When a previous owner remodeled my house in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he probably thought he was creating a futuristic, high end palace for him and his wife. Things didn’t turn out so well. I do have the nicest kitchen in my zip code (probably) but my house is only futuristic in the 1960s WORLD OF TOMORROW sense (ie, it’s not) and I’m pretty sure the remodel led to divorce. How to make sure a remodel strengthens your marriage is a topic for another day. So let’s talk about futuristic houses instead.
My house is filled with thousands and thousands of dollars worth of wires. Wires I do not need. Wires that have just been gathering dust for years. My house was built in 1939 and then heavily remodeled from about 1999 to 2004. Yes, that’s a long remodel. The previous owner went overboard. He wisely removed all the old knob and tube wiring, but didn’t just replace it one for one with new copper wiring. He wired the house for sound, security, data, phone, and more. He was an electrical contractor and did all the work himself. He spared no expense. Having spent the 1990s wiring up homes for the original Seattle tech elite, he did the same ultra-level of detail to his own house. The quantity and quality is unreal. He was a superb craftsman. Every time I have some contractor, technician, or other person in the building industry over to my house, there is inevitably a tour followed by comments like “I need to show the guys back in the office this” and “what?!” and “there’s a lot of money here” and “the only other time I’ve seen anything like this is at this survivalist compound built by a former CEO of <big tech company>”. I’m not joking or exaggerating. Before I insulated my attic I would take people up there to show off the insanity of it. Not one of the wires in the image below is currently in use. And this is but one small corner of my attic (pre-insulation).
The most recent example of discovering another layer of overbuilding happened this week when a worker from a local internet provider came to my house to connect up the new fiber optic cable they’d just installed along my street. The technician became perplexed when looking at my phone line, which is of course buried in the ground and thus comes out of a hole in my basement wall. My main phone line, unlike yours, is about 3/4″ thick and is wired to support about twenty-five phone lines. The tech said that the phone company doesn’t do this sort of thing. It must have been a special job. He only ever sees wiring like this to commercial buildings.
The technician left my house without connecting me to the fiber optic cable because the giant phone wire went nowhere—the phone box it should be connected to was missing—and more importantly because all that money sunk into a big fat coil of copper wires wasn’t good enough to handle the blazing speed of the fiber optic cable. My overbuilt phone line, which probably hadn’t been connected to a land line in umpteen years, was outdated and worthless. In a few weeks, the tech will return, run a new fiber optic cable through the buried conduit, and connect me to the modern world. The only thing the existing wires are good for are acting as a lead to pull a string through the conduit—a string that will then be used to pull the new wires through. What a waste.
This story is typical of my house. So many of the wires are part of unfinished or completely outdated systems. The house is wired for security, but the system was never installed. Any new security system would be completely wireless. The house has a home audio system, with fat speaker wires running through the walls and ceilings, and paired speakers in most rooms. The basement portion was never completed: the wires just dead end into an electrical box you’d find in the back room of a Chipotle. The upstairs wires all come to an empty alcove in the kitchen where a sound system should be. Speakers however are but one part of a sound system. When we bought the house, I thought, hey, whole-house audio! I daydreamed a little bit about having Pantera blasting through the house while I worked, or perhaps some Taylor Swift dance parties with my daughters. Then I researched getting the sound system up and running. I’d need thousands of dollars of equipment: amps, sources, switches, etc. Again, this was a high end system, so buying a used two-channel stereo won’t cut it. All that on top of testing to make sure the speakers still work and provide decent sound. I did the math. It’d be cheaper to buy an iPad for each room in my house, just for music. But of course I don’t even need that because wireless speakers exist. And I can just connect those speakers to the iPad I already own. Or to be honest, the iPad has pretty good speakers already, so I don’t even need to bother. I can just carry the iPad from room to room. Which I’m probably doing anyways for one reason or another.
All these systems and wires were installed around 1999. Between then and July 2014 when my wife and I bought the house, there were two other home owners who just let those wires take up space. The speaker cables sat in a big coil in the kitchen. The attic was littered with wires. Downstairs speaker cables, Cat-5, and a host of other low voltage wiring ended in two giant electrical boxes that transformed one room from a potential office or play space into a sharp edged, vaguely dangerous utility room. Even though the previous owners weren’t using the phones, security system, or speakers, they didn’t touch them. They were the owners of those wires, but there was a fear of removing someone else’s hard work, and of destroying value. I’m sure each previous owner had a vague hope of completion. After all, a home audio system is a grand idea. Who doesn’t want speakers in most rooms? That sounds awesome.
In both my current and previous house, I removed as much wiring as possible. I’m trying to simplify my home while at the same time increasing its intelligence. Sometime after 1928, my old house in St. Paul was retrofitted to have telephone wiring. I ripped out as much of it as I could because it was unnecessary and just one more thing in the way. In my current house I cut the telephone wires as they entered my house in the basement—the conduit that penetrated the foundation leaked water and the wires then entered a giant, unnecessary metal box hung on the wall. Garbage and moisture I don’t need. And never will need. No one who ever owns this house will ever need to plug a phone into a wall, I’m sure of that. Likewise, I’ve removed TV cables. We have one location for our modem and that’s it. Why would anyone connect a TV to a wire? It’s all over the air. Oh and the speaker system. The speakers are still in the ceiling for now. It’s cheaper to leave them in than patch all my ceilings. But I’ve cut back the speaker cables as far as I can. When it’s my turn to remodel the house, I’ll rip even more stuff out.
How many satellite dishes does your house have? Mine has three. Your response to that is correct. Big whoop. No one cares. And that’s right. I don’t care either. Unless there’s some resale value.
At some point between 1999 and 2014 it all became clutter and waste. Those systems turned from excessive, high-end features into bad technology. They became outdated and weren’t future proof. To be fair, when the wiring was installed, the idea of a wireless future was barely visible. Now we know better. Now everything needs to be plug and play, open source, and swappable. And we also understand that the technological change from 1999 to 2014 will be dwarfed by the change from 2015 to 2030.
I think about the architects from the first parts of the 20th century and the end of the 19th. Their buildings were so simple. There was no need to design them using advanced BIM software and processes. A Frank Lloyd Wright house had electricity, water, and gas, but not much else. The systems were simple. Things then increased in complexity for about a century. But I think we’re returning to a place of simplicity. Not an archaic simplicity, but a technologically supported one. We need less wires in our walls. We need less permanent things in our buildings. We know enough about building science to design tighter homes that require less mechanical systems.
Every time I see the above image, I cringe. Those might be perfectly aligned conduits filled with who knows what wires, but I really wish that was insulation instead. The smart home I want to create for myself, and design for others, is about software, not hardware. Where we have to add hardware, it needs to be about taping into an existing wireless ecosystem. It needs to be as light as possible and rely on the increasing intelligence of its surroundings. It also needs to be accessible and replaceable. More like a microwave sitting on a counter than a washing machine sitting in a perfectly sized space below the counter (both things I’ve had to replace in this house). If it has wires running deep into the walls, then it’s probably not what you want. The conscious home of the future should be filled with intelligence, not crap that gets in the way of it also functioning like a great unconscious home.
Subscribe to my blog to read more about the tricky world of being an Architect in the 21st century: Shoegnome on Facebook, Twitter, and the RSS feed. For a while in high school I wanted to study robots. Unfortunately it was a time before that was a legitimate thing to want to do and it was definitely before high schools had robotics teams. But I think in a few years houses, robots, and AI will have so much overlap that I might accomplish that dream after all.