New Homes Come Standard with Wi-Fi

By Naomi Graychase

March 22, 2005

Wish you had a digital home of the future, complete with wireless networking and home controls? Playa Vista, Calif., may be the place to be.

Wish you had a digital home of the future, complete with wireless networking and home controls? Playa Vista, Calif., may be the place to be.

For citizens of Los Angeles, the quest for great housing is like the search for the holy grail -- only worse, because the grail doesn't require a realtor. Owning an affordable home means either buying a small fixer-upper (then dumping money and energy into correcting all its 70s-era design flaws), or moving outside the city and suffering through hours-long commutes. For telecommuters, the work-at-home environment often means converting a dining room or bedroom corner into a sub-standard workspace, and then drilling holes and running wires to get adequate fax, voice and broadband up and running.

A group of investment bankers who have joined forces with a union pension fund are hoping to change all that in a planned community where high-tech living is the norm. For the roughly 13,000 people who will eventually occupy the condominiums in Playa Vista, the place is the housing equivalent of a knight in shining armor riding in on a trusty steed—and wielding a Wi-Fi access point instead of a sword.

The development, which is being built on the old site of Howard Hughes' aviation business, was first conceived of more than 25 years ago, planned as a city within a city with skyscrapers as office buildings and homes alike. Court battles with environmentalists (who object to its construction on a wetlands area); with neighboring communities (who object to projected increases in traffic and sewage); and with Native Americans (who object to the fact that part of the development will be built on a sacred burial ground); as well as conflicts with the state and with Los Angeles County, all delayed construction and even bankrupted the original developer. Still, despite ongoing court battles, the first round of housing has now been completed, and residents began to move in last year.

What makes Playa Vista unique is not just that it's the only significant new housing being built on the West (read: beaches) side of LA, but that its developers have put a strong emphasis on incorporating all of the latest technology into both the homes and the community. The properties at Playa Vista will all be built over the next seven years by a select group of 15 builders. Each builder works with clients to customize floor plans, but every property must also conform to certain specifications laid out by the developers, and those specifications include some very high-end details.

Each resident on move-in day will find a top-of-the-line wired backbone which allows for voice, data, broadband Internet and digital cable in every outlet in every room; a wireless network including a Linksys router with broadband Internet access provided by Comcast; and TiVo-ready jacks, so no additional holes need to be drilled or wires need to be run. The electric wiring can support Internet-enabled appliances and high-end entertainment systems, and can be upgraded to a wireless home-monitoring system that can do everything from control the lights to adjust the stereo.

"When you move into Playa Vista," says Derek Fraychineaud, vice president of Residential Construction, "you have a home LAN, a built-in intranet. You can hook up five, eight, ten computers and have wireless capabilities right from day one. You have digital cable TV, Internet access -- and you have the ability to build on that system. In other words, you have the digital infrastructure."

Stephanie Goddard, a 32-year old public relations executive, and her husband, a podiatrist, were among Playa Vista's first residents.

"The biggest daily perk is that we are all wireless in our home," she says.

In addition to the networking capabilities in each home—the cost of which is rolled into monthly dues, so residents never see a cable bill -- plans are being made to create hotspots in the community's more than 20 parks and other public spaces.

"We currently have a pilot program going right now in our 26,000 square foot community center," says Fraychineaud. "The whole two-acre zone is an 802.11g hotzone, so you can sit by the pool or in the building and connect through your PC."

To help residents adapt to their new high-tech environments, the planners contracted with retailer CompUSA to provide a service they call "Technology Concierge" (TC). Essentially, every resident has a technology helper/consultant at their beck and call—for free. When Playa Vista resident and small-business owner Angela Glover wanted to find a way to cover her floor-to-ceiling windows, she called her TC, which set her up with "motorized silhouettes"—blinds that she can operate from a remote control. Goddard also used the TC to help get her wireless network up and running. Other residents have called the TC for help with upgrading and customizing everything from entertainment systems to home security.

The low-power wireless networks which control things like lights and thermostats also fall under the purview of CompUSA's consultants.

"802.15.4/ZigBee is an option," says Fraychineaud, "but we've provided our residents with freedom of choice. Typically, CompUSA works with the consumer to figure out which interface to use. The home control standard is not specified. The wireless is an add-on feature, which is easily installed. We've made all the provisions for it. If they want wireless access to their lighting and climate controls, it's all available, but they would work with CompUSA to install it."

Jealous yet? Don't get your hopes up for moving into Playa Vista to take advantage of the pre-installed digital, wireless delights. Currently, more than 36,000 people are on the waiting list for the next round of homes.



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