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Home Front: The pros (and cons) of home tech

Cate Burren of Angel and Blume Interior Design wonders how ‘smart’ we really want our homes to be

Cate Burren talks home tech - like this nifty camera from Ring (49983247)
Cate Burren talks home tech - like this nifty camera from Ring (49983247)

I recently found myself gripped by a play on Radio 4 about a couple who rented an Airbnb with a voice recognition device (like Alexa or Siri, although this one was called Jo) which during the course of their visit, not only ruins their stay by double booking them with another guest who arrives in the middle of the night and won’t leave, but also terrorises them by overriding their commands, turning up the shower temperature to boiling point and randomly locking and unlocking the front door until they are eventually forced to escape the crazed machine.

I have always thought of myself as a technophobe, certainly a late adopter, but reflecting on it, if I was asked to live without a dishwasher, or washing machine, the internet or God forbid the Satnav, I would put up the fight of my life to maintain the domestic innovations I am now used to and happy with. So just how do you work out what level of technology you want in your home?

One thing I am certain about, is that it is vital not to be led by what is available, because there is a lot of smart home technology on the market and I have no doubt that more is coming. The best thing to do is to work out what you would like your home to be able to do, and then see what technology is available.

I have a client who has a much larger than average house and I am guessing that the electricity bills make interesting reading. I was there recently when the lights suddenly went out. My client revealed, with some annoyance, that her husband had rigged up a system whereby all the lights went out at 2pm every day so that the lighting that was actually required had to be put back on. I can see the irritation, but also suspect that it efficiently dealt with the problem of lights being left on for days in areas of the house that are not regularly used.

One of the phrases that I hear about homes quite a lot at the moment, is the notion of trying to ‘future-proof’ your home. Of course it is sensible to try to think about what you might want in future, but some things are a safer bet than others - your children leaving home or that you might want a less labour intensive garden in old age for example.

Accurately predicting the future is notoriously tricky and if you go to the brilliant Centre for Computing History in Cambridge and read some of the quotes on the wall, you will find it hard to dispute this – I give you this as an example: "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers" - Thomas Watson, president of IBM, 1943.

Boring as it sounds, it is sometimes better to get things right for now, or for changes that you know will happen, rather than trying to be too clever.

It sounds a simple thing, but once you have worked out what you would like your home to do and picked the appropriate technology, installing it properly and then using it is vital. Lighting has progressed enormously in the last decade or so, and many new homes come with pretty smart lighting technology. If programmed and used correctly, this can ensure that the lighting in your home is good most of the time - but it does take time and effort to ensure that it is set up correctly for your requirements, your lifestyle and your furniture and artwork.

However, I bet most of us with this type of technology aren’t using it to full capacity. You find the light setting you like and use it most of the time, not changing it between times of the day or seasons of the year. Most technology seems to come with more settings than we think we want, and a weighty set of instructions - how many of us really read up about what is possible and how to use it well?

The other thing to think about is who is going to use your high-tech technology. All your family members may be interested and smart enough to make the most of it, but will your guests? Friends of mine recently stayed at an Airbnb with a very fancy induction hob. They were there for three days and never got it to work properly and they really tried. They even found the instruction manual for it online, but still a boiling pan of water was beyond reach. You may be comfortable showing your guests how to use your hob, but it might be more of a pain if you have to show each guest how to use the shower or turn off the bedroom lights.

Finally it is worth just thinking about what we give up when we introduce technology to our homes. Having grown up buying vinyl, I now find it hard to get excited about it – give me an iPod with 1,000 songs on it any day - but I appreciate the revival of some really beautiful turntables in our homes and I am delighted to see record shops back on the High Street giving a shopping experience that downloading music just can’t get near.

It’s not always just the experience that we lose out on, it can also be very basic, like missing out on exercise. I wear a step counter in an attempt to get to my 10,000 steps per day and as I recently admired a friend’s robotic lawn mower as it whizzed round their garden, I found myself wondering how many steps would be clocked up if you mowed their lawn with a conventional mower.

As I think I have now fully demonstrated, I am no expert in home technology. But what I do know is that it is here to stay and unless we take control of what we want and what it is doing in our homes, I feel sure that the machines will get the better of us.

Pictured: This stylish little smart camera from Ring allows you to know what is happening in your home even when you are not there - see en-uk.ring.com

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