16 Sep 2014

On Technology

Dimitri writes. This is not an article about the technology that will become part of the house. There is remarkably little of that in the sense of gadgetry and gizmos; of course, the materials involved are all technology of one sort or another, as are things like windows, doors, lighting and heating, but it's all fairly conventional stuff. The only thing in that department that stands out is the MVHR unit which ventilates the house while retaining the house's heat.

We decided not to go for the clich├ęd self build tech such as 
intelligent lighting and sound systems. We don't want to have to resort to an instruction manual to turn on a light, and technology changes so fast that anything built-in is bound to become obsolete within a few years. We could have introduced a spider's web of cabling all converging on a server room where we keep our media, but what will our media server be in ten years? A phone? The web?

Rather than bang on about what we're not using, I'll get on to the primary purpose of this article - describing the technology that has helped in the process of the build.  

During the early days of the build, we quickly discovered that email was not working for sharing documents. This is, I think, because it's not possible to tell someone where a document is - just that you sent it to them a few days/weeks ago, which leads to that person searching through their emails, which may or may not be well filed.  You can't be sure who has received a document; furthermore, it's no good clogging up people's inboxes with documents rather than messages. One more thing: as my family will confirm, I have a thing about large files being sent over email. It is a bad idea. Email was not designed for it, it's inefficient, it slows down email servers and clogs up client program's such as Outlook and Apple Mail while they download the files whether the user is interested in the file or not, and it's generally a bad way of sharing a document over the internet, when that is the primary purpose of websites, which brings me on to...

Dropbox (other file sharing systems are available!). With this system, you install Dropbox on your computer and it creates a folder which it automatically synchronises to the web. You can invite others to have access to that folder, and once they accept and install the program on their own machine, they will see the same folder on their computer. Any changes made to any files within the folder on either machine will be synchronised to the other machine automatically. Dropbox apps also exist for mobile devices. So, when CLD create a new folder and within it place a new plan for the ground floor, Tara, myself and Andrew immediately have access to the file as if it was saved on our machines. When I talked Andrew through Dropbox over the phone for the first time, I swear I heard him dribbling with delight. It has a couple of other useful features, in that you can view old versions of the files if you need to, and you can share files or folders for viewing only, which has proved useful with our structural warranty provider, and would have been useful with our building society if their IT policies weren't so old fashioned and draconian.

We tinkered with a web based project management tool called Trello. This was designed for software development using Agile methodology, but since proved useful in all sorts of spheres.  It allows you to list a bunch of things to do, and with each one you can specify how long you expect it to take, who is responsible for it, and any other notes or documents. We didn't persist with it, primarily because we couldn't expect Andrew or CLD to use it. It's something we may have used had we been fully project managing the build ourselves.

Video calling has proved moderately useful, but we've not used it quite as much as we could have.  This is mostly due to contractors not being familiar with the tool, and often not bothering to check things with us before they go ahead and just do it the way that suits them(!). Photo messaging has been used a lot more.  It was certainly useful getting broadband on site early on as we've been able to access dropbox/emails/websites in situ.  

A version of the kids' bedroom, modelled in Sketchup

Towards the end of the build, I was trying to work out how we could fit the kids' furniture into their room, when I remembered being amazed seeing how easily Charlie 4 (Charlie from Sustainable Kitchens) changed the height in the design of our kitchen extractor housing. The software he used was Sketchup.  After installing and watching a couple of the tutorials, and ignoring Tara's heckles of "just cut out some pieces of paper", I quickly modelled their room and proudly showed Tara the different ways in which it could be arranged. We were both converted, and we've since used it to design the office and the boot room, and would certainly and done more with it if we'd tried earlier.