The week of January 4, 2015

A 100-year-old house plugs in

By Taylor Hatmaker

On a damp winter day in Portland, Ore., a pale mint house from the turn of the century blinks awake in an instant. A black glass orb affixed to the wall perfects the air temperature as a another sleek black eye watches out the window. Registering my presence, a glowing blue keypad suddenly appears in front of me with an inviting click. I open the door and walk inside.

Cee Webster is a Massachusetts native who bought her first home, a handsome two-story constructed in 1907, two years ago. A Web developer who saw the first tech bubble go pop, Webster’s interest in wiring her home with its very own invisible neural network started, as many smart home stories do, with a Nest. But playing god is a dangerous game; one by one, devices with unblinking eyes and silicon brains started popping up among her home’s Victorian flourishes. Happily, she’d invited them in.


Building a smart home system from the ground up is a very modular experience. Often sampled from a wide swath of manufacturers, all of the devices need a common language and a brain to tell them what to do and when to do it.

The smarter parts of the smart home industry are friendly to open software, so you can mix and match the hardware. In a proprietary, closed smart home system, you might get locked into a pricey ecosystem that could disintegrate at a moment’s notice when a company goes under or gets acquired. Happily, the connected home movement seems to have developed with openness in mind compared to a lot of other realms of consumer tech, which remain mired in a less collaborative mindset.

Registering my presence, a glowing blue keypad suddenly appears in front of me with an inviting click. I open the door and walk inside.

Most homes aren’t born smart. They get that way, bit by bit, as tech-savvy homeowners fold a layer of automation into the landscape of their lives.

Webster, an accomplished baker and author of a cookbook, knows a thing or two about blending disparate ingredients to create something that’s more than the sum of its parts. Here’s her smart home recipe.


SmartThings hub
$99 (Android/iOS/Windows Phone)

Webster chose aptly named SmartThings as the central node in her smart home system. An open platform was essential, and unlike a handful of stubborn competitors, SmartThings prides itself in its openness.

Webster hopes that soon Dropcam will pry open its API so she can use the camera’s motion sensor to trigger SmartThings directly, for example. “SmartThings overall seemed a bit more open and developer friendly,” Webster said. “I’ve already started making my own apps, which is neat.”


$199, optional $99 annual cloud storage service

Dropcam is the smart home’s eyes and ears. It’s a new addition to Webster’s growing army, standing sentinel over her front door. Dropcam, which created the little HD home monitoring cameras by the same name, was purchased by Nest for more than half a billion dollars this June/ (Nest, it’s worth noting, is owned by Google.) The camera wakes up when someone approaches the porch, recording that footage or sending the feed straight to her Nexus 5 in real time through a push notification.

“It’s really useful to see who is at the door, which for me half the time is solicitors who can’t read the no soliciting sign,” Webster explains. (The sign, featuring Grumpy Cat, is pretty clear.)


GE Link light bulbs
$15 each

Like the Nest, smart lightbulbs can cut down on energy consumption—but also, they’re just cool. With the SmartThings app, turning GE Link lights on and off in any room is instantaneous, so much so that’s it’s actually fun just to mess around with. The bulbs are dimmable with a sliding toggle and can be grouped and controlled in clusters. Webster showed me how the system works, using her app to dim two off-white paper lanterns hanging above a small forest of potted succulents. (The plants were probably happy to see something that looked like the sun.)

“Because they are LED, it costs so little to keep them on all the time, so I don’t even bother turning off my lights downstairs when i’m upstairs,” Webster explains. “I have the lights auto turn on 45 minutes before sunset and auto turn off when I set my house to ‘I’m going to sleep mode.’”


Nest Learning Thermostat

Crafted by the designer who led the creation of the first iPhone and iPod, it’s no surprise that the Nest is the most iconic smart home device ever created. Two years ago, Webster’s fondness for clean, elegant design piqued her interest in the Apple-esque smart thermostat, and she’s been using it ever since.

She’s not sure if it’s eased her monthly power bill, but comfort is the other part of the Nest’s appeal. On cold days, she’ll heat the house just before she gets home. The remote control feature also lets her tweak her home’s temperature from afar in case she forgets to adjust it before leaving. Now that everything is synced up with SmartThings, her house’s central nervous system, the thermostat is part of the automated ritual that her house enacts every time she’s away.

Most homes aren’t born smart. They get that way, bit by bit, as tech-savvy homeowners fold a layer of automation into the landscape of their lives.

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Yale Real Living Touchscreen Deadbolt

A smart house needs plenty of brains, but some brawn helps too. After shopping around for a smart lock and eyeing Goji’s option, still on backorder, Webster stands by her second choice. Even without its digital tricks, the Yale Real Living lock is designed to be an ultra-secure, unpickable barricade. Still, a lot of friends have expressed wariness over the idea of an automated home entry system. Webster dismisses their concerns as unfounded. “Everyone has asked me if i’m worried about the security of this digital lock and I always reply that if someone really wants in to my house they could just break the glass of my door and reach around and unlock it.”

She bought her first Yale lock for the door to her furnished basement, which she rents regularly over Airbnb. “Before, I had a hidden key which was a pain to get to in the rain and also not super secure,” Webster recalls. The smart lock’s keypad means that she can easily program new entry codes in for every wave of guests. Now it’s simple: “I give the guest the code via Airbnb and they’re in.”

The smart lock has a bonus: Since it monitors every time someone comes or goes, Webster’s Nexus 5 gets push notifications to alert her to when her temporary downstairs neighbors are gone, so she knows when it’s safe to blast ‘90s riot grrl records (her collection is impressive).

With her small smart home arsenal complete for now, Webster is something of a hobbyist smart home hacker, connecting devices, weaving logic statements together, and keeping her eye out for the next big thing. “I mean I can run around and do all this stuff myself, but it’s kinda fun to have my phone do it.”

Across from her vinyl collection, nestled in a sea of muted, mid-century pots, her smart home’s commanding officer awaits orders, ever vigilant.

Illustration by J. Longo | Photos by Taylor Hatmaker and Cee Webster