor switch activates the lights.
Costs vary based on the project, but "it may add less than 10 percent to the overall project," said Cardamone. For example, integrated lighting adds about $3,000 to $5,000, though some of that is offset because the wiring is done at the factory level, eliminating the need for an electrician. An automated pantry runs about $3,500. For $700, a motorized television lift brings a flat 26-inch screen out from behind a cabinet.
When Marsha Gerdes refurbished the kitchen in her Center City condo last year, she included automation: Just tap on the corner of a cabinet and it lifts to open.
"It gives you more space, you can see everything, and it's easy to access," she said. "And I don't have to worry about clunking my head on a door I left open."
A slim handle at the bottom allows for opening and closing it manually, though at 5 feet tall, Gerdes prefers touching a button that slowly closes it.
When Gerdes gives her island cabinets and drawers a push to close, they pull in the last couple of inches on their own. "So you don't have a lot of slamming and banging," she said. Gerdes also has a vent system over her range that is flush against the cabinet. As she pulls it out, the fan turns on automatically. Her only worry is that the motor might break, but so far, she hasn't had any problems. The cabinets are under warranty.
Her designer, Jason Thompson, owner of J. Thom in Center City, said her space looks less like kitchen and more like fine-art cabinetry.
Five years ago, he installed the technology, called Servo-Drive, in one-tenth of his kitchen jobs. These days, it's one in five. "The technology and price points are better and contractors have learned how to install these," he said. One popular application is a trash can that opens by a push or knock, so it can be opened with garbage-filled hands.
As sexy as an automated kitchen sounds, it isn't the answer for every client. "It's not the best solution for a busy family who is in and out of cabinets all day long," Thompson said.
Another drawback, added Angela Pulizzi, showroom manager for Poggenpohl in Old City, is that "you're touching the cabinet face all the time, and a dark cabinet finish could show fingerprints."
On the horizon, at least in Europe, are automated appliances. Push-open or knock-open dishwashers and refrigerators have no need for handles, and cameras inside the refrigerator can generate shopping lists and inventory systems, Cardamone said.
But, "there's a question mark on their viability in the U.S.," said Pulizzi. American appliances are much bigger and draw more power than those abroad.
These elements are not inexpensive, "so it's definitely more of a luxury item to create a wow factor," she added. "I find even when clients are on a budget, they end up splurging on these electronically driven automated systems because they are so unique."