Just what makes these homes so smart?
Four Palo Alto condominiums model high-tech green living
"Imagine control of every aspect of your home — from anywhere at any time. Having control of your lighting, security systems, temperature management, entertainment, and just about anything else you can think of — making them all work better by working together all under your authority. This is the magic of a smart home."
Rachel Modena Barasch, home technology specialist for the Sunset magazine website and writer of the above words, could be forgiven for her dreamy tone. So-called "smart homes," a fantasy of the "Jetsons" era, actually are coming to life.
Sunset and construction partner Clarum Homes recently opened four, 1,500-square-foot condominiums in Palo Alto. They combine sustainable building materials and design with personalized, energy-efficient technologies.
Most notably, the condos are wired for either Savant or Control4, two similar home-automation systems. These programs allow homeowners to control all their electronics through an application on their touch-screen phone or tablet computer, even from a remote location.
Two of the homes come with pre-programmed tablet computers already embedded in the wall.
"These kinds of technologies are more affordable and more accessible," said Kathi McCalligan, Sunset Home Programs director. "We wanted to educate readers and the public that this is available."
For example, a homeowner coming home on a cold night could use his personal device to turn on the heating, turn up the lights and switch on his favorite music so that all are ready and functioning when he arrives. On the other hand, if the homeowner leaves and forgets to turn off the lights, he can switch them off from afar.
Homeowners also can access the home security system with their personal devices. Street-level cameras and security protection software alert homeowners if something goes awry.
"If you're gone, and somebody is inside your house, you will know that," McCalligan said. "If a door was open, and it wasn't supposed to be, you'll know."
Similarly, "If your teenage son is due to get home at 4, he may or may not call you, but ... you can check if (the) door was used at 4," she said.
Each front door is equipped with a keyless entry system, and each resident is given his or her own numeric code to type into a keypad. This entry system eliminates the need for a locksmith yet still is secure to prevent break-ins, she said.
Two of the condos — those with home-automation tablet computers included — are being sponsored and promoted by Sunset and will be featured in the magazine's November edition.
"We're just trying to paint the big picture of a smart home and what that means: the green components and technology components," McCalligan said. "Bringing (these components) together brings the average family some tremendous benefits: convenience, energy savings and money savings."
Money savings, indeed: Using the phone or tablet app, homeowners can see their pattern and cost of energy usage in real time and learn what time of day is most cost-effective. Subsequently, they might choose to run their washing machine at midnight instead of 6 p.m. to save on costs.
Homeowners who monitor their energy usage typically reduce home energy consumption by 10 to 15 percent, according to Clarum president John Suppes.
"The technology takes (these homes) to the next level" of green living, McCalligan said.
Suppes' favorite feature, the Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV) system, filters in fresh air from outside and releases stale air without losing any heat. The HRV, paired with double insulation and airtight home sealing, makes these homes Passive Homes, or buildings that require very little energy use for heating and cooling.
This designation makes the smart homes "up to 90 percent more energy-efficient than the average home," he said. "The average home has leaks equivalent to a 3-by-3 window."
Additionally, the home is equipped with a solar electricity system and a solar hot-water-heating system, which should heat up about 90 percent of the domestic hot-water use, he said.
"What's unique about these homes is there's no gas," he continued. "They run on electric only."
Located at 420 Cambridge Ave., Palo Alto, the homes sit just off El Camino Real, parallel to South California Avenue and less than 700 feet from the nearest Caltrain station and bus stop. It's an unusually urban location for the largely suburban community of Palo Alto — and therein lies the key, McCalligan said.
California Avenue is known as a Pedestrian and Transit Oriented District (PTOD), a location that allows close walking and biking to mass transit, a grocery store, restaurants and other service shops. The homes' proximity to this area, along with their energy-efficiency and green building materials, made their construction the first LEED Platinum project in Palo Alto, Suppes said.
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a green-building certification system developed by the United States Green Building Council that ranks buildings as Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum.
The three-story, detached homes are located on a second-story "Plaza Level," with commercial space and a parking garage located below. The garage includes a car-stacking system to optimize space along with electric-vehicle charging stations.
Realtors expect to sell the smart homes for about $1.4 million, with the Sunset (pre-set) homes priced at $35,000 to $50,000 more than the others, Suppes said.
What: Sunset Smart Homes Tour
Where: 420 Cambridge Ave., Palo Alto
When: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 21 through Nov. 13, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Tickets: $18 for adults, with children 12 and under free; seniors (adults 65 and over) who attend on Friday receive a $15 discounted rate