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Daedalus was the mythical great architect and artificer of the classical world. Today, embedded intelligence is enabling the most profound changes in the way we create and use buildings since his day.

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CFLs and the Housing Collapse

Last week, I was discussing some new research from Wake Forest University with my favorite real estate agent. Physics professor David Carroll has developed a new technology for unbreakable lights. From popular accounts, the technology has some similarities to OLED, but is longer lasting and less expensive. A coating on a film of plastic glows. The film can be wound to produce more light. The result is a light-weight and hard to break plastic bulb that produces little heat and a lot of light while using very little energy. The inventor claims that he can produce lamps in any color. Production is likely to start in 2013.

The conversation veered, as it often does when I speak with her about technology. Real estate agents have a practicality about houses and the motivations of people who inhabit them, almost as a veteran nurse has a practicality about the human body. It may be new, but neither the real estate agent nor the nurse is ever really surprised. In either case, the follow on questions can be surprising and practical.

The agent is showing a house that has not yet been repossessed in a mortgage foreclosure, what she calls a pre-repo. She has worked with many repos and pre-repos over the last few years. The paper work required for a repo can be immense. Pre-repo’s, which are quick sales to avoid repossession, can be as bad. Sometimes one department of a bank refuses to provide the language demanded by another department in the same bank. Few chances are missed to make a difficult situation harder.

But back to lights and the agent. She observed that they might make it easier to move the difficult homes…

The agent observed that most of the pre-repos and repos had switched out all their bulbs for compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). These lamps produce a grim bluish light that makes a house hard to sell. As a seller’s agent, one of the first things to do is to change the lamps back to incandescent, to produce a welcoming look that is not “so depressing”. People buy houses because when they feel they and their family will be happy in that house. It’s often a visceral decision. People do not feel they will be happy and healthy when they look around at a house lit only by CFLs. It is much happier to imagine a happy life in a home lit by incandescent lamps.

The agent then observed that there may be a link between mortgage foreclosures and CFL lights. Many people fight to maintain their houses, even when they owe far more than the current worth of the house. Perhaps the dim blue light helps to depress families that inhabit homes lit only by CFLs. Perhaps one is more likely give up when facing depressing lighting every day. She posited whole families, affected by something akin to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), giving up on their homes. I find it hard to contradict someone whose livelihood depends on careful observation of people and how they interact with their homes.

In any case, she faces homes that people do not want to buy. Re-lamping is often the easiest and least expensive way to prepare a house to show better. An inexpensive choice that provides a nicer quality of light would aid her to stage a house for quick sale. Incandescent bulbs are fragile, and do not take well to riding around in the car every day. With unbreakable bulbs, she could keep a case in the back of the car, and be ready to stage a house in very little time.

I don’t claim that installing CFLs leads to foreclosures—but It seems a plausible contributor. I am fascinated by the notion that better unbreakable lights may help the real estate market get moving again.

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