Special Report: Robots in Real Estate


Mike Simonsen, a good friend of mine and founder of Altos Research, recently hosted a great conversation about robots on his Facebook timeline. “In an effort to usher in the age of our robot overlords, I got a Roomba.”

We’ve all seen the Roomba. It’s that little robot vacuum cleaner that cleans your house while you’re at work. They can be quite effective…most of the time. Mike relates, “In today’s episode, the thing literally ejected its dustbin on one side of the bed and then meandered across the room, to absolutely devour a Mac power cord, where it lay, choking on its gluttony, until I finally discovered it this evening.”

 

A picture of a Roomba vacuum that has eaten a computer power cord

A hungry robot meets an unsuspecting power cord. Photo by Mike Simonsen

 

Robots are still pretty far from perfect, and even farther from becoming our “overlords,” but they have been getting more and more effective over time. Robots are often described as a piece of machinery that can be programmed by a computer to perform a complex set of actions. In the past, robots have been able to automate many process jobs where the actions to be performed are repeatable. However, with advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, robots are poised to impact many autonomous jobs, including many occupations in the real estate industry.


This report explores how advances in key technologies related to robots could impact the process of searching for a home.


Who is this report for?
While predicting what might happen in the future will always require some level of imagination, the impact of robots on the home search process will effect brokers, real estate agents, and any company buying, selling, or distributing Internet leads.


How can I get this report? You can download it here. (NOTE: We ask that if you are going to share the report, rather than mailing the pdf, you provide the link. Thanks!)

Using the Touchstone to Track New Build VOCs

One of the coolest things about working in a lab that makes its own hardware and software is the ability to get to find situations to test those products, and I was super happy to be able to getting to test a unique use case for the Touchstone indoor environmental quality sensor we’re working on: monitoring air quality during construction. I recently bought a three-story row house here in Chicago, and before moving in we wanted to do some cosmetic changes – a fresh coat of paint in the third floor bedrooms, brand new carpeting on the third floor as well as on 45 stairs (yes, that’s a LOT of stairs!), and new hardwood flooring on the first floor. All of these projects would be off-gassing various VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and it felt like a great time to bring in a Touchstone to monitor how high these levels got and how quickly they would dissipate. Finally, it also gave the team a chance to test user experience with installation – I am the least tech-savvy member of the bunch, so making sure the instructions were easy to follow was key.

Raspberry Pi SetupTouchstone protoype setupSetup was easy, thanks in part to some of the trickier bits being done by the team before I went to my new house. The setup includes a Raspberry Pi (which I’ve used in other applications, like setting up a welcome kiosk for our Information Services department), a USB stick that allows the Raspberry Pi to talk to the Touchstone, and the Touchstone itself. I also brought with me a Verizon MiFi hotspot, since our internet would not be connected for another week and the system needs internet to communicate to the software component called Grafana. Grafana is a way to display data directly from the Touchstone itself – while we are working on our own software, we are using Grafana to track data for research purposes.

I set up the Raspberry Pi and MiFi in my kitchen on the second floor, and then the Touchstone in the hallway on the third floor.

I set these up the day that painting started, 8/11/17, with final touchups of paint happening on 8/17/17. The units have stayed plugged in since, allowing us to see how the levels “settle” over time. It’s been hands off since installation, except for when we got our internet connected in the house, when I switched the Raspberry Pi over from the MiFi network to its final network home. That process was pretty easy, and the instructions the team wrote were clear and allowed me to do the switch with ease.

What did we learn about VOCs in that time period? As expected, total VOCs went up during construction, stayed elevated during the “worst” parts (when we had paint drying, carpet installing, and the hardwood floor going in simultaneously), and then dissipated rather quickly once we took steps to rid the air of VOCs. We also were able to tell when people were most active near the Touchstone itself, since CO2 levels would raise, which I thought was a funny way of measuring the progress of the carpeting install.

touchstone grafana data

The straight line from the 19th to the 21st is when the unit was offline between taking down the MiFi access point and getting our new internet installed. The 15th was the most active day for installation; the spike on the 18th likely corresponds to the actual move-in date, where lots of cardboard was being tossed around, lots of people were moving around, and any carpet fibers that were buried even after a vacuuming were being kicked up.

We mitigated VOCs in two major ways – creating cross breezes through window airflow, and by constantly running our indoor whole-house fan. We had the air conditioning on during the day – it was about 85-90 degrees during that week, and with workers bustling about we wanted to keep them comfortable – but since we were not living in the house yet, opening the windows at night to let out vapors was an easy and fast solution.

Some things to keep in mind with the graph above – we are tracking four different things that all actually do not usually exist on the same scale as each other, so the end values can’t really be judged without looking at individual points and comparing them to known ranges. But for a quick visualization, this works out great, and being able to track trends is an important part of monitoring indoor environmental quality.

Now that I’m moved in, I am planning on relocating the Touchstone after unpacking to a place that gets a lot of use, like the kitchen or living areas. That way, I’ll be able to directly see the impact had in the areas I “live” in the most. If I do see trends in VOCs or high CO2 levels, I can consider putting some pet-friendly plants that I am researching for part two of our Pocket Guide to Cleaner Air series. While indoor environmental quality sensors won’t diagnose specific issues, they are a valuable tool in tracking your home’s health, just like your Fitbit helps to track metrics about fitness, and we think these metrics will lead to happier home occupants.

Hyperledger Hackfest Chicago

NAR/CRT Labs is proud to sponsor our first Hyperledger Hackathon at mHub here in Chicago in September. Hyperledger Hackathons are events where software developers get together and share ideas about a topic – in this case, blockchain – in order to strengthen the community around the topic and move forward with projects that will innovate within the space. NAR’s recent investigations into blockchain have lead us to partner with multiple groups, and together we hope to innovate within the blockchain and Hyperledger communities. If you’re interested in finding out more about these technologies, and are in the Chicago area, this event is for you! Hackathons are for all levels of skill and participation, so you don’t need to be a whiz programmer to be involved. We hope to see you on September 21st for this event!

The Illinois Blockchain Initiative, Chicago Blockchain Center, National Association of Realtors and mHub are proud to partner with Linux Foundation and Hyperledger to host Hyperledger Hackfest on September 21 & 22nd in Chicago.

What is Hyperledger Hackfest?
Hyperledger Hackfests are regular gatherings for developers working on the different projects hosted at Hyperledger.

What are the goals of Hyperledger Hackfest?
The primary goal for a Hackfest is to facilitate software development collaboration and knowledge sharing between participants, with an eye towards reflecting all ideas and conclusions back outward to the public open source community afterwards.  A secondary goal is to bring new contributors and passive observers up the learning curve on the different technology platforms, and the cross-cutting issues affecting multiple projects (such as identity, security, development process, etc).

Who is eligible to participate?
Hackfests are public meetings, anyone is welcome to attend and participate no matter what their skill level, though the discussions will presume a significant familiarity with blockchain technologies and software development concepts on the Hyperledger protocol.

When?
September 21 and 22, 9a-5p

Where?
mHub: Chicago’s innovation center for physical product development and manufacturing
965 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60642

What is the cost?
This event is free of charge

How do I register?
Here

The Preservation of a Healthful Environment: Solar Roof Series – Part 4

Yep, I’m going to cover the Tesla SolarCity panels.  I left this one to last because unlike the “roof plus array”, Tesla offers shingles that turn the entire roof into a collector.  Aesthetically, they look like metal or stone coasted shingles.  Price wise, they are much more expensive.  The interesting part is that with design, not only does the entire roof become an array, but all costs are subject to ITC, not just the array portion of “roof plus array”.  They use HIT technology (from Part 2) and have plants in Fremont, CA and Buffalo, NY.  Both cities utilized tax policy to land the plants which generated a couple of thousand jobs.  Someday I’ll write something on the symbiotic relationship between government and technology in the sustainability area.

This series has covered a lot of ground including a roof primer, engineering background and governmental perspectives.  This installment will finally get around to addressing my original reason for posting; the Tesla SolarCity pricing announcement.  I wanted to explore the economic viability of the roofing system.  Would this be a practical alternative today, or something to wait for?

SolarCity tiles are more attractive than solar panels.  There are four styles planned, two of which are already being produced:

  • Tuscan
  • Slate
  • Smooth (planned)
  • Textured (planned)

Production is currently being handled by a facility in Fremont, CA, but a new facility in Buffalo, NY should come online soon.  I grew up in Buffalo and returned for a visit last month.  I saw the SolarCity plant and it is indeed impressive.  In my opinion, it is a good example of government and industry working together because it is not based on tax incentives alone.  The state owns the facility and equipment.  Tesla will use the facility and hire the workers. Jobs and innovation; a developing relationship.

Since this series began a couple of weeks ago, Tesla has installed its first SolarCity roofing system. Bloomberg reports that the cost of SolarCity tiles are $420 per square and they compared this cost to standard roofing with a separate solar array, the common configuration.  They also identified three target markets:

  • Terra Cotta (or Tile)
  • Slate
  • Glass

They used the same comparison approach we used in this series; roof and array versus SolarCity.

There is no methodology information provided in the Bloomberg article, but they came up with the same conclusion.  Using the cost figures from our first post and adding in the effect of the 30% ITC program, it is clear that one of the economic advantages of SolarCity is the entire roof is subject to ITC.  ITC has a big effect on the economics as shown by the red line on the following chart.

Our analysis shows the competitive market for SolarCity to be:

  • Copper or Zinc
  • Tile (Terra Cotta)
  • Metal Seam
  • Slate

It is difficult to predict the effect that high volume production and sponsored incentives will have on the consumer costs. On the performance side, we will know very shortly how these tiles perform.  The move to Panasonic HIT technology may have delayed production in Buffalo, but is clearly a shift that will benefit consumers.

Before I end, please checkout the excellent work being done by Google’s Sunroof project.  You should lookup your address to ensure that the property you are considering for solar can be positioned in a way to take advantage of sunlight.  It can even help you locate the sunniest places on your roof! And stay tuned for more solar news, as the field is innovating all the time.

Productive Industries & Farms: Malls as Maker Spaces

A picture of a mall with vacant retail spaces. The text 'The Development of Productive Industries & Farms' is overlaid. This references one of the tenents in NAR's Code of Ethics preamble.

People around the country are working to revitalize malls. What moves do you see in your community?

This piece and thoughts around it were inspired by my hometown of Muscatine, Iowa. It’s a town of 20,000 that’s relied on manufacturing labor for decades. It also has a mall that was a fixture of my formative years and was my town square. It’s where you went to see and be seen. Movies, music and books, a connection to the outside world. My internet before the internet. The problem today, however, is malls like the one I grew up with are experiencing hard times. As an example, Muscatine Mall, had 30+ stores in its heyday. Today, that’s been reduced exponentially. I asked my dad to document it and below are photos from a Saturday a couple weeks back.

Main hallway of a mall. A majority of the stores are vacant

The main hallway for the mall. We used to do many laps around this space on Friday and Saturday nights, waiting for movies to start or friends to arrive. (Photo courtesy: Tom Curry)

A vacant glass storefront in a mall.

You’ll see some natural light in these pictures and that’s one of the attractive features of this space. It provided a connection to the outside world in this built space. (Photo courtesy: Tom Curry)

A row of vacant stores in a hallway of a mall.

These stores were national chains and brands. Some of the stores in the mall today are local merchants. (Photo courtesy: Tom Curry)

Glass-walled store that is empty.

This was the first video store in town. I remember going here to rent films. (Photo courtesy: Tom Curry)

A former flagship store at a mall that is vacant

This was an anchor store for the mall since its opening. It closed several years back. (Photo courtesy: Tom Curry)

Honestly, it is tough to see a place I used to frequent look so underutilized. Understand, I’m not critiquing the owners of the mall. They are interested in seeing this space succeed. It’s not their faults. Retail is taking a hit and small markets like Muscatine are suffering. The New York Times recently had a feature on a man who’s documenting the demise of malls. So what to do with the space?

A recent article of On Common Ground from our Smart Growth group at NAR points out various efforts around the US to repurpose malls. It’s a great piece. From community colleges to transitional housing, there are some really innovative efforts taking shape. But I’ve had an idea that I am certain someone is attempting and I just haven’t heard about it. What if malls became maker spaces?

What is a Maker Space?

By now, you may know that CRT is building our own environmental quality sensor for members to use as closing gifts. We were able to get this project started at our offices in Chicago. We have a 3D printer, equipment for soldering and building sensor boards. But then, we started to hit the limits of our equipment and space. Rather than asking our Budget Committee for hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment we may only use a few times, we decided to look for a space we could work on this type of thing in. We were lucky to find a space called mHUB.

mHUB is 63,000 square feet, and over two million dollars worth of light manufacturing equipment. It’s a non-profit that was launched out of public and private partnerships with the City of Chicago through an organization called World Business Chicago and an awesome 8,000 square foot maker space called Catalyze Chicago. They joined forces with a number of businesses and created an amazing space.

In mHUB, we have access to a Woodworking Shop, a Metals shop, a 3D print lab, electronics lab, laser cutting machines and several other types of equipment. Things as simple as hammers, screwdrivers and wrenches. Not only that, we have access to the mindshare of mHUB members. Engineers, industrial designers, software developers, and hobbyists with an amazing idea. It’s a village of great innovation.

We pay a monthly membership and it allows us to access any of that equipment. It also gives us access to others working on projects that could overlap with our work or who could help inform what we’re doing and learn from them. We can prototype rapidly without incurring the traditional costs of manufacturing. mHUB consists of groups, like NAR, people who are trying out a new idea with no previous manufacturing experience, industrial engineers, artists and large companies, like GE.

Now imagine if cities like my hometown Muscatine, could use this to revitalize its industry and help workers who may be out of work, or people with an idea without a lot of capital, find a new way to make a living. It makes sense to me when I think about towns like Muscatine because of the workers’ skill sets.

Malls as Maker Spaces

In taking our experiences at mHUB, I see hope for the malls like the one in Muscatine. They can become communities of industry and innovation. Here are some potential uses for the space:

  • The former shoe store becoming a woodworking shop
  • The bookstore a 3D print lab
  • The music store a tool library
  • The cinemaplex of 4 theaters a space to hold presentations and meetups
  • Job training could happen in the larger anchor stores and could be sponsored by the local companies
  • The food court becomes a place to restaurants in the city to have pop ups or a cheap kiosk to sell lunch to the workers at the space
  • Another storefront could become a server room and a local ‘cloud’ created for participants in the space
  • Yet another space becomes a place to grow food

It could become a place to attract new business, a place to let the local business and manufacturing companies sponsor, and let the makers sell their wares.

My statement above about growing food is not a crazy one. Recently, a company called Plenty received a $200 million dollar investment from Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame, and other investors. Plenty creates systems for growing food indoors. Imagine if the food court became the place to grow food. Fresh food could be harvested and sold in an indoor farmers market.

So rather than going to the mall to buy manufactured goods, they become places to manufacture.

Revitalizing spaces in Muscatine is not a new idea, or for other communities for that matter. I’m very aware of the impact malls had on downtowns. In fact, in Muscatine, our downtown was decimated by the mall. But today, there are efforts to revitalize. One building in particular now has a great coffee shop and other specialty shops and is a destination for community members. Muscatine is not unique for this. Groups like Recast City are helping local governments think about how to do this type of thing.

The Challenges of this Idea (To Be Continued)

This is a long piece, so I’ll end with the presentation of the premise and say that I see challenges. I’m also looking for your ideas around what the challenges would be. Here is what I see as some immediate challenges:

  • Cost
  • Community buy-in
  • Business buy-in
  • Building Infrastructure
  • Zoning
  • Space utilization
    • Does it all need to be filled at once?
    • Does it all need to be a maker space?
  • Covering ongoing costs
  • Who owns it?

So, what do you think? Does it sound feasible? Definitely submit ideas and thoughts in the comments below. Thanks!