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In Prague, a House Without a Key


Set on a sloped plot above Prague in the city’s Troja district, Villa Sophia has no keys, no light switches and a piano that can play by itself.

The house can close the windows when it rains and read aloud material it has selected from the internet, based on the owners’ interests. Shaped like a helix and offering panoramic views, the 5,100-square-foot house is controlled through artificial intelligence.

“The house is like a brain,” said Michaela Pankova, an organizer for the architectural festival Open House Prague, who shares the home with her husband, Karel Panek, and their daughters, Sofia and Veronika. “It makes decisions for you based on previous experience.”

Featuring a predominantly white interior that along with a spatial configuration that ascends in a spiral feels appropriately futuristic, the home, designed by the Prague-based firm Coll Coll, is intended to go beyond automated to autonomous. “As we say, if we have to control it ourselves, it’s not smart enough,” said Mr. Panek, a computer scientist.

Mr. Panek and Mrs. Pankova commissioned the home on returning to the Czech Republic after more than a year living in Vancouver, British Columbia. The home is both their living space and their office, their “center of the universe,” said the architect Kristof Hanzlik, a partner at Coll Coll.

The couple wanted no comprises in quality and efficiency. When they couldn’t find a technology that met their standards, Mr. Panek, the brain behind his home’s brain, designed his own system.

Sysloop, both the name of the autonomous building’s management system and the company (owned by Mr. Panek and two partners) that created it, integrates a confusing jumble of technologies into one autonomous system.

While family members go about their daily lives, the system collects data and evaluates that data in real time, then comes up with solutions and implements them.

“For us, everything is a source of data. The more information you have, the more accurate the solution,” said Mr. Hanzlik, who is also a partner in Sysloop. “It brings more freedom to the design process,” he said.

Data collection is done through sensors — in floors, in drawers, under the kitchen table.

“The house has an idea of where everyone is,” Mr. Panek said.

Artificial intelligence, replacing what requires human intervention in existing systems, takes over from there.

“The house is capable of answering questions and interpreting spoken instructions,” Mr. Panek said. “It can store instructions and statements in order to apply or verify them later autonomously. To some extent it can infer action from statements, such as ‘I am cold’ —therefore increase temperature.”

Including a data center that takes up an entire room, the home cost 80 million Czech crowns, roughly $3.6 million. Sysloop, on the market in a generic version, accounted for 20 percent of that cost — “including both sysloop software technology and all related hardware,” Mr. Panek said in an email.

Along with temperature adjustments, the house can adjust its own lighting (the reason for no switches), including toning down the blue — a melatonin suppressor — for better sleep at night. “The lights adapt to our presence and the sun,” Mrs. Pankova said.

The house has learned that there is a regular Sysloop meeting on Wednesdays in the office upstairs and has adjusted the ventilation accordingly.

It can accept deliveries when the family isn’t home, thanks to individual control of every door from afar and evaluation of the home’s external context.

It can preheat the driveway to clear snow and ice (but only if it predicts its use, saving energy otherwise) and lock the doors.

But energy efficiency, home security and convenience aside, the system’s true benefit is that in evolving beyond a smart home system to a smart home it frees the homeowner from the burden of constant control.

“You can focus on the more important parts of life,” Mr. Panek said.

Of course, a home capable of independent control is cause for concern to some. “Most often people ask me, ‘Can your house kill you?’ Mr. Panek said. “We focus on implementing safety by design.”

Although Mr. Panek calls himself a technology optimist, Mrs. Pankova said it took her some time to warm up to the system.

“In the beginning I wasn’t really into the idea of living in an A.I. house,” she said. “During the time of the preparation and later the construction, I slowly started to be open to the idea, for example, of not having a single key to the home. However, some exceptions have been made just for me, to have an illusion of control.”

Sitting at the kitchen table, Mr. Hanzlik pointed out the only window in the house that can be opened manually. “That was for Michaela,” he said.

The home’s design, distinguished by the contrast of its bright white polyurethane flooring and walls with dark European walnut accents — including its sloping central staircase — supports the system.

“From my experience, it is difficult to distinguish where the architecture begins and where the system begins,” Mr. Hanzlik said. “The two are intertwined and complementary.”

The home’s spiral design helps with airflow, as does the succession of opening and closing doors.

“The shape of the house becomes part of the tool,” Mr. Hanzlik said. “A door is not just a door, it’s part of several layers of the system.”

“We were looking for something that will be for the next century,” Mr. Panek said. “In the 21st century, the world will look very different.”

Though built to last, Villa Sophia is in a constant state of change, continually adapting.

“It does not scare me anymore, like in the beginning,” Mrs. Pankova said in an email, about living in the home. “My husband took care of many back-up systems that provide us with the safety (such as in case of a power failure). I feel more free not to have to take care of many things. However, our house is a prototype of the technology, which means that from time to time, changes are made to test new things.

“So the house is never completed so to speak,” she continued. “It develops with you and with your needs, which can be challenging.”

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