Homes of the furniture: Another chip in the wall

Robot vacuum cleaners, fingerprint-reading door handles... Graham Norwood places his finger on the button
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The Independent Online

Not so long ago, technology in the home usually carried a seven-figure price tag; only in the legendary million-pound house would you find the innovative time-saving, environmentally friendly features that the rest of us merely read about in magazines.





But those days have gone. Developers in particular say that new-build homes have never had more technology loaded into them, even at the mid- and lower ends of the market.



For example, niche developer PlayNest has built flats in Crouch End, north London, with fingerprint-reading door handles, a security TV channel allowing owners to check different rooms via CCTV, under-floor and wall-cavity heating, a robot vacuum cleaner and an alarm that can be set from a mobile phone or laptop.



Chase Homes' Auden Court development in Harborne, Birmingham, features a music and video system based on Apple's iPod technology. It allows up to 7,500 songs of 75 hours of video to be stored and played in different rooms.



Meanwhile, Spanish developer Euro-Center has devised a security system for holiday home owners who are often away from their properties. Its villas on the Costa Blanca feature miniature surveillance cameras active 24 hours a day, recording images viewable on an owner's mobile or laptop.



Yet these futuristic-sounding facilities are not found solely in the most expensive homes. PlayNest's apartments cost £250,000 and Chase Homes' properties were just £170,000; the Spanish properties were sold for under £500,000.



Jason Bradbury, who presents The Gadget Show on Five, says the next big thing for developers will be to offer increasingly sophisticated audio visual equipment.



"Broadcasting in the traditional sense is in need of an upgrade. I'm convinced that new-build homes in the next five or 10 years will come with a choice of internet-based subscription services. You'll sign up for them like you'd sign up for gas or electricity and you'll have access to online libraries with millions of TV shows, music tracks and videos that will be streamed on screens in all rooms," predicts Bradbury.



"The idea is that your house requires a central server that supplies audio and video content from one single source to just about any connected device anywhere in the house. You could have pay-per-view movies on an LCD screen mounted at the end of your bath. That sounds extremely cool, doesn't it?" asks Bradbury.



"Home servers, a pre-installed feed directly from the internet, and walls embedded with network cabling. These are all realities now for top-flight properties and will certainly trickle down into average-priced new homes in the near future," he says.



So, with technology prices plummeting, is now the right time to retro-fit older homes with new gizmos? After all, fingerprint-reading door handles are £200; iris-scanning security systems cost £1,800; a 40-watt solar panel for a roof costs under £150.



Well, there are obvious obstacles. The most basic is that many older homes do not have the cavities required for storing large wiring boards and electronic systems. Similarly, few existing owners will want the scale of disruption required to network a home for remote, PC- or laptop-controlled technologies.



But some brave pioneers are trying. For example, British Gas is attempting to gauge whether energy-saving devices can be cost-effectively retro-fitted to older houses. It has chosen eight properties across the country (each cutely located in a road called Green St) and presented the owners with £30,000 of kit, including energy efficient light-bulbs, solar panels and heat pumps.



The Green Streets, in Manchester, Leeds, London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Plymouth and Southampton will compete on how much energy they can save in a year, with the winners being given £50,000 to spend on energy saving equipment for their local community. Results will be known later this year.



"For every £3 we spend heating our homes £1 is wasted because of poor insulation. And while strict standards on new build are needed, most of the energy being consumed is in the ageing homes we live in today," says Phil Bentley, British Gas managing director.



Jason Bradbury insists there is more that can be done to upgrade an old house. "Certain technologies make use of infrastructures in the house. X-10, for example [an industry standard sending short radio frequency bursts] uses existing electrical wiring to send tiny digital signals between devices," says Bradbury. "With this, you can automate curtains, lighting and all manner of security devices from alarm systems to cameras."



More basic technology is also available, as even a visit to a simple DIY outlet will reveal. There is now security door glass that is frosted from outside but allows the owner to see clearly through it; a £9.99 camera can overlook a driveway and its picture be seen on the domestic TV; and motion-triggered lights can now be retro-fitted in most family-sized houses for under £600.



There has never been more technology to make our lives easier - and it's never been cheaper to buy it, too.





For information on green technologies, see page X. Jason Bradbury will be offering advice in the Seminar Theatre at Grand Designs Live. For more information, visit www.granddesignslive.com

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