How Smart Houses Shine

Gary Steffy describes a renovated house in Birmingham, Mich., that doesn't have a single light switch.

Plenty of lights, yes, but no traditional, on-the-wall, manual switches.

As a lighting designer, Mr. Steffy, who is based in Ann Arbor, Mich., says he heeded the call of the client and connected with the brightest lighting trend: Design a house using radio signals from a programmable master control system that rules all the lighting in the rooms, and much more, by simply pushing buttons.

"Much more" includes drapes moved back and forth by the master control, also a small indoor garden with water gurgling down a wall, windows opening, a sound system, a security system, and the ability to turn on all the lights inside and out at the same time with a single button.

"The lighting network in the house remembers your on-and-off patterns from the past week," says Steffy, "and will replay them while you are on vacation. Also, in the mornings you can set the lights for breakfast, and in the evenings provide lighting for dining, entertaining, or watching TV."

The house in Birmingham is not uncommon.

What used to be promised as a marriage of architecture and technology in elite "smart" houses in the distant future are now being built in increasing numbers across the United States.

"More and more, people want smart houses for convenience, economy, and security," says Kathy Presciano, a General Electric lighting specialist in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Such systems can cost from around a $1,000 to tens of thousands.

"In the future I think light could be easier to own," she says. "It would be more of an appliance and less of a commodity."

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