Saturday, December 29, 2012

The low-tech smart home

We can always count on my buddy Piers Fawkes at to draw out some great ideas.  He blogged about some LifeEdited design ideas that got me thinking. These ideas are not from his blog, but are based on what zipped through my mind as I was reading it. 

The main point of the blog is that many of us are living in smaller spaces, so leveraging that space is really important.  Many people these days automatically gravitate towards technology solutions, but LifeEdited is looking at modularizing the space using the standard hardware – walls, furniture, appliances – but in creative ways. 

Let’s start with the walls.  The example from LifeEdited is to have a sliding wall separating the living room/den and the guest bedroom.  So when you all go to sleep, you can slide the wall and make more bed/less den space.  If the bed is integrated into the sliding wall Murphy Bed style, you can really take this to extremes.  If you have some wardrobe/cabinet space also integrated into the sliding wall, you can slide the wall almost to the end when the room is not in use.  Huge difference in living space during the 350 days a year and 16 hours a day you don’t need it.

Let’s think even more broadly.  What if you could move the walls that separate apartments?  The logistical challenges of negotiating this might be too much in general, but for those new buildings that cities are envisioning that are only 300-600 square feet, this could be useful.  When I want to entertain, I can slide the wall over and take up half of my next door neighbor’s space and vice versa.  After all, I don’t really use that much of my den space on most days.  I am either at work, out, chlling on the couch watching TV, or something else that could easily use a smaller size than even a normally small den.  You could prevent fights by having an on-line negotiation agent system (lots of other blogs on this so I will leave it out – but think of a reservation system with an auction facility for popular days and if ever both people insist on their space, you just leave the wall in the normal position). 

OK, now let’s move on to furniture.  I mentioned already the idea of folding furniture down from the walls Murphy Bed style.  What else can we do in this regard?  You could easily fold down a table desk, even in your bedroom.  Drawers can be hinged so they are accessible in folded up and folded down modes.   The kitchen table is another no-brainer for this one. 

Then there is the slide in drawer model.  You could slide a table top out of the wall or other infrastructure instead of folding it up.  This could give you modular counter space, extra table leaves, or desktop space.  You could also move the “stuff” that most apartments keep outside into a pull-out system that you only pull out when you want to display it or access it.  You could integrate a spice rack into a cabinet and slide it out when you are cooking.  You could integrate a desktop office supply dispenser and slide it out when you are working. 

What about a stackability model?  You could use stackable chairs to save a lot of space normally wasted around a dining room table or even living room.  You would need to create nicer designs than current stackables that are kind of cheesy-looking, but the engineering part is not too complicated.

Finally, let’s move on to appliances.  Admittedly, using some of these ideas might reduce the quality of the cooking capabilities, but they are at least places to start.  The blog post suggests using portable burners instead of a stove.  You pull out the burners when you need to cook and put them in the closet to get more counter or table space.  How about a long, thin fridge that can be integrated into a wall when not in use? 

One other topic that Piers relates is a public/private idea.  You could use this to share space with your neighbors or if you host AirBnB/Couchsurfing kinds of activities.  Within your guest room, you could have a combination of locked and open closets/drawers/cabinets that allows you to give some guests access and others not.  In a shared hallway you could have cabinets and storage spaces that you trade off with your neighbors as needed by trading a key or using a web-based password entry with the same reservation system I mentioned above.  Lots of possible ideas here.

So what do you think?  Are you ready to go live in a 200 square foot studio in downtown Manhattan to save some serious money (rent or mortgage)?  If it is designed effectively, I think it would work.  But in this case, effectively is not about the engineering, but in understanding the wide variety of user scenarios and cases that would HAVE to be supported.  As soon as an important social, business, or personal event delivers a disappointing experience you lose.  

But on the positive side, these ideas reduce the required space, energy, materials, and more that you need to live in any living space but most importantly for cities where real estate is expensive.