Getting Smart in the Kitchen

Chronologically, we’re a bit more than half way to 2062, the year of the futuristic ‘Jetsons’ cartoon. Debuting in 1962, the animated show gave us a glimpse of what life could be like 100 years from its initial airing: life where housework is done by robots, appliances are push-button controlled and people travel to work in flying saucer-like ‘cars’ with glass bubble tops. Maybe most importantly, daily life is leisurely, assisted by labor-saving devices.

While no one knows yet what 2062 will bring, appliance manufacturers are well on their way to creating a reality where at least part of the cartoon’s premise rings true in the kitchen.

Kitchens have become the heart and central nervous system of the home, says Pat Borg, owner/president, NEFF of Chicago. “People are coming back to the kitchen. There is definitely a resurgence.”

One factor leading that revival is the advancement of ‘smart’ appliances – everything from dishwashers to ovens/cooktops/ranges to refrigerators.

“Smart appliances can offer time savings while improving efficiency and helping people manage their households,” says Kathleen Donohue, CMKBD, Neil Kelly Co., in Bend, OR.

“People’s lives are complicated and they want to simplify,” adds MaryJo Camp, CKD, CBD, CID, CAPS, CGP, DesignCamp, in Denver, NC. “They also want to be better at what they do. That’s the promise of technology…to let us live our lives in our homes more safely, more comfortably and more easily. It’s a tough world out there, and we don’t want it to be a tough world inside.”


Cooking appliances lead the way

Smart appliances related to cooking seem to be leading the way, with many manufacturers offering intelligent/combination ovens where the appliance takes over the cooking process based on a desired result and input provided by the cook.

“This is not your mother’s oven,” says Borg.

“They allow someone who isn’t an accomplished chef to produce well-done dishes,” says Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, CAPS, Ellen Cheever & Associates, in Wilmington, DE. “And it’s very convenient because the combination appliances save time, without compromising food quality.”

Steam plus convection is an important combination, Cheever adds, as is microwave, convection and browning, which can extend the operational opportunities of a single-cavity oven. Even conventional convection ovens have gotten smarter. “When they were first introduced, you had to calculate the reduced time and temperature,” she continues. “For better appliances today, just program the original cooking time and temperature and the oven computes everything.”

“My clients love the ‘chef assistance,’” adds Mary Fisher Knott, CID, allied ASID, CAPS Mary Fisher Designs, in Scottsdale, AZ. “They like the idea that, with the touch of a screen, they can cook foods without having to monitor them. For example, an image that is programmed into the oven shows what medium-rare looks like. You can compare your thoughts to it and if you agree, you hit ‘go’ and you get what is pictured.”

Induction cooktops/ranges are also becoming more popular, with some models being smart enough to detect the physical size of the cookware. “Induction cooking is very efficient,” notes Donohue. “It is gaining popularity over gas, which has been the standard for serious cooks for years. But the technology is proving itself to be more energy efficient, which is something that resonates with all smart appliances.”


Smart Cleaning and food Storage

Smart dishwashers and refrigerators are also changing the way we do tasks in the kitchen. Dishwashers can sense debris levels and adjust the cycle accordingly – and the amount of soap needed – to save time and water. At their smartest level, they can even monitor the best time of day to run to save the most amount of energy.

With refrigerators, it seems to be more about inventory control. “Some models can read bar codes for items in the refrigerator,” says Donohue. “It can then tell you when to throw out food, when to reorder, etc. Refrigerators are only going to get smarter…to the point where they can likely ultimately order food.”

Cheever sees food inventory as being a huge driver in the refrigerator market, as seen by one manufacturer that offers a refrigerator with an internal camera. “When you’re at the store you can do a quick check to see what’s inside,” she says.


How far to go?

While smart technology within an individual unit seems readily acceptable by many, moving toward greater integration is still a work in progress. Many designers KBDN spoke with predict that, at some point, appliances will readily talk to one another, as well as send messages to either the homeowner, the manufacturer or even a grocery store. Remote control via a smart phone or tablet is another expected growth area. Some manufacturers are already dabbling with some of this technology.

But there is some hesitation about how far technology should go. Cheever isn’t convinced that controlling appliances remotely is the next best thing. “I’m not quite sure turning on/off appliances is the key,” she says.

Knott agrees. “I had one client tell me she didn’t know if she wanted everything connected to the Internet because it’s too easy to get hacked,” she says, noting the client’s concern about compromised technology and viruses.

Camp indicates there could be liability concerns as well. “What happens if someone turns on an oven from the road and it causes a fire,” she questions. “These are all issues that need to be addressed.”

Plus, there is a certain amount of education that goes along with these smart appliances. “The sky is the limit for how much technical support is available to us in the kitchen,” says Donohue. “But it isn’t for everyone. There is a learning curve and a time investment that needs to be made.”


Communicating with others

Another aspect up for debate is the ability to communicate with outside parties, such as a manufacturer or grocery store. Cheever sees this as a definite advantage when it comes to service and maintenance. “An interesting technology on the horizon is the ability for appliances to do a self evaluation and identify problems,” she says. “Ultimately, it could shorten the time between identifying a problem and resolving it.”

Knott sees this as a bonus, too. “It’s like a car,” she says. “When the screen says to check the air pressure in your tires, it gives you better control of maintenance. If a manufacturer can monitor maintenance and let me know in advance when something like a filter needs to be changed, I think that’s wonderful.”

However, some designers indicate their clients are hesitant about giving up too much control. “There is some negativity about sending messages to a manufacturer or the contents of your refrigerator to a grocery store,” says Camp. “There’s a privacy issue about everyone knowing your business. Some of my clients want to maintain control. They want to be the ones to initiate any communication.”


What’s next?

There is no denying that smart appliances are changing kitchens and how we function within them. But what does the future hold?

“I believe we’re still early with smart appliances and their use,” says Kelly Morisseau, CMKBD, CID and blogger/author. “The next generation will expect them, although they don’t yet have the disposable income to afford them. The methodology still needs to be worked out as well as we move into wireless technology. Not all wireless technology works with other wireless technology, and there is no standard. Every manufacturer is bringing its own system to the home. Much like multiple radio transmissions on the same frequency, that might pose some challenges. We’re also dealing with cloud storage and how much Internet security each manufacturer will bring to the table to prevent hackers from playing.”

KBDN columnist and tech guru Eric Schimelpfenig, AKBD, predicts that customization and upgradability will play roles moving forward. “It needs to be something that ages well and is easily upgradable,” he says. “The building products industry in general has been a little slow to adopt certain technologies. But a lot of companies have gotten to see how others didn’t do a good job. Now smart phones have matured enough so that we have fast connections to the Internet and people are comfortable with them, so now is a great time for new technologies to start coming out.”

For Camp, it’s about practicality. “There’s a practical side to it,” she says. “If it saves energy and water, if it makes someone a better cook, then my clients are on board. And, it can’t cost a whole lot more. People are still hurting from the recession. They don’t want to pay an arm and a leg for what they think is a gizmo. If they think it’s valuable enough, that it will make their lives better, they’ll consider it. There’s a difference between being smart and being cute and clever. The smartest homes I’ve done are those that involve security, comfort and saving energy. That’s what my clients focus on, and that’s what they’ll pay for.”

“You have to walk before you run,” adds Borg. “This technology is still evolving, slowly…and rightfully so.”