The Luxury of Automation

Fenestration follows suit in smart home technology
Emily Kay Thompson
May 9, 2016
FEATURE ARTICLE | Design & Performance
Kolbe’s sliding door automation systems utilize an interactive wall switch, providing easy-to-use, push-button controls, as well as a feedback feature for serviceability. These systems are available for field-installation on Ultra Series and VistaLuxe complementary multi-slide doors, as well as Ultra Series TerraSpan Lift & Slide doors. (Image courtesy of Kolbe.)

The popularity of smart homes is growing exponentially. Two independent market research companies, Markets and Markets and Statista, both estimate that the market for smart homes will reach $58.68 billion by 2020. Statista additionally predicts that there will be 24.4 million smart homes in the United States by the same year. While the United States reportedly leads smart home adoption worldwide, fenestration is just beginning to bloom in this space.

“While automation has been a big focus in Europe, we’ve only seen little pockets of it in the United States with some of the bigger companies,” says Steve Dillon, marketing director for Veka. As with most fenestration trends, the United States looks to Europe for potential applications in window and door products. Attendees to the recent Fensterbau Frontale show in Germany had the opportunity to do just that. There, Dillon observes, automation was everywhere, some of it so small and integrated it was almost hard to notice. “Sometimes it’s difficult to find where the automation is [in the products]. There’s flush-mounted buttons, touch sensors, and things of that nature. The technology is becoming more advanced.”

Though it may be years before we see these micro trends permeate the residential window and door segment in the United States, there are many manufacturers that are adapting the technology to varying degrees. Automation relative to fenestration in this market addresses one or more of the following areas: convenience, safety/security and/or efficiency. Here, we’ll focus on the first of the three, convenience, which is usually tied to the luxury market.

Convenience & Luxury

The luxury market is a natural fit for automation. First, the cost is more digestible when homeowners are already spending $30,000 and up for a door, as Jeff Shockley, vice president of sales and marketing for Summit Automation, points out. Plus, he says that automation is more relevant to the products—it makes sense to incorporate automation to help move the large expanses of glass that are characteristic of this niche.

While integrating automation certainly increases costs for manufacturers and homeowners, it is uniquely positioned to appeal to a specific demographic, but not necessarily the most obvious one. In fact, Lance Premeau, Kolbe’s product and market manager, LEED Green Associate, doesn’t see the application contained to high-end homeowners whatsoever. “It is more tied to the technology adopters of the population and their wants and needs,” he says. “I think it’s partially due to the general integration of technology into our world. From smartphones to smart homes, the advances make sense.”

Carl Stieglitz, sales manager for Windows, Doors & More, agrees. He says that, from where WDM sits in Seattle, a “hotbed of technology,” he sees how the tech-savvy workforce and Millennial generation want things connected. He estimates that the rate of adoption is faster in the luxury market, but is starting to catch wind in the mid-range market, appealing to this diverse audiece.

This genesis of “convenience automation” is another argument for why it could become more mainstream. Stieglitz points to the trickle-down effect of the large door openings themselves: “We are seeing a lot more bi-folds and multi-slides in more modest homes today than we did a decade ago. I think the same thing is going to be true with home automation.”

How it Works

Especially as automation moves into the mainstream, many don’t really understand how it works—a barrier to adoption. “Some people are intimidated by automation because they don’t understand it,” says Shockley. But the reality is it’s not so complicated. “My system plugs into a standard 110 outlet like a toaster. Everything it plugs into is low voltage. It’s very simple to install.”

In terms of automation for convenience’s sake, the systems incorporate a hardware component that is connected to the technology. A belt and pulley system is common for sliding doors. The Summit Automation system consists of a motor assembly, a smart switch and a control box to control the doors. There are also direct contact adaptors in the control box to connect the automated door to other entire home automation systems. This is how homeowners can operate their door panels with their phones, iPads or other remote systems.

Manufacturers tell us that automation can be integrated into a number of products as it doesn’t require the window components to be altered. Many offer it as an optional upgrade. Dealers then are trained on how to install specific systems and teach homeowners how to program the system. Beyond in-house training, the automation companies typically offer technical support and videos to make the process less daunting.

Standardization: The Wild West

According to a recent report by Business Insider, the largest barrier to general smart home adoption is “technological fragmentation within the connected home ecosystem.” John Greenough, senior research analyst for BI Intelligence writes: “Currently, there are many networks, standards, and devices being used to connect the smart home, creating interoperability problems and making it confusing for the consumer to set up and control multiple devices. Until interoperability is solved, consumers will have difficulty choosing smart home devices and systems.”

The same is true for fenestration. “It’s still the 'wild west' relative to connectivity standards. Standardization will come. There is a growing understanding of this need within the industry and some good work going on to achieve it,” says Kevin Gaul, engineering manager of advanced technology for Pella.

As an example, he refers to a project the Department of Energy funded for a group at Virginia Polytechnic and State University Advanced Research Institute to research and develop its Building Energy Management Open Source Software for small and medium-sized commercial buildings (see bemoss.org). The result is a “platform that is engineered to improve sensing and control of equipment in small- and medium-sized commercial buildings. BEMOSS aims to optimize electricity usage to reduce energy consumption and help implement demand response programs.”

While Gaul believes that there will be standardization, it will come slowly. “While the path isn’t yet clear, it will likely involve efforts by a number of different entities including the many impacted industries—building envelope, HVAC, lighting, automation system integrators—and government entities such as the DOE and university researchers.”

Pushing the Boundaries

While there are still some barriers in the U.S. market for automation, the need has been emerging and will continue to grow. Manufacturers and dealers that resist the trend stand to lose out on their piece of that projected $58.68 billion smart home pie.

“Ask about automation, even if you don’t see a specific option offered,” Premeau advises dealers. “Our team is continually reinventing what can be done in the window and door industry. We welcome the challenge of the extraordinary, of pushing the boundaries.”

Thompson is editor of Window & Door, WindowandDoor.com, and WDweekly. Write her at ethompson@glass.org.