CUMMING, GEORGIA — An hour outside Atlanta, inset from a lush green road with new construction popping up all around, there’s a house that could be from the future.
At least, it’s what Lennar, the nation’s largest homebuilding company by revenue, and Amazon, the largest online retailer in the land, want you to believe is the future.
The 64-year-old homebuilder and the Seattle tech giant partnered earlier this year to debut Amazon Experience Centers, or model Lennar homes decked out with every piece of smart home technology you could imagine. The two companies have so far opened about a dozen of these houses scattered throughout the country, including one in Cumming, Georgia.
There’s only so much you can learn from the name “Amazon Experience Center,” so I wanted to see one of these homes for myself. I ordered an Uber from downtown Atlanta and started on my way to Lennar’s Mountain Crest Saddlewood master-planned community.
Alexa, take me to the smart home
In a less-than-auspicious sign for a trip devoted to smart technology, the GPS took us to the main entrance for the planned community but couldn’t find the exact house we were looking for.
After my Uber driver left, a Lennar employee took pity on me and put on his cowboy boots to drive me the extra two minutes down the highway to the right place.
From the outside, the Amazon house looked like all the other Lennar new builds. Only when I got closer did I notice the Amazon-branded sign imploring visitors to “Reimagine everyday living” inside the four-bedroom, three-bath home.
I walked inside — through a front door that was open for visitors but equipped with keyless entry and a video doorbell — to see more reminders of everything Amazon can do. Signs in the entryway told me to “Just ask Alexa” (the name of Amazon’s voice-activated virtual assistant inside of its Echo devices), as well as to make sure to sign up for Amazon Prime and that Amazon professionals could install everything seen here for me when I buy my own Lennar house.
Throughout the house, small placards were posted next to light switches, thermostats and other home features with examples of what to ask Alexa to do. The first one I saw was in the dining room. It said to say, “Alexa, turn off the dining room lights,” so I said, “Alexa, turn off the dining room lights.” Alexa said, “OK,” and the lights went off.
I jumped slightly because Alexa’s voice was so loud. It sounded like it was hooked up, if not to surround sound, to a serious stereo system. It was a far cry from the audio quality of my smart home tech of choice: a Google Home Mini my family bought off our neighbors for $20.
Alexa, does this work?
Next, I walked into the kitchen. Just like in the dining room, signs in the kitchen told me to ask Alexa to turn off the lights. I kept them on this time, instead investigating the pantry, which advertised that you would “never run out of essentials” by equipping all your dry goods with Amazon Dash buttons. The $4.99 buttons hook up to your Prime account, and when you press the physical button your account will automatically reorder pantry supplies.
Inside, the pantry was stocked with a surprising array of goods: Fiji water, lemon soap, lemon cookies, Cheez-Its, trash bags, Red Bull and Peet’s Coffee. Half of the Dash buttons had fallen onto the floor, but I pressed the still-intact Kleenex button. Lennar, if you get a shipment of Kleenex in 48 hours, that was me.
A few feet over, I saw my first physical Amazon device. The Amazon Echo Show, a $229 smart home device that includes a screen, sat on the kitchen counter. Signs propped up next to the device told me to ask Alexa for a recipe for lasagna or to set a pasta timer.
Seeing the Echo Show reminded me that it might be nice to play some music during my self-guided tour, since basically all I use my own Google Home Mini for is to play Spotify. I asked Alexa to play “High Horse” by Kacey Musgraves (2018 song of the summer, IMO), but Alexa told me that it couldn’t play music because my account was streaming on another device. Would I like to upgrade to an unlimited account? (Lennar, maybe look into that!)
I overrode the other device, and only a sample of “High Horse” started playing — a drawback of the all-Amazon integrated system. No matter what Amazon says, Amazon Music doesn’t have quite the selection of Spotify.
As Kacey Musgraves played, I noticed a sign hanging from the ceiling in the back corner that said “Alexa, start party time.” I was intrigued. When I told Alexa to start party time, Alexa dimmed the lights, slowly lowered the shades halfway and started blasting “Must Be Summertime” by Kate Voegele. (I didn’t know the song, but I asked Alexa what it was.)
It wasn’t my favorite song, so I asked Alexa to skip to a new one. But no matter what I said — “Alexa, skip this song,” “Alexa, next song” — the song wouldn’t change. Maybe the party time playlist only had one song?
I turned off party time and went into the living room. As I moved throughout the house, I started to notice Alexa’s voice responding from different devices. The giant speakers in the kitchen were replaced by an Amazon Echo in the living room.
Alexa, play me a movie
For a company built on books, Amazon didn’t seem to care much for them in this house. A few books were used as interior decoration with — gasp — the pages facing outward. These books didn’t even have covers, stripped bare to the pages. You had to look closely to tell they what books they were: novels by James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell.
If this smart house wasn’t made for reading, it was made for movies. In the opposite back corner, the house advertised “movie time.” Movie time was similar to party time: the shades lowered, the lights dimmed and, in this case, a colored light backlighting the TV turned on. The TV was supposed to turn on too, but it didn’t until I asked Alexa to turn it on separately. Instead of watching a movie, I asked Alexa to show me the front door, remembering the video doorbell I saw out front. I watched a feed of the empty front porch.
The TV hung above a fireplace, so I thought it might be an electric one I could turn on. But Alexa didn’t recognize commands for “turn on fire” or “turn on fireplace.” I was slowly realizing that asking Alexa to do anything that wasn’t explicitly suggested by Amazon likely wouldn’t work. Similarly, Alexa couldn’t control the lights in rooms that didn’t have signs specifically telling me to test that feature.
Alexa, turn off the Roomba
I felt like I’d tested a million Amazon smart home features, but I still had to go upstairs. The stairway opened onto a beautiful kids’ play area with quotes from Peter Pan written on chalkboards and an outline of Big Ben painted on the wall.
This carpeted room told me to ask Alexa to start Roomba, the small automatic vacuum. I did, speaking to another Amazon Echo here, but when I tried to turn off the Roomba 10 seconds later, it wouldn’t turn off. Something had to be fixed in my Alexa app first, but of course it wasn’t my Alexa app — it was Lennar’s. I abandoned the Roomba still vacuuming as I looked at the upstairs bedrooms.
In the master bedroom, I pulled up a view of the kids’ bedroom on an Echo Spot. I set an alarm for 7 a.m. and then tried the suggested “Alexa, good night.” Alexa’s response was startling: “Enjoy your beauty rest, not that you need it. You’re PJ fabulous.” Then the shades lowered, and the lights dimmed. It would have been very relaxing, had the Roomba not still been running one room over.
I wasn’t about to pass out in the Lennar model home, so I said, “Alexa, good morning.” Alexa told me “Carpe diem” and that the traffic on my commute — to where? I don’t know — looked good.
In the master bathroom, I found yet another Echo device, bringing the total up to five. Per a house suggestion, I asked the bathroom device for a sports update. It told me that the Atlanta Braves lost to the Milwaukee Brewers the night before.
As I listened to the update about teams I don’t follow with the noisy vacuum in the background, I had an epiphany: I can still turn things off by hand. I pressed the off button on the Roomba, and it stopped, no Alexa required.
With the realization that the Amazon house had warped my brain so that I forgot how to turn off a vacuum, it was time to go. I peeked in the garage on the way out and found a vehicle charging station and a smart sprinkler system. I didn’t try to turn the sprinklers on, and I went into the basement.
The basement was unfinished and full of construction supplies. But it did let me out into the backyard, as opposed to upstairs, where the door onto the deck was locked. The backyard was beautiful, looking out onto rolling Georgia hills and up to neighbor Lennar homes that didn’t have all of Amazon’s technology inside. You couldn’t tell the difference from where I stood.
As I waited for my Uber back to Atlanta, I chatted with Lennar new home consultant Shelley Call. Call told me that the Amazon Experience Center is popular, albeit more popular with young people. No one else came inside the Amazon house during the hour-and-a-half I was there, although other potential homebuyers were wandering the Lennar community.
I also checked out another Lennar home for comparison. While it wasn’t a full Amazon Experience Center, it had some of the same features: keyless entry and an Echo Show in the kitchen.
The Lennar model home seemed like a nice place to live. The Target and Old Navy clothes hanging in the closets and the still-plastic-wrapped yoga mat and tennis racket in the master bedroom helped paint a picture of what life with an ever-present Alexa would look like.
Surprisingly, the house didn’t make me feel like I was being surveilled by Amazon, at least any more than usual. I might have the few glitches in Alexa’s capabilities to thank for quelling that fear. But I wasn’t totally convinced in universal smart home tech either.
Mostly, I felt like I’d forget to use Alexa for that much besides playing music and answering the occasional question. And really, I don’t know if I need or want more Amazon Echos than there are members of my family or bedrooms in my house.
Lennar’s new homes will all be built with some Amazon features, but most of the elaborate pieces of smart home tech — self-lowering shades, backlit “movie time” — are add-ons.
Homebuyers who are in the market for a new build and hate flipping light switches: come on by.