Voice Activated Smart Home Living

The debate over whether to add smart home technology to apartments is over. Residents want it. What a smart apartment actually looks or sounds like, however, is still very much in question.

That’s exactly what the panelists in the “Is Voice Activated Smart Home Living the Next Big Thing?” session discussed on Thursday at NMHC OPTECH in Las Vegas. The verdict: It’s not a matter of if, but when, voice-activated smart home living will be a reality in multifamily.

“What’s trending in the homeowners space, you’re going to see in multifamily,” said Andrew Beach, IT senior programs manager for Mill Creek Residential. “It’s really a matter of meeting resident expectations and enabling them to do whatever they could do in a house they owned in their apartment home.”

And the data seems to concur with Beach. According to a Schlage survey, 55 percent of millennials are willing to pay more for a smart apartment and 61 percent are more likely to rent an apartment specifically because it comes with electronic access. The data shows that residents are beginning to recognize the benefits of smart home technology, said Chase Harrington, chief operating officer at Entrata.

“We’re seeing how homeowners have received savings of time and money every year with smart home technology, so it’s only a matter of time before it occurs at apartment communities,” he said. “The technologies haven’t permeated the apartment market quite yet, but we do have a precedence of what it did for homeowners to piggyback off of, and the markets know what we could do.”

Despite the potential savings of time and money, most smart home technologies, including voice-activated devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home, aren’t necessarily on the minds of residents or prospective renters. In fact, the only smart home technology that Lincoln’s residents are asking for (84 percent) are smart thermostats, according to Nicole McLemore, the company’s national projects manager

That might be a product of the amount of exposure residents have to smart thermostats versus voice-activated devices.

“Smart thermostats are one of the first smart home technologies to enter the market, so they’ve had that experience with them,” Harrington said. “There are all these new devices coming out that haven’t become deal breakers yet, but that’s because residents haven’t been exposed to them very much.”
According to McLemore, a Lincoln survey of its residents found that the only technologies that have reached deal-breaker status are Internet and cable service. If they’re locked into one particular cable provider or Internet service can’t stream video, some prospective renters will eliminate the community from their shortlist.
Some owner/operators have been hesitant to implement voice-activated devices because they haven’t become deal breakers for residents. That thinking might put them at a disadvantage to more forward-thinking operators who are trying to anticipate what renters will want in the future.
“Until people get the technology in their hands, they don’t know what they’re missing,” said Mary Herrold, principal of multifamily partnerships IOTAS Smart Apartment. “Deal breakers are too hard to predict, because it’s new and it’s a personal choice. You don’t know what you have until you don’t have it anymore and then you realize, ‘oh, I wanted that.’”

But there are some barriers that need to be overcome to make voice-activated smart apartment living a reality. The most important of which is the need for an owner/operator to have centralized control over the smart home devices at their communities.

“An enterprise smart apartment platform is the way to go for multifamily operators,” Herrold said. “There’s a lack of a definition of what a smart apartment is, but I want to stress that it’s not about the devices. It’s about the customer experience and the true interoperability of these devices to communicate with each other. In the end, automation and anticipation win out.”

But owner/operator control has to be severely limited, and yet connected to a secure network that the resident doesn’t necessarily control. It’s a difficult balance to strike.

“All of these IOT devices have to be connected and they have to be connected through a network provided by the community,” Beach said. “This can’t be only on the resident because when they move out, that network is no longer available. There has to be a unifying network. That network has to be appropriately secure and it has to be segregated from corporate networks.”

In addition, smart home devices installed inside apartments, such as lights or thermostats, need to work with Google Home, Amazon Echo and Apple HomePod.

“As we talk about voice activation, the challenge is being sure that the devices are controller agnostic,” Beach said. “From our perspective, we really want the resident to bring in the voice-activating controller of their choice. There’s so much integration that goes with that, we really would want any devices that we install to be able to be controlled by the three major players.”

Although smart apartment technologies are still evolving to meet residents needs, protect resident information and differentiate communities, the demand for voice-activated smart home living will continue to grow and eventually become a resident expectation.

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