Building blocks for the smart home

Consumer electronics makers descend on a homebuilder show with a big bag of fancy--and pricey--tech treats.

SAN FRANCISCO--Would you spend up to $39,000 so you could control the air conditioning, lighting and television in your house without ever leaving the couch?

Technology companies like Sony, General Electric and USTec here at the Pacific Coast Builders Conference 2006 are betting that at least some people will.

Making a splash on the PCBC exhibit floor at the sprawling Moscone Center this week, home electronics makers were showing off all-in-one "smart home" systems that control climate, lighting, security and entertainment.

Homes of the future

For gearheads, the technology is undeniably cool. The GE Smart Connection Center, for example, is a prototype home automation system that can be controlled from a small, wall-mounted, color touch-screen pad. From there, a home owner can set the air temperature, create mood lighting, lock and unlock doors, access exterior security cameras, monitor a sleeping baby and crank tunes all over the house.

GE and the other companies are pitching these systems to home builders, who would include them in new houses just like they would plumbing or electrical wiring. But home builders here at the PCBC conference said the high-tech equipment is hardly the sort of thing home buyers list as a priority.

"We offer it as an option, but it's not built in," said Alan Dean, vice president of construction for D.R. Horton, a nationwide builder. "We might offer it in the future (as standard) when prices come down, or maybe in smaller pieces, like just the lighting or the A.C."

Greg Barker, vice president of Interactive Home in Livermore, Calif., plans to roll out the GE Smart Connection Center as the latest addition to his repertoire of low-voltage electronics gear for home builders in Northern California.

To date, Barker says, several homebuilders, including Lennar Homes in Danville, Calif., plan to offer the system in their newest developments. Home buyers can spend $1,200 to $1,800 per room for the GE gear, with a whole-house system running between $29,000 and $39,000.

However, because of the high price, some home builders say they've seen little demand for all-in-one systems.

"We don't offer it because of cost-effectiveness," said Kent Keith, director of purchasing for Landmark Communities in Reno, Nev. Though Landmark sells some homes for as high as $1.5 million, Keith says the company "rarely" sells smart home systems, even as an upgradable option.

If consumers were willing to spend, what they'd be getting would be considerable.

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