Boston Globe: Marvin’s showroom invites you to live like ‘The Jetsons’

April 29, 2024

The Minnesota-based company sells windows, doors, and skylights with sensors that can quietly open and close, depending on the temperature, weather, or time of day

By Thomas Lee

The home of the future, or at least part of one, can be found on a quiet, windswept street in the Seaport District of Boston.

Inside the 7 Tide building, Marvin has constructed what the Minnesota maker of windows and doors officially calls an “experiential showroom” to show off a smart home innovation it has spent millions of dollars over several years developing. In interviews, Marvin officials invoked the “The Jetsons,” the 1960s animated sitcom about a family living in a futuristic, fully automated, high tech home.

But as a recent visit revealed, there are no helmeted talking dogs, robot maids, or spaceships that fold into suitcases. Instead, visitors see a tastefully decorated living room. The big innovation? Windows, doors, and skylights with sensors that can quietly open and close, depending on the temperature, weather, or time of day.

That might seem underwhelming given the prevalence of smart devices flooding the market and AI-powered voice assistants like Alexa and Siri. But the market for integrating Internet-connected technology into the actual design and structure of houses has yet to take hold in home construction and sales — until now.

Given rising concern for climate change and the growing popularity of Internet-connected devices in the home, Marvin recently rolled out smart technology into its products. Such devices can help conserve energy, especially when the homeowner is not on the premises. For example, sensors detect that the temperature outside has cooled in the summertime and automatically open windows and skylights.

Marvin specifically decided to start in New England, one of its strongest markets and a region where it enjoys close relationships with designers, architects, and homebuilders, said Jim Flaherty, Marvin’s director of digital project management and engineering. So the company is using its showroom at 7 Tide, the only such facility it operates in the country, to show how smart windows, doors, and skylights can easily fit into a house without hurting its aesthetic quality.

“This building is strategically located in the Northeast,” Flaherty said. “The showroom is a valuable resource as they’re trying to get their homeowner clients to sort of understand the vision for a smart home.”

Competitors like Renewable by Anderson and Pella also operate showrooms but in outer suburbs like Northborough, Hingham, and Woburn. 7 Tide is located in the heart of Boston’s design community, across the street from the iconic Innovation and Design Building.

Marvin’s investment in 7 Tide has paid off, officials say. The company said 95 percent of appointments at the showroom resulted in a sold project. In 2023, 7 Tide facilitated more than 400 project appointments for projects across 20 states. That means Marvin’s efforts at the facility lead to 380 sold projects last year.

“Marvin at 7 Tide has a significant impact” on sales, a company spokesperson said.

Marvin, which is private, does not disclose specific financial data. But the company told the Globe it has hit its annual 10 percent return on investment target over each of the past five years. And last year Marvin shared $20 million in profits with employees.

New England appears to be a promising market for smart homes. A study last fall from Secure Data Recovery in California said 28.2 percent of residents in Connecticut have embraced smart home technology — in entertainment, security, lighting, and climate control — the highest rate in the nation. Massachusetts ranked 14th.

“Already, smart devices are having a big effect on the way we build and renovate homes, and their impact is only going to get bigger,” according to a report by the National Association of Home Builders.

Terry Hills, architectural sales representative at Premium Plywood + Specialties in Hyannis, said she’s helping to close a deal in which a homeowner in Cape Cod will convert some of her windows into Marvin’s smart windows.

“It’s a unique feature that adds value to the homes,” Hills said. “It’s not something everybody has.”

But analysts say smart homes will remain a niche segment in a tight housing market where demand far exceeds supply.

Smart windows and doors require a sizable capital investment, a tough sell in an era of inflation and higher interest rates. Annual expenditures for improvements and repairs to owner-occupied homes are expected to fall 7 percent in the third quarter this year and continue to decline into early 2025, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.

Buying a smart television or a Nest doorbell is a far cry from building digital features directly into a home’s physical structure.

For years, retailers, manufacturers, and tech enthusiasts have promoted a vision of a truly connected, automated home, powered by sensors and AI. But in reality, no one has stepped up to coherently explain how they can usefully work together in a connected smart home, said DeAnn Campbell, who leads the retail practice at AAG Consulting in Atlanta.

“People think smart devices are just about tech heads wanting the latest gadgets,” she said.

That’s why Marvin has moved cautiously with its smart products.

“We don’t force people into that overabundant digital experience,” Flaherty said. “We know that just may not be what that homeowner needs. Just a simple button on the wall sounds great.”

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