When we think of “smart” houses, we generally think of homes that are sort of like big computers — as one home builder theorized.

As far back as 2006, at a conference in California of more than a hundred of the nation’s top home builders, speakers were predicting “online” houses: Buildings that, through a secure website, you could turn lights on or off, adjust the heating or cooling, lock or unlock doors, from anywhere in the world.

As MSNBC reported at the time, such homes “can send you messages. Door sensors can tell you when (or if) the kids have arrived home; a motion sensor can tell you whether Grandma got out of bed this morning. One (conference) speaker claimed that the most commonly stolen item in homes is prescription drugs, often by cleaners, baby-sitters or even visiting friends or family. ‘Your house can text you,’ he said, ‘that your medicine cabinet was opened at 10:45 this morning.’”

Basically, any device that uses electricity can be put on a home network that can then be controlled remotely, whether that’s through the Internet, by voice command, a hand-held device or motion detectors which can turn lights on and off when people enter or leave a room and also control the temperature as desired.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates famously spent a reported $100 million on his smart home, which not only changes lighting and ambient temperature and humidity but goes so far as to change the digital pictures hanging on the walls to suit the taste of the person entering the room (if the person is wearing a personalized electronic tag).

Think of trash cans that monitor what’s tossed away and then instantly generate an online shopping list for replacements. How about washers and dryers that send you a text message that their cycles are done? Or refrigerators that create dinner recipes based on ingredients that have been scanned in, just like at the checkout line, when you’ve put them away once you got home from the grocery store? No more standing there with the fridge door (and your mouth) open wondering what to make, while letting all that cool air escape!

This is an extreme example, of course — but as Boyce Thompson — editorial director of the BUILDER group of magazines published by Hanley Wood, which organized this 2006 conference of builders — says, there is more motivation to build “smart” homes than the embrace of new technology or gimmickry or even possible convenience. It’s an economic bonus.

Cover of Growing a Better America, by Chuck LeavellNew-home builders need to compete against the used-home market. In 2005, 8.2 million houses were sold in the U.S. — 7 million of which were “existing homes with outmoded floor plans, obsolete home wiring, and no home office space.”

What’s more important is that “smart” homes can save a third or more on electrical and gas consumption (and cost), according to nearly a dozen prominent solar-energy installation companies.

So like the motivation for real change in just about everything in our lives, the economics of smart, strong and sustainable living is turning out to be the strongest catalyst.

This has been excerpted with permission from "Growing a Better America: Smart, Strong and Sustainable" by Chuck Leavell.

Related on MNN: Check out Chuck Leveall's In the Green Room series