444 Social, a 302-unit luxury apartment community in Lincolnshire, Ill.
Courtesy: ECD Co. 444 Social, a 302-unit luxury apartment community in Lincolnshire, Ill.

Keeping up with smart home technology in the apartment space today can be a daunting task. As an owner or operator, options abound for the devices you put in your units, as well as how you wire the building. It’s enough to make the best multifamily pros dizzy.

“You’ve really got to take a step back from all the pandemonium that's occurring around this topic and all the marketing that companies are putting out there,” says Jeff Kok, chief innovation officer at Dallas-based Mill Creek Residential, which counts 19,700 units in its portfolio. “You’ve got to look at what matters most long term.”

Courtesy SmartRent

Start with a Basic Foundation

One way to do that, Kok and other observers say, is to look at the basics first, and then build on your smart home tech stack from there. Today, that means starting with smart locks and thermostats, and then considering other options, such as automated lighting and outlet control.

“Electronic access is the biggest driver today,” says Felicite Moorman, CEO at Philadelphia-based smart apartment integrator STRATIS IoT, whose platform has been installed in over 325,000 units in the U.S. and Japan. While Moorman originally thought energy management would spur adoption of smart tech in apartments, she says smart locks have taken center stage due to the “demand economy” and how residents live today.

“With all the concierge services, and all of residents’ real life needs, you’ve got a million reasons why they need remote electronic access to their buildings and units, including child care and the dog walker,” Moorman says. “Apartments need what we call ‘sidewalk-to-sofa’ access. That means from the gate outside, through the main entrance, elevator, and individual unit door, all on one mobile credential.”

Courtesy SmartRent

The Smart Thermostat as a Hub

Inside the unit itself, operators say a smart thermostat not only allows residents to have remote access to temperature control when they’re not home, but if set up the right way, it can act as a gateway for other smart tech components to be added on later.

“Your thermostat becomes the hub for potentially controlling lights, or smart outlets, and connecting to other devices on your cellphone,” says Scott Greenberg, president of Chicago-based mixed-use, multifamily, and hotel developer ECD Co. The firm recently opened 444 Social, a 302-unit luxury apartment community in Lincolnshire, Ill., about 50 minutes north of Chicago, which offers residents smart locks and thermostats in unit, as well as automated package lockers and Peloton bikes in common areas.

Ask Residents What They Want

Having a foundation that other devices can be added to is a key component of being able to keep up in the rapidly changing world of smart home tech in apartments today. Gauging residents on what they really want is part of figuring out what that foundation should look like at your building.

For example, King of Prussia, Pa.-based Morgan Properties, which counts over 75,000 units in its portfolio, piloted various smart home devices, including smart switches and plugs, at its properties before deciding on a foundation of just locks and thermostats, with the option to add smart switches and plugs.

“We discovered far and away that nearly everyone valued the lock and thermostat,” says Greg Curci, Morgan’s vice president of multifamily operations. “A much smaller minority had an appreciation for smart outlets and switches.”

That preference makes sense, he says, given the remote access needs of today’s residents, as well as the space differential between apartments and single-family homes, where smart home technology originated.

“If you own a three-story home, it’s convenient to be able to turn the lights off remotely on the third floor,” Curci says. “But in a 600-square-foot studio apartment, nothing’s that far away. You just reach over from the couch and turn the lamp off.”

Courtesy Stratis IoT

Wiring It All Together

How all of an apartment community’s smart tech components are wired together, however, is just as important—if not more critical—as the devices themselves.

Apartment buildings today typically run two networks: one for building control that smart home devices, building-wide automation controls. and common-area Wi-Fi tie into; and one for resident internet access within units, which acts as a gateway to let renters connect back into the building’s dedicated network.

In other words, when your resident accesses her smart thermostat on her phone sitting in her living room, she first goes out onto the external internet for connectivity, before bridging back onto the building’s network to control the device.

“Regardless of how you set up internet access for your residents, you still need a management network in place across your building,” says Kok. “It’s a separate network from what residents use to get to the internet, and it’s what you use as an owner-operator to control the smart tech in your building.”

Integrating into Property Management Systems

Whatever choice you make, it’s key to make sure the smart home tech integration platform you put in place to run all your smart devices syncs with your property management platform, too. That’s especially true for move-outs, in order to maintain control of thermostats and locks when residents leave.

“In vetting and picking the right smart home tech platform, we needed something that would integrate seamlessly with our back-end system,” Curci says. “So when we do a move-out in our property management system, that automatically wipes the resident’s credentials, and the unit goes back onto the property manager's dashboard so that they can control the lock and the thermostat again.”

In that regard, while an apartment building’s smart home technology integrator should offer support to troubleshoot in-unit issues with residents, it’s important that they help train staff as well.

“The reality is, when there’s a problem in someone's apartment, they call the leasing office,” Curci says. “So our staff does learn how to troubleshoot, to a degree.”

Letting Your Staff Live with Smart Home Tech

One way to do so, especially for managers who live on site, is to install the same smart home tech in their own apartments, so they can experience it firsthand. “We let them live with that for a little bit, so they start to understand how everything integrates and how everything works,” Curci says. “That's an important component.”

By establishing a basic foundation of smart home technology, wiring your building to run your property and resident network, ensuring integration with your property management system and training on-site staff, operators can get a leg up at keeping up with the ever-changing world of smart home technology today.