Mark Coupard, architect and founder of the Falls Church-based Coupard Architects & Builders, said, with a chuckle, that he spent a couple hours in front of the TV watching “The Jetsons” when he was a kid.
But he says, despite not being able to predict what’s coming in the future, his clients don’t have Jetson-like expectations for their home when it comes to future proofing.
“Rather than the Jetson-like pieces on site, you know where a conveyer belt comes and a chair picks you up and ferries you around, what clients are aware of and they’re expecting is more of the ability to control things from afar,” Coupard said. “And then putting systems in [homes] that control themselves, you know, [like being able to] program your thermostat to work efficiently while you’re away from the house.
“So, it’s not automated physically, but it’s more of a control thing. That’s what’s available now. That’s what I think will become even more available…the ability to run your house and monitor your house and control your house from afar.”
Future proofing, when it comes to real estate, is the designing and building of structures while anticipating the future and attempting to minimize the shocks and stresses of future events.
And the concept has become considered increasingly by homeowners, home builders and architects over the last decade as technology has allowed for homes to become more energy-efficient, convenient and secure.
In fact, Coupard Architects & Builders is currently renovating a house on the corner of Park Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue in Falls Church that will serve as a demonstration house for Alarm.com, a security and home automation company based in Vienna.
“I’ve learned a lot by working with them,” Coupard said. “Basically, everything is moving towards being connected in the house. We can’t know completely all of the products that are going to be available to us, but we know that we’re moving towards being able to control the systems that are in there to make them more efficient.
“For instance, if you want to have your heat run low during the day and then you realize that you’re going to go home, you can switch the heat on from your cell phone.”
While no one will live in the house that Coupard’s firm is renovating for Alarm.com, the house will showcase the company’s services, such as interactive security, video monitoring, access, energy management, home automation and wellness. Coupard said the project should be done by the end of 2015.
“It’s to inform the general public about their services, but also to show potential clients their technology,” Coupard said. “And they’re going to use it as a lab of sorts and film demonstrations there. It’s going to look and feel like a house, but it’s still going to be a commercial property.”
Charles Moore, founder of another Falls Church-based architecture firm, Moore Architects, said that pretty much every house that his firm works on has some level of smart technology.
“It depends on the house. We do a lot of renovation work, full house renovations, but we also do new houses as well,” Moore said. “So…the size of a project and the complexity and the value of the project kind of determines how far folks go into the weeds for future technology.”
He said that clients of his who are building new houses definitely have an interest in future proofing their homes, which encompasses more than just wiring homes for automation. “Smart technology, I would suggest, covers a lot more than just putting a Cat6 wire in the house,” Moore said.
“It includes all of the LEED Standard issues as well, including insulation and non-off-gassing materials. It’s not just making it so that you can monitor the thermostat from China, which most of our houses do.”
Moore said that Moore Architects has several different levels of “coverage” when it comes to designing, renovating and building homes for the use of smart technology and cost is a determining factor in what clients decide to put in their homes.
“Doing a boatload of smart house technologies costs more money,” Moore said. “And while everybody wants the technology of a smart house…a lot of people, I would suggest, can’t afford that.”
He offered thermostats for an example. The Nest Learning Thermostat, which learns the temperatures the homeowner prefers and controls the climate of a room based on those preferences and the weather outdoors, costs between $200 – $300, while a Honeywell programmable thermostat costs much less than that.
“The Nest is smarter in the sense that you can control it from your iPhone; the less expensive thermostat may be something that you can control by programming it, but not necessarily from your iPhone,” Moore said.
Some of the future proofing projects that Moore Architects do for clients include wiring the house for thermostat, lighting, window shading, security and media control systems, geothermal heating and cooling systems and hot water radiant floor heating systems. Unfortunately, Moore said, a lot of these projects have higher upfront cost, although they save homeowners money in the long run.
“All of them are great ideas,” Moore said. “But they also have to be balanced with the cost of construction. So there are lot of new houses in the market right now, even looking at the City of Falls Church, which don’t really employ any of those things or employ few of those things.”
One of the houses that Moore Architects designed that has several smart technology features is in the Lake Barcroft neighborhood of Fairfax County. “We did that house about five years ago, so even in five years, the level of smart house technology has changed,” Moore said.
“But that house is totally wired for with Cat6 wiring, it’s controlled with super thermostats, it has an automatic shading system that allows the owner to open and close blinds with their iPhone whether they’re there or not.
“The owners are a couple who spend a lot of time travelling, so they want the house to look totally lived in and active even when they’re on the West Coast.”
One innovation that is only starting to be introduced to the market and has gotten architects and home builders excited is the Tesla Powerwall, which was announced a product launch in late April 2015. It’s a lithium-ion battery manufactured by Tesla Motors and it stores electricity for home use, load shifting and backup power.
“All of the new houses and major houses we do have generator backups, so…we have a lot of discussions about the new Tesla battery,” Moore said. “We can’t wait to try it out….We think that could be a big game changer to giving homeowners the ability to have backup power.”
He said that currently most of his clients use natural gas and generator backups for energy, so to be able to disconnect from that would be great. “So we’re watching [the Powerwall],” Moore said. “It’s a great potential technology.”
Coupard said that the Tesla Powerwall, in combination with homeowners that generate energy through solar collecting, will make a lot of the other future proofing features affordable for mass markets. At least one of the solar collectors who Coupard Architects and Builders has worked with sells power back to the power company.
“I think it’s really promising and we knew that it was coming,” Coupard said. “We didn’t know that Tesla was going to do it, but people are working to make the [solar] collection and the battery systems work better and the better they work the more they’ll be useful and more people will be able to afford them.”
Another aspect of future proofing homes is designing and building homes so that families and couples young and old can age in place. Coupard said he sees accessibility as part of the concept of future proofing homes.
“A lot of people at least consider that when they’re building a home. It’s pretty straight forward. You want to make the space big enough if they use a walker or a wheelchair and you make doors wide enough,” Coupard said.
“That’s pretty easy to do on the front end. It’s a lot harder to retrofit a house to make that work. Sometimes you might have to arrange a whole floor so a resident can live their whole life there if they need to.
“Sometimes you suggest that to people and sometimes that’s what people are coming to you for. They don’t see themselves moving and they want to be independent as long as they can and because of that they want to make that house work, even if that’s not what they need at the moment.”
Single-family home builders and architects aren’t the only ones future proofing the structures that they build. The Alexandria-based Cooper Carry works on commercial and multi-family structures and also considers future proofing when designing new structures and retrofitting older ones.
“There’s at least four of five things that we look at when working from a ground-up perspective,” said David Kitchens, principal architect of the Mixed-Use Specialty Practice Group at Cooper Carry. “And with all the smart technology out there, from a multi-family perspective, almost everything can be performed from your iPhone or from an app or something like that.
“So we see a lot of our developer clients making their facilities smarter related to security, lighting, HVAC operation and that could go to everything from parking your car to getting in the front door to getting into your apartment….It’s all becoming more digital from that standpoint and therefore there’s a lot of considerations going on in relationship to wiring technology, wireless technology and also making [buildings] energy-efficient and eco-friendly.”
He said that the other consideration when it comes to future proofing structures is water management. “We’ve been using the low flow toilets in our buildings for several years, but now we’re getting into tankless water heaters, the ventless dryers and those kinds of things,” Kitchens said.
“Because those kinds of things not only are more energy-efficient, they also save space. If we can design an apartment that doesn’t have to have as much room for a water heater and a washer and dryer, we really save a lot of square footage and kind of throw it into the living areas.”