Real Estate Weekly
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Alexa, how is smart home technology changing the real estate industry?

The recent popularization of voice-activated digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google Home has brought about a new form of residential living. The rapid lifestyle transformation is leading to property managers and those in real estate to consider how to accommodate the shift in their customers’ high-tech needs.

This smart home technology isn’t limited to menial tasks like adding things to your to-do list or setting up a meeting reminder. For industry leaders like Alan Missen, the chief information officer for FirstService Residential, the spread of digital assistants is only the tip of the iceberg in what a future home looks like.

For property management companies such as FirstService, the current goal is to wrangle the rapidly changing market of home tech and devices for their customers. As home technology has evolved, residents are craving the convenience of being able to control everything from appliances to entertainment at the touch of a button.

“When I look at the idea of digital assistant world, it seems to have a pretty good track record so far of simplifying lives,” Missen said.


Smart home technology may be the most visible with the recent spread of digital assistants, but its breadth includes security cameras, power efficiency monitoring, temperature control and much more.

According to the National Multifamily Housing Council’s recently released “Disruption” report, 26 billion devices will be connected to the “Internet of Things,” or the network of devices that are communicating with each other. The report added that this type of technology will become a part of an apartment’s core design, rather than offered as an after-thought accessory.

“The multifamily industry needs to catch up with the revolutions that are already well underway in everything from transportation and retail to demographics and psychographics,” Rick Haughey, NMHC’s vice president for Industry Technology Initiatives, said.

Hudson Yards

In practice, the upcoming Hudson Yards project has decided to harness the technology’s capabilities by developing the 18-million square-foot site as a smart city. The project will introduce more than 4,000 residences, 100 commercial storefronts, a section of restaurants, and is expected to be complete in 2024. And the community will also be created with a sensor-packed layout that offers many new tools to its residents and property managers.

With all the data gathered from its building and environmental sensors, the operations managers can keep track and adjust traffic patterns, air quality, power demands, temperature, and pedestrian flow.

The massive development is also utilizing the technology past services and information requests by also creating a micro-grid for the site that will keep homes, restaurants and building services running in the event the city faces a power outage.

This new way of operating is enabling cities to learn and adapt to complex problems like improving energy efficiency or traffic flow in days as opposed the years and even generations it used to take, Missen said.

While many companies are testing out the concept with small slices of cities, like Hudson Yards or Google’s experimental urban laboratory near Toronto, Missen said that the approach will eventually be incorporated throughout an entire city.

“Initially what you’ll see is a number of cities try something small,” Missen said. “But I think for some of the smart city stuff to be effective, you really have to do it across the entire city. If one of the goals of a smart city is efficiency, I don’t know how you just do that in one community.”

On a smaller scale, Missen said the broad application of smart home technology will make for better living communities and easier living.

“The first part of our mission statement talks about improving lives of our residents every day,” Missen said. “One of the first questions we ask is, is this innovative idea going to improve the lives of our residents?”

As examples, he said residents can complete simple tasks or request, such as asking when a meeting is scheduled or letting the front desk know a guest is coming. Missen said that when a resident walks through the front door, a sensor will detect them and can trigger a reminder that their anniversary is coming up. Adding to that, if the devices detect that the resident is going to the pool, his or her preferred poolside snack and drinks can be made ready and waiting.

For the future, FirstService Residential is exploring the idea of a virtual concierge. Once an amenity of the upper class, concierges could be created in the digital world and offered to anyone living in a smart home, Missen said. And with a virtual alternative, residents can contact their concierge digitally at any moment.

“We’ve made pretty big investments on our side to enable managers to have the technology as their hands,” Missen said of the idea. “So no matter where they are in a community, they always know in a digital manner if a resident needs to get a hold of them.”

But this flood of new technology and its vast diversity of tools offers a great deal of challenges for property management companies like FirstService.

One of the more prevalent challenges is the compatible integration of all these technologies. Missen said the industry sees exciting new tech and devices almost daily. But the flood of new things creates the problem of making sure that all the devices can connect and communicate with each other.

“It’s really about the different technologies and the platforms all being able to talk to each other,” Missen explained. “One of the challenges  in the industry is that there’s not a lot of standards. New technology comes out and there’s seven ways of doing it.”

For FirstService Residential, one of the main focuses is to ensure the connection of new important devices to the current technological ecosystem in their clients’ homes. Missen said they also have to consider how to cater to a younger generation that prefers these digital interactions and methods of living.

On the larger scale of smart cities, Missen said that cities already struggle with developing infrastructure, so the incorporation of smart tech into city’s skeleton is another challenge.

And one of the more obvious concerns of having technology being so prevalent in people’s lives is the security of these applications.

While there have been some reports of digital assistants misfiring and activating to things outside their owner’s voices, Missen said security surrounding home tech is one of the company’s top priorities.  “We take the security and privacy of our residents very seriously and have made tremendous investments into that,” Missen explained. “Because security is at the top of our minds and when I think about the strategic partners that are playing in that space, like the Googles and Apples, I feel confident that that’s going to get tackled as they definitely take those things very very seriously.”

Even with some of these concerns, Missen is confident that the smart home revolution is here to stay and evolve quickly, at that. Through the rise of digital assistants to the various new functions that emerging technology provides, Missen said the industry is going to face a serious change.

“My personal point of view is that I don’t think this personal assistant world is a fad at all,” Missen said. “I look at it as a new gateway. Years ago we started with the World Wide Web, and then the focus shifted to the voice-based digital assistant. I think that’s another gateway into the world of information and service requests.”

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