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Smart technology and pools are among the features that prospective buyers are looking for. (Builder: Seifert Construction, Photography: Dan Jones)

What would it be like to live in a computerized home?

As a kid, it’s something I thought about a lot after seeing the 1999 Disney Channel original movie Smart House, in which a family wins a fully automated dream home whose central AI, Pat, goes rogue.

It’s a slightly terrifying depiction of anxieties felt in the new millennium, when reminders were issued to shut off your computer before midnight on 12/31/99. A recent rewatch on Disney Plus revealed some eerily clever predictions of technology that’s now come to define everyday life.

On the North Fork, the façades of homes have evolved through the decades, from humble bayside bungalows and residential subdivisions to sprawling modern coastal oases. It can be hard to predict shifting architecture and decor trends. But one thing is for certain: new homes are more technologically advanced than ever and growth has exploded exponentially in the last decade.

“Things you didn’t see very often, things that were once luxuries in houses are very commonplace now,” said Fred Seifert of Seifert Construction in Mattituck. “[Clients] want to be able to operate almost everything in their home from their phones.”

It’s something local real estate agent Jerry Cibulski of Century 21 in Southold hears directly from clients as he shows them homes across the North Fork. “Houses are being designed to assist you,” he said in a recent interview.

Cibulski works closely with builders to help embed the lifestyle his clients seek into new homes.

Throughout these projects, technology is carefully curated to meet modern needs— Built-in USB ports in outlets to power up electronics. Window shades and pool covers set on a timer to automatically open and close. A bath drawn by a vocal command, set to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. ‘Geofencing’ technology that can be programmed to turn on exterior, kitchen and mudroom lighting when it senses your vehicle is within a mile away.

A new offering on Ryder Farm Lane in Orient by Cibulski and Jonathan Grano of J. Grano Contracting of Bohemia embodies these updates and more, with large airy spaces, built-ins and custom woodwork throughout the home, from recessed white oak ceiling beams to a feature bookcase.

The four bedroom, four-and-a-half bathroom home features UV air filtration throughout the home, touch faucets, a ‘Zoom Room,’ finished basement and full bath with stone entry details on the custom stairs, designer cabinets, Italian light fixtures and a laundry basket ‘parking garage,’ that eliminates the need to carry around bulky laundry baskets.

Jerry Cibulski had a hand in designing this Orient home with custom built-ins and tech. (Photography: Jeremy Garretson)

The backyard is a private oasis with a saltwater pool, three sheer descent waterfalls and a retractable pool cover with Wi-Fi enabled heating and filtration systems.

He’s created outdoor zones, an outdoor shower, tire and lounge swings, a covered porch and thoughtful landscaping.

“It’s a fun project,” Grano said. “Everywhere you look, every corner, we want your eyes glowing. There’s a wow factor.”

Grano and Seifert both agreed that 2012 was when things felt like they had finally bounced back after the Great Recession. 

“People started feeling comfortable again dipping their toes into the construction market,” Seifert said.

Since then, clients want to be more involved in the process, thanks to the rise of platforms like Instagram, Pinterest and Houzz, all of which provide a springboard for design trends and ideas.

“Your smartphone is your idea book,” Grano said. “It’s given this industry a unique turnaround point, because you have to be creative. You can’t just be a regular builder. You have to have ingenuity.”

Advancements in tech aren’t just improving creature comforts, but are also addressing concerns about environmental impacts and sustainability.

“[Clients are] more concerned about the environment than they were 10 years ago, but there are more options now,” Seifert said, explaining that solar panels, geothermal heating and even renewable-powered backup batteries instead of generators are more accessible.

He can think of two projects in recent years that the client requested to be fossil-fuel free, which was nearly unheard of even just a decade ago.

Seifert said many materials they source now are also recycled. On a job site, materials are separated into corresponding dumpsters to ensure things can be reused. “Leftover concrete we might pull from one project might be the base of a driveway for the next,” he said.

As we collectively move toward a more carbon-neutral lifestyle, Cibulski said the last decade saw a rise in LED lighting, larger window sizes to let in more natural light and a combination of personal goals and government mandates leading to more sustainability.

“New energy codes have made houses far more energy efficient and the government is forecasting that in a few years, they’ll no longer approve oil- or- gas-fired furnaces on new construction. So we’re trying to forecast where the technology and building codes are moving,” he said.

Locally, Suffolk County has already taken steps towards more environmentally friendly septic systems. In 2021, the county legislature passed a bill that will require new innovative nitrogen-reducing wastewater systems rather than traditional systems on all new construction in unsewered areas.

Southold Town has also taken steps in recent years to limit light pollution through a ‘Dark Sky’ code, which pertains to exterior lighting.

“We’ll continue to move in that direction because of climate change,” Cibulski said. “It’s a goal that’s worth achieving.”

Of all the shifts that have occurred in the last 10 years, none have had as swift an impact as COVID-19 has in just the last two.

Overnight, our worlds and ways of life were disturbed, forcing us to seriously contemplate what ‘home’ means.

“We were on the hamster wheel of what was supposed to be done. Then the world went on pause and we thought: is that really my best life?”

Cibulski said he’s seen more concern for health and safety in his clients. As a byproduct of the pandemic, he’s seeing a demand for UV filters within HVAC systems and touchless faucets, especially in kitchens and powder rooms.

Buyers are also seeking more flexibility: a home office or Zoom Room, if you will, that can be transformed into a remote learning area or playroom for the kids or a spot for an at-home yoga or workout session.

“Having home workspaces is more important than ever,” said Janet Markarian of Daniel Gale Sotheby’s International Realty, as more people telecommute.

Outdoor spaces and pools, she said, have become another non-negotiable.

“Everyone wants a pool. When I first started, the bay was the pool,” she said.

Today’s buyer isn’t just looking for a run of the mill inground pool with a shallow and deep end, either. An increasing amount of inground pools are being built with corner benches and shallow swim decks ready for lounge chairs.

Modern pools include features like waterfalls. (Photography: Jeremy Garretson)

In many ways, the pandemic accelerated trends that were already happening on some level.

Markarian said shifting demographics means she’s seeing more young families flock to the area. “For the first time in my memory, there are young couples living here,” she said. “When I moved to Orient, I felt like I was the only one with little kids.”

Those young families are also interested in the long-haul, Markarian said, showing interest in contemporary, mid century ranches. “Younger people are looking for houses they feel they can stay in longer,” she said.

“Even without Covid, I think people were starting to figure out ways to be out here more,” Markarian said, through hybrid in-person and remote work scenarios.

The pandemic has certainly put a strain on the construction industry, as demand soars and supply chain challenges arise.

“What’s happening in the supermarkets is also happening in the lumber yards,” Seifert said. 

Andersen windows, for example, used to take maybe three weeks to come in. Now it could be eight to ten weeks. 

“We have to order everything in advance and be very coordinated with materials ahead of time and make sure trades are scheduled properly,” Grano said.

Amid the many changes, Markarian believes in one constant: the alluring North Fork charm drawing both visitors and new residents.

It lies in a delicate balance of farmland preservation to protect scenic vistas and a centuries old tradition and family farms passed to the next generation—and an influx of new restaurants, people and experiences.

While we may still be far-off from the kind of smart home depicted in that made-for-television Disney movie, it begs the question: what lies ahead? What will life be like in another decade? What about the North Fork? Could marijuana greenhouses begin to replace vineyards, which once replaced potato fields? Will it maintain its quiet, artistic appeal? 

Only time will tell.