Getting Smarter

There is a commonly held belief in business that the best way to differentiate a firm is to simply work harder. However, others maintain it is a matter of working smarter. With regard to advances in kitchen and bath technology, it is certainly the latter.

Products that feature “smart” technology – such as hands-free faucetry, integrated surround-sound stereo systems in the shower or refrigerators that tell the temperature inside and outside – can help jazz up a design, while they also make the client’s life easier and present the designer as creative, conscientious and smart.

Bill Feinberg, president of Allied Kitchen & Bath in Fort Lauderdale, FL, notes these items are not always selected for the sole purpose of impressing friends or for the sake of having the latest gadgets and gizmos. In fact, quite often, these items have a very practical bent, he maintains.

“As lifestyles change, so do advances in technology to keep up with our demands. The modern kitchen is used to pay bills, entertain, do homework with the kids and do laundry,” he says, explaining that technology that facilitates these tasks is sure to be valued by busy consumers.

Mike Sanak, CKD and projects manager of Kitchen and Bath Studio in Duluth, GA, agrees: “We are all becoming ‘wired,’ and this trend to be in contact will continue. The new ‘smart’ technologies brought to the kitchen and bath and throughout the house by structured wiring systems (and wireless systems) can and will allow us access to our e-mail, phone messages and recipes from our favorite cooking shows, [as well as improving security] so we can see a video image of who just rang the front doorbell.”

Feinberg says today’s kitchen appliances are not only fashion forward, they are also all about time savings – for instance, ovens that can be set to cook a meal remotely from the user’s cell phone as the person drives home from work. Likewise, many refrigerators now feature built-in TVs, DVD players and radios as well as weather and information stations.

“They can tell you the temperature inside and outside – which in turn will help keep food fresher longer,” he notes.

Gail Drury, CMKBD and president of Glen Ellyn, IL-based Drury Design Kitchen & Bath Studio, sees a similar surge in demand for techno-friendly products.

“There are refrigerators that can be set for vacation mode or for quick chill settings to keep food at the best temperature and save energy at the same time,” she offers.

Integrated touch sensors and cell phone-activated refrigerators are not reserved only for the iPod generation, though – these are advances that can benefit all clients. In fact, consumers of all ages are increasingly becoming more versed and interested in these options – and designers should recognize that, says Janice Stone Thomas, CKD, ASID, NCIDQ, CID and design principal of StoneWood Design in Sacramento, CA.

“I find all of my clients are more involved than in the past, and they like to do their own research. They definitely like to do the hands-on things,” she explains.

Or the “foot-on things,” quips Rick Cowan, CKD and president of Archipelago Hawaii in Honolulu, HI. He notes, “There are technologies that have been developed for professional applications that have found their way into the modern kitchen. One such device is the foot pedal-operated faucet. Typically found in doctor’s offices, the foot pedal can be hooked up to any kitchen faucet and allows users to turn on the water without the use of their hands.”

“Basically, in the future, smart technology – much like green products – will be huge in the minds of many consumers. Once they catch on, it’s only a matter of time before they become commonplace in every new home and remodel project,” Feinberg states.

Connected Kitchen

Indeed, in recent years, the kitchen has seen a transformation from being the heart of the home to something more like its central nervous system.

“Many of our projects get Internet and cable service along with structured wiring brought into the kitchen to allow integration of computers, video services and touch screens,” explains Sanak.

Jim Smith, principal for La Porte, IN-based Custom Cabinets & Woodwork notes that, quite often, the most useful smart elements are the ones you can’t see. He explains, “Pop-up electrical outlets can be put within the cabinet itself for when you need it. Many ‘smart’ designs feature concealed elements hidden within the layout.”

“The new technologies allow designers to become much more creative and innovative in their designs, as well,” adds Sanak.

“The ability to create work areas with their own cold storage/dry storage and cooking stations allows multiple cooks to work together in close proximity without getting in each other’s way. Without refrigeration drawers and cooking modules, this would be impossible to do in a normal-sized kitchen area,” he continues.

“Drawer refrigeration and freezers have revolutionized how we think in terms of work station planning and kitchen conveniences. I have utilized the drawer refrigerators on cooktop islands so the cook can stage perishable ingredients, locate vegetables and stock prepared food stuffs before cooking for guests,” agrees Cowan.

“We’re also seeing built-in coffee makers, as well as steamers being featured as part of sinks in the countertops or steam ovens built in like a wall oven for the health-conscious person,” offers Drury.

“Soon we will be able to check on our homes from anywhere in the world and make changes to our environmental systems with a few keystrokes, set times for lights to come on to greet us and have dinner ready to serve from smart appliances at the exact time we arrive,” Sanak adds.

Currently, Drury sees induction cooking as a hot technology in part because of its energy savings: The food in the pot is heated – not the surface of the cooktop. Likewise, dishwasher drawers conserve energy because the client is less likely to run the dishwasher half full, while it also protects the user’s back by reducing bending.

Bath Beyond Batteries

The bath also offers a multitude of opportunities to incorporate “smart” technology, says Drury.

“We’re seeing beverage centers including refrigerators, microwaves and coffee makers incorporated into bathrooms,” she offers. “At the same time, TVs are being mounted inside the wall behind the mirrors and are only visible when they are turned on. There are also medicine cabinets with built-in coolers or refrigerators/temperature controlled boxes for perfumes, cosmetics and medicines,” she says.

“Considering water is the basis for most bath designs, innovative engineering can create an entirely different experience while still conserving energy and water,” adds Feinberg.

To that end, he recalls a recent master bath project: “The tub was their place to relax and discuss their family schedule, and the shower became their so-called spa, with all the body sprays and duel showerheads and controls. Set it and forget it is how the shower system works, and even the ventilation system in the steam shower had low-voltage lighting and was connected to the exhaust fan ducted to the exterior.”

Drury adds: “Digital shower systems are the newest ‘smart’ bath technology. They are pre-programmed for up to six users to set at different temperatures, with different types and numbers of showerheads to fit each individual user’s needs.”

She also notes that rain showerheads, body sprays and water towers are coming out in many different shapes and sizes, while freestanding tubs are now available with air jet and whirlpool capabilities.

Bright Lights

For some designers, the thought of such elaborate and perceived energy-draining products might seem at odds with the green awareness permeating the industry. However, that is not the case – particularly with “smart” lighting.

“Sometimes, it’s the simple things like the suggestion of using low-energy lighting fixtures in a project that can show a client you are thinking outside the box and looking out for their best interests,” Feinberg explains.

He says small changes, like changing from halogen to LED lighting, can make a huge difference, not just in cost, but also in the feel and overall efficiency.

“LED lighting, as well as touch-free LED faucets, are being featured quite often – and let’s not forget about the LED tiles for the bath. They can be placed in the border on the wall or in the floor to illuminate the floor at night,” he explains.

“There have also been numerous advances in LED puck lights for undercabinet lighting, rope lights for cove lighting and interior LED lights for cabinetry. There are also in-floor LED decorative lights and stair treads,” Cowan adds.

“Light fixtures that used to just be available in halogen are now available in Xenon, and LED bulbs save energy and generate less heat,” agrees Drury.

“We’re using more smart dimmers in our systems; incorporating more LED lights and power compact fluorescent lights that use significantly less energy and last longer,” says Sanak.

“I am also seeing LED lights for undercounter task lighting to show off the next big movement in lighting: long-lasting and energy-efficient – just the thing for those who really want to go green,” he notes.

Green Machine

Indeed, the creative implication of many of these advances will not only have positive effects on the environment, but also for clients.

“Designers who do not start learning about how these new technologies can be incorporated into the kitchen and bath are going to be missing out on the next big trend in design. Green is big now, and I see these technologies piggy-backing onto the green movement by helping us use energy more efficiently and allowing us to do more in less time, leaving us with more free time to spend with friends and family,” offers Sanak.

“A lot of these innovations have a lot to do with the drive toward energy savings, and a lot have to do with things turning themselves off, creating greater savings over a long period of time,” adds Stone Thomas.

“Learning about these technologies can be intimidating, but can also be rewarding as people look for experts to bring it together,” concludes Sanak.