„Smart Homes“: Interview with the architect Werner Sobek

It’s not just phones and cars that are getting more “intelligent” – homes too are getting a boost in IQ. Architect Werner Sobek has already built several such homes, and knows just how the concept of living will develop.

The Aktivhaus B10 won the iF Design Award in January 2016. (Picture: DEKRA)

The Aktivhaus B10 won the iF Design Award in January 2016. (Picture: DEKRA)

Whilst “smart homes” have long been heralded as the next big thing, the usage of this technology in private homes remains negligible. Many systems are quite simply too expensive, others still too crude or lacking in range of effectiveness. How do you see the market?
Sobek: The market is large and packed with opportunity for buyers and sellers alike. However, it has often also been found lacking in fitting products. Many products are too expensive or too complicated to install, others are still in their infancy, or offer merely insular solutions. Then, of course, there are the products that we simply don’t need – such as fridges that automatically re-order supplies.

Will it remain a subject for tinkerers and technophiles, or will it become commonplace in coming years?
Sobek: Self-learning and self-organizing systems that control energy consumption and user comfort will be standard within a few years – the global energy revolution relies on us both fitting and networking said systems in areas ranging from groups of houses to villages, towns and even whole cities, rather than a few solitary houses. Electromobility should also be linked to buildings’ energy systems. Sadly, the construction industry has neither realized the need for this, nor recognized the opportunities it holds. If this continues, these opportunities will be taken by others, such as foreign communications corporations. As is the case with many new technologies, it was tinkerers and tech fans that really drove the development.

Smart homes and security: to what extent could an intelligent house protect itself from break-ins or help with domestic accidents? Could smart homes allow the elderly to live independently for longer?
Sobek: First of all, it is not the house that should be the intelligent one, but its designer. Building automation systems can assist in saving energy and increasing both the physical and psychological wellbeing of the inhabitants. In addition, it can contribute to improved security and autonomy in our later years. Technological systems can support us and make some tasks easier, however, they are no replacement for social contact, and should never be regarded as such.

Remaining on the subject of security, how are smart homes protected against hacking attempts and other malicious behavior? Are there any fallbacks, in case of technological failure?
Sobek: I am only able to speak for the system with which we work. The self-learning and self-organizing system created by alphaEOS in Stuttgart works predictively and features individual room control. We opted for this system as it provides the best energy saving opportunities, and also uses the same security standards favored by the online banking solutions of German banks. Furthermore, it doesn’t store user data in the Cloud. The data of alphaEOS’ clients is not sold to third parties. Instead, all relevant data remains property of the user.

A failure of the system that we use could, at the very most, lead to a malfunction in the temperature control of an individual room. The simultaneous failure of two or more components is extremely unlikely. The system quickly returns to full operational status following system resets, be they carried out by the inhabitants via smartphone or by the system itself.

How future proof is current smart home technology? Does it represent a sound investment?
Sobek: A radio signal based energy management system like that of alphaEOS has an average payback period of less than four years, when fitted to existing buildings. In some cases, the investment was recouped within two years. That really isn’t long. Installation was also remarkably quick, taking less than half an hour per apartment. The technology installed primarily consists of electronics, and has a long service life thanks to its durability. The only mechanical components are the valves – sophisticated and readily available thanks to mass production. Value retention and a long working life are therefore clearly present. In addition, the system will remain state-of-the-art thanks to software updates and the replacement of individual modules with more modern and developed ones.

With the B10 project, you presented a model home that is not just intelligent, but sustainable too. What materials did you use to achieve this? How did you manage the balance between sustainability and cutting edge materials?
Sobek: Sustainability is defined by a range of factors. Back in 1999, we developed the triple-zero concept, which describes buildings designed to use only as much energy as they glean from renewable sources during the summer months, produce no dangerous emissions, and be entirely recyclable – that is to say that all materials used in their construction may be used again. Nowadays, our buildings are even better. They require less building materials, can produce up to 200 percent of the energy they require and provide surplus energy to neighboring buildings, electric cars or the grid.

We use a variety of different building materials, all of which fully recyclable. The question of how to connect all these different materials is a very important one. It’s a matter of whether it can be ensured that all joins are also reversible, or whether composite materials are created that can no longer be recycled by type. For example, protection for the elements in the aktivhaus B10 is provided by a fabric facade, stretched to fit the untreated wooden structure. If the building needs to be dismantled, it is very simple for this to be removed.

After eighteen months, what has been learned from B10? What have been the successes, and what requires further attention? Is there anything that you would add to it, or even remove from the house?
Sobek: We are very satisfied with B10. Of course, there are always little bits here and there that can be adjusted and optimized, and B10 was, to all effects and purposes, a prototype development. Subsequent projects currently in planning focus far heavier on purely electrical operation. Due to falling battery prices and the highly developed energy management system, that makes absolute sense.

As far as one can say at this point in time, would it be technically and financially viable to transfer this concept to entire settlements?
Sobek: In a word, yes. The concept of connecting both energetically strong and weak buildings can and should be transferred to entire settlements and urban districts. Both the requisite knowledge and the technical requirements are available. The costs are negligible too – it is not a case of building entirely new infrastructure, rather connecting net energy producers and net energy consumers through an anticipatory and self-learning electronic system. However, a current obstacle is the lack of regulatory frameworks for such interlinking.

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The architect Werner Sobek also holds a PhD in civil engineering, and teaches as professor at various universities including Stuttgart, Harvard and the National University of Singapore. He is on several committees for sustainable building and also works as a test engineer for structural engineering projects. (Picture: DEKRA)

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