Skip to content

Creating “Smarter” Smart Buildings, Smartly

Jim Baldwin, co-founder of Domatic
Jim Baldwin is the co-founder of California start-up Domatic.

A California start-up, Domatic, has taken on the task of making smart buildings “smarter” through its revolutionary electrical distribution and automation system. The low voltage system saves energy, reduces copper wiring, and is safer to install. And with its plug-and-play capabilities, it is already making a wave in the modular construction industry. The company’s system has been showcased in multiple high-rise residential projects, including market-rate high-rises and affordable housing projects.

Jim Baldwin, Domatic’s co-founder and CEO, started his career working for giants like Apple, Microsoft, and Intel, where his electrical engineering education was used to develop user-friendly consumer technology, including Apple’s ‘Firewire” desktop interconnect system. An innovator and entrepreneur at heart, he joined forces with co-founder Gladys Wong, a Silicon Valley chip design veteran, a team of innovators to work on different projects with the idea of finding a solid product that they could build and distribute themselves.

Jim Baldwin and Gladys Wong, co-founders of Domatic

Jim Baldwin and Gladys Wong, co-founders of Domatic.

When a builder approached them looking for a low voltage power distribution system it quickly became clear that this was a big idea and worthy of building it for the broader market. “We knew this was a market that could use some help,” says Baldwin. “In their words, not mine, they weren't very technologically savvy, and they needed some new technology. We felt like it was a great opportunity to build a start-up around this idea.”

A New Perspective on Smart Buildings

Currently, in most projects smart building technology is an add-on to the existing electrical system. The central hub and all the fixture controls are installed after the electrical system is completed. This adds extra costs, including equipment and labor, to the project budget. Because of this, most projects don’t adopt smart building technology. “So, we said, ‘What could we do that would create a system that would be palatable to builders and possibly even save them money compared to what they're doing today, and yield a smart building in the process?’”

What they came up with is a low voltage power distribution system that requires less materials and time to install and is safer due to the low voltage power being used. “Instead of pulling Romex to all the fixtures of a building, we just pull a simple 18-gauge wire, two-conductor cable that carries power at low voltage. The electrical code calls this out as Class 2 power, which means it’s under 50 volts and under 100 watts. Domatic eliminates the need for switch legs and 3-way runners. And the flexible cabling is easier to pull, which saves lots of time for the installation team.”

Domatic designs more efficient, and often less expensive, methods to wire buildings.

Domatic designs more efficient, and often less expensive, methods to wire buildings.

“Because we are embedding a data network directly into the power distribution, all devices get both power and an IP address, making them all smart. Every fixture in the building, every switch, sensor, fan, window blind, door controller, every component gets an IP address and is managed by a software application that can be updated over time and can respond to events from the outside world instead of being hardwired.” Since most lights and fans have power adapters that change the high voltage AC power coming in to lower voltage DC power, these fixtures can easily be adapted to work within our system. The only high voltage wiring is for the power outlets and is required by code.

The system comes with a hub that is able to control power throughout the system and receive communications to improve efficiency. Like other smart building hubs, it can be controlled through a smartphone app or other computer connection but the system does not rely on an internet connection for normal operation, making it extremely resilient to network outages.

One Step at a Time

The value proposition for a Domatic system is very clear and most prospective customers get on board immediately. Baldwin says one of the challenges they sometimes encounter are customers who aren’t quite ready for this level of technology. “If you look at Geoffrey Moore’s Technology Adoption Curve, every industry has a spectrum ranging from innovators and early adopters to the laggards,” says Baldwin. “When you build something new you have to first build it for the innovators because they will become your ambassadors as you grow.” The Domatic team is deliberate about turning pushback and challenges into learning opportunities to better understand how to improve their product.

“We think a lot about what components need to be created and about the level of openness the system should have. We are a very open, non-proprietary solution. We’re designing everything we're making so that we can license these components out and let anybody build with them. We're trying to build something that can be the basis for a very different way of looking at the problem. We want to be the USB for buildings, if you will. USB made it so we can plug something into a computer, and it recognizes it and knows what to do. We’re solving this at the building level. Any fixture you plug into the building, it's automatically identified, and it just works. That's the mission we're on.”

The next step is to proceed to design and engineering. Domatic works with the MEP team to ensure seamless integration, often reminding them that the requirements for low voltage systems are much lower than for higher voltages. “It's so simple that we have to tell them not to bother doing a bunch of things they're used to doing.” The team begins the process of identifying fixtures, equipment, and other materials required for the system. Changes to the design usually come from the end client or the design team wanting to change the fixtures and ensure they can be used with the low voltage system. Baldwin says they are able to accommodate most fixtures quite easily.

Results

Baldwin says that a typical project that sets out to include automation can expect to be burdened by a 30% premium whereas with Domatic they can expect to save about 20% just on materials and installation. And when compared to other smart buildings, the savings are closer to 45-50%. Much of the savings for a smart building comes from the high cost of commissioning. Projected energy savings for the system is 30%, coming from the reduced energy loss when converting AC power to DC power at each fixture, as well as better management of power based on building usage that comes from having smart controls and sensors.

“We’re doing something for everybody involved in the building process. We are generating critical telemetry from the building operations. We’re making life better for the builder, a better product for the property manager, and a better experience for the tenant. We're also tackling issues around energy efficiency and housing affordability by making things less expensive and easier to operate. I think those are key aspects of where we're making a difference.

About the Author: Dawn Killough is a freelance construction writer with over 25 years of experience working with construction companies, subcontractors and general contractors. Her published work can be found at dkilloughwriter.com.

More from Modular Advantage

Repetition, Communication, and Coordination: A QSR Case Study

This modular QSR project seemed like any another modular building on the surface. Inside, it was anything but. The rhythm, the desire to iterate and repeat, and the constant communication between all parties made it stand out.

Modular Architecture: Thinking Outside of the Box with Sara.Ann Logan

At a time when modular buildings were still seen as less than by many in the architecture and construction world, Sara.Ann Logan took the plunge and partnered to launch a design-build firm that designed, built, and constructed modular high-end single-family homes. But even though she could see the value of this kind of construction, it wasn’t universally accepted.

Colorado Developer ‘Attacks’ Attainable Housing Crisis

City, county, and state government bodies are reaching out to Fading West Development, a modular manufacturer and developer in Buena Vista, CO, to learn more about how they are using modular construction to solve the affordable housing crisis in Colorado. Governments are eager to learn how they’ve made modular development successful and profitable while meeting the growing need for affordable housing.

CES Group’s Stuart Cameron Will Convince You the Moon Is Achievable with Modularized MEP

While most people think of construction as a gradually layered process, MEP assemblies—such as the modular ones—tend to provide all-in-one installs, like a car factory. A modular MEP product helps developers, architects, and fellow modular manufacturers reach their goals through early integration and planning. MEP assemblies address all the unseen things like electrical, heating, and plumbing when looking at a finalized building. The very nature of MEP assemblies are crucial to any initial prospectus.

Automation: The Future for Offsite Modular Construction

Offsite modular construction lags far behind other industries in embracing and adopting automation. Some people believe it will decrease jobs. Others feel they’ve done okay without it, so why change? In reality, conventional construction methods simply cannot keep up. Cooper Lane of Brave Control Solutions points to the labor shortage and the housing crisis that’s rampant in Canada, the U.S., and globally.

Seizing the Modular Construction Opportunity

The CSA Public Policy Centre’s new report, Seizing the Modular Construction Opportunity, highlights how innovative modular methods can help to bring various building forms—from single unit housing to complex high-rises—online more quickly. Owing to efficient manufacturing practices and controlled factory environments, modular can achieve completion rates that are 25% to 50% faster than conventional construction approaches.

Structural versus Cyclical: What Matters More?

A new set of considerations have induced leaders of major global manufacturing enterprises to reconsider their site selection decisions. Among these are: 1) a desire for simpler logistics emphasizing shorter transit distances and times; 2) a need to better protect intellectual property; 3) more reliable court systems; 4) incentives offered by the USMCA, America’s trade deal with Canada and Mexico; and 5) a recent set of subsidies offered under packages like the Chips and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.

How Air Caster Technology Has Helped Improve Modular Building Manufacturing

Air casters mean flexibility, not just in terms of movement but also in terms of change. For example, one structure might be 56-feet-long and another 76-feet-long. Air casters allow manufacturers to easily accommodate a variety of shapes and sizes of boxes and then make changes on the fly.

The Building Industry Needs a Moonshot Speech

In his “Moonshot” speech in 1962, President Kennedy challenged his fellow citizens to land a man on the moon and bring him safely back to earth before 1970. He showed leadership, reimagining human potential and progress, and this famous speech has been an inspiration for many to get things done. Likewise, a “Home-shot” speech that challenges citizens to remove lengthy procedures and “carefully” remove some of the mountain of red tape required for permitting before 2030 would certainly make a huge difference.

How Issa Nesheiwat Conquered the Great Manufacturer/Design Divide

Born in Jordan forty years ago, Nesheiwat is something of an outsider to the modular housing world. His entrepreneurial spirit led him from a childhood growing up in Yonkers, New York, to the more provincial location of Poughkeepsie where he delved into many unique business ventures. Not one to shy away from a challenge, he took on projects that seemed impossible, often in the housing sector. His innate sense of the fundamentals in finance, corporate branding, and business expansion have led him to where he is today.