Environmentally sustainable housing is becoming an increasingly attractive—and available—option for homebuyers. Paving the way for “smart” homes are smart cities, which are laying down the infrastructure foundation.
In 2018, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, Colorado Springs City Council and Colorado Springs Utilities launched the Colorado Springs Smart City Initiative, known as SmartCOS.
The city determined priorities in connectivity, energy and resiliency, and deployed advanced technologies in the public right-of-way to improve public services and solve issues facing the city, notes Josh Handley, Colorado Springs’ innovation manager.
“We believe in improving organizational processes, implementing creative solutions to overcome organizational obstacles, and ensuring a sustainable and resilient future for Colorado Springs,” says Handley of the program, which has attracted attention beyond the city’s borders.
The city’s smart city pilots and projects include smart streetlights, electric vehicle and microgrid readiness, and smart building management system implementation.
“The SmartCOS program focuses on deploying technology to solve some of our community’s most pressing issues,” notes Handley. “The goal is to waste less, optimize services to improve residents’ quality of life and spur socioeconomic development while protecting and conserving the natural environment.”
The program transcends technology to serve as an educational and learning experience, and ensures projects are designed to increase social equity with dispersed benefits for all residents and optimize development of future tech-driven projects, says Handley.
Handley points out that the private sector has implemented smart home applications, such as Classic Homes’ “smart home connection package” in all new homes, where homeowners can choose between a Google Nest or Amazon Alexa package.
Smart communities in Colorado
Brock Smethills, president of Sterling Ranch, points out that builders in more arid climates in Colorado, Arizona and California are creating smart homes by re-using shower and bath water for flushing toilets, and setting thermostats to pre-set schedules reflecting the season and timing of home activities.
The master-planned community near Littleton began its smart home efforts predominantly to save water at a municipal scale, says Smethills, adding “Douglas County has grown dramatically, and water is hugely important.”
According to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, approximately 80% of Colorado’s water falls and flows west of the Continental Divide, while 80% of the population and the majority of irrigated acres are east of the Divide.
Sterling Ranch has implemented best practices addressing that challenge.
Homebuilders working in the development are required to use a Rachio smart irrigation controller, tying the irrigation cycle to a local weather station and using transpiration data to determine irrigation times. The community’s parks and open spaces also have smart irrigation controllers.
Sterling Ranch has partnered with Siemens on a technology package including two water meters, one each for indoor and outdoor water measurement. Every Sterling Ranch home comes standard with STEWARD, a smart home automation, home security and utilities monitoring system, enabling connection of all smart home devices and remote control from an app on any smartphone or tablet.
“It shows what your water, electric and gas bills are anticipated to be at the end of the month, and what is currently expended to date,” says Smethills.
Sterling Ranch also has a standard solar program; buyers who choose not to participate can opt out. Partnering with Xcel Energy, Sterling Ranch implemented an energy action plan toward the goal of achieving 100% renewable electricity by 2030 and a carbon neutral energy supply by 2040.
The Sterling Ranch community also has smart integrated street lights that “communicate” with each other and adjust to local needs, such as beacons that change colors in a fire or police event. A 5G deployment of data collection is under consideration, says Smethills, acknowledging the next generation of smart cities are going to embrace 5G deployment.
Laying smart home foundations
The best measure a home builder can take is to ensure the home has a strong network to serve as a backbone for any smart home system, notes Hayley Selden, Digital Media Innovations’ client solution engineer.
“From there, security, climate, life and water safety are the best value-add systems,” Selden adds. “It’s important to have these systems properly designed so they fully integrate with each other.”
Additional systems are market-dependent. For homes priced in the mid-range and above, ceiling audio is becoming more of a standard.
“When in doubt—or for a spec build—we always recommend pre-wiring for future systems,” Selden says.
The future is smart
Smart city infrastructure can still be of benefit for those building traditional homes. Energy management is the biggest advantage for large-scale residential properties, notes Selden, pointing out that more appliances are becoming “smart.”
“At the end of the day, we all know this is where things are headed,” she says. “Now is the time to get ahead of the curve.”
Sterling Ranch’s Smethills acknowledges the impact that energy needs have on home construction.
“Building codes are changing across the United States, and are making houses more energy efficient to begin with,” notes Smethills.
“In Colorado, the highest cost utility is water. Builders here are deploying their resources toward how they can save water so they can show tangible improvements to the homeowner in the form of a slightly lower-cost house because they don’t have to pay that higher tax and impact fee.”
Rooftop solar is another way to show value to buyers by lowering utility bills “and rolling it into a lower cost interest rate environment like we’re in today,” says Smethills.
The new suburbs
Smethills says builders recognize that to incentivize homebuyers to move from more urban, mature communities into suburban communities, “they need to have a lot of this newer technology put in the house to show that it’s not the house that their parents bought 50 years ago.”
Sterling Ranch has a wireless access point in every house.
“Those factors add incremental value,” he says, adding Sterling Ranch built its own fiber network, paving the way for one-gig internet from CenturyLink supplied to every home given the limitation of copper lines.
There’s a realization in the market of a competitive edge that new homes have over older homes, Smethills adds.
Another benefit to developers and communities alike: the innovations of a smart cities program attract a younger and tech-savvy workforce, according to Colorado Springs’ Handley.
The availability of broadband and fiber are expanding where companies are able to build, Selden points out. Digital Media Innovations partners primarily with custom builders, then an array of product manufacturers, including Savant, Lutron, Pakedge, Elk Products, Axis Communications, Leon, Integra, Seura, Sonance, Panamax and Kaleidescape.
However, public infrastructure is a core service that municipalities provide, and smart infrastructure does not impact the location of where construction companies can build, says Handley.
“We work closely with the private sector to deploy more broadband assets in our community to bridge the digital divide and ensure our community has reliable, fast and affordable internet services,” he adds.
Numbers are inching up from previous studies that show only a small percentage of the buying demographic would pay a premium for a house that has similar features to others but is more environmentally conscious, Smethills says. Homebuyers are embracing the idea that sustainability such as water efficiency is paying for itself and providing tangible value, he adds.
While millennials may not be willing to pay a premium to live in a sustainable community, if they’re choosing between one community that’s sustainable and another that’s not for the same price, “that might be enough to thumb the scale to have the buyer pick that community,” Smethills says.