"I'm having a dinner party tonight, Hal."
"Fine. I'll arrange the lighting and draperies, adjust the air conditioning and play your favorite CD in the dining room."
"My guests might enjoy a movie later."
'I'll prepare the plasma screen, with Dolby Sound, lights off, blinds closed, and cushioned leather seating in a semi-reclining position."
"Fine. Incidentally, I leave for space tomorrow. While I'm gone, turn the lights on and off, lower the heat, and monitor the wine cellar. Oh, and Hal..."
"You made life very difficult in 2001. This year, kindly make things easier."
"How much easier?"
"Easier than programming a VCR."
For years, "smart homes"-a term referring to homes run by sophisticated home automation computers-had a reputation for being recalcitrant and complex, much like super-intelligent and overly indulged children. Like the original Hal computer, they often created more problems than solutions, but those days are as long gone as 2001. Today's improved programming provides precise control, simplifies operation, and offers a universe of possibilities for personalization. Home automation can entertain you, protect you, light your way, chill your wine, and save you steps and time. Best of all, it's now as simple as pushing a button.
Take lighting, for example. When you're preparing for a big bash, just push "Party" on a control panel and every light in the house goes into action. Entry lights brighten to full power while the back patio provides a luminous accent. The master bedroom lights go off but the kitchen cooks at 100-percent wattage and the dining room powers down to create a gracious ambience.
After the party, tired legs don't have to trudge through the entire house. Just push "Nighttime" and the lights dim or go off while the security lights come up. "Security systems can be fully controlled by touch screens anywhere in the house," says Andrew Guenther of Sarasota's Advanced Audio Design. "Just hit 'Away' when you leave for work. Hitting 'Vacation' will turn lights on and off, duplicating whatever you did in the last week."
But lights can go on and off automatically even when you're getting out of bed. Robert Winsler Jr. of Automation Innovators in Sarasota recalls one such request: "The gentleman wanted a pressure-sensitive pad by the bed, so that when he got out of bed the lights would go on."
Window treatments, pool temperature, irrigation, hot water heaters, heated floors, anything put in the house can be controlled right down to the temperature in the wine cellar.
All of these applications may sound daunting to use-think about running around to first adjust the blinds, then the pool, then floors-but centralized systems consolidate the controls so that a one-touch screen can operate everything from the lights to the air conditioning, the AM-FM tuner and the television.
Winsler notes that "It's less expensive to have individual systems that don't necessarily talk to each other. But if the homeowner wants to work long- distance, the central system lets them call in one time. If they have a house here and up North, the homeowner can monitor both."
Security systems can be connected to the automation system so the homeowner can control lights, locks and other security features from one keypad. Every keypad Winsler installs has an "All On" and "All Off" button. If there's a noise in the night, the homeowner can push the "All On" button and flood the house with light.
Off-the-shelf products make home automation systems more affordable; still, the most extensive, customized systems require near-bottomless bank accounts. Andrew Guenther comments that his company can create systems for under $1,000, but he didn't even blink when he added that he also did a $5-million system for a $200-million home. The price included a custom home theater and extensive home automation. The theater would have been welcomed in Hollywood. It featured an HDTV with a 135-inch diagonal screen. The video projector alone cost $68,000. Where is this masterpiece of automation? "It's in Florida. That's all I can tell you," he says.
While any size home can be automated, the systems are virtually essential in mega-mansions. Says custom homebuilder Mike Collingwood, "In a 2,500-square-foot home with three bedrooms, it's not very difficult to go around to adjust lights. But a 10,000-square-foot house with three floors and eight bedrooms, 15 to 16 rooms all together, becomes more difficult."
The same goes for heating and air conditioning systems. While expensive home automation systems may sound silly to someone who simply adjusts the thermostat in the hall of a three-bedroom house, it's not unreasonable in a large estate home. "In larger homes, the air conditioning controls are important," Collingwood says. "There may be as many as 14 units in one house when you get into the 20,000-square-foot range."
The Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association (CEDIA) recommends spending about $2 per square foot just on the wiring infrastructure that prepares for telephone, television and full automation. In reality, that doesn't happen for most homes unless they get into the 6-7,000-square-foot range. That's also where lighting becomes an architectural feature of the home.
"Sixty different light bulb types can be controlled," says Collingwood. "What we're doing in the luxury home now is creating scenes by highlighting the architectural details."
Rather than one light switch that just turns everything on, a control system activates multiple sources at different intensities, enabling the homeowner to set the scene by highlighting columns, arches, beams, plants or important paintings. Moods subtly adjust with the lighting, from a lively, brightly lit party scene to a romantic dinner for two.
Entertainment is the most popular aspect of home automation. Finding the space for a dedicated home theater isn't always possible, but homeowners often incorporate surround sound and large screen televisions or plasma TVs into their family room or other existing space. One Siesta Key homeowner took a former exercise room and converted it into a cinema. "Everything's done by a little computerized box," says the wife, who describes herself and her husband as "older folks."
"If we can do it, it's very easy," she says. "And we love it. We rush through dinner to get to our cinema."
In the Advanced Audio Design showroom, you can sink into home theater seats comparable to those installed in that $200-million home. The electric recliner purrs like a kitten as the soft leather back smoothly sinks back. At $5,000 apiece the only problem with the seating is that this level of comfort is likely to lull the viewer to sleep before the movie ends.
If you stay awake you can enjoy the newest plasma TVs that provide incredible picture quality, depth of field and performance. But very high definition television requires precise control of the cable source to be used. "Just to change from the DVD to your satellite TV requires six different functions," says Collingwood.
Thankfully, the homeowner doesn't require six degrees in electronics to enjoy his home theater. Pre-programming makes it simple, and that's the main reason that automation systems are now feasible for the average person who still can't program his VCR.
"We won't sell an entertainment system anymore without an automation device to control it," emphasizes Guenther. "If not, you'd need a bunch of remote controls." Instead, the homeowner chooses the button with the name of the source-cable, DVD, HDTV-and the system automatically adjusts the size and shape of the screen image, the projector or TV input, pre-amp processors input, as well as the surround sound mode. Push "Watch Movie" and the lights dim, the blinds close, and the sound comes up in perfect synchronicity with the crisp screen images.
A music management system can provide sound throughout the home, record thousands of hours of music, and even present the CD cover on a monitor as the music plays by automatically downloading it from the Internet. The system lets you create play lists and party lists that work like an automatic DJ.
It takes a towering rack of equipment to provide for the home automation and entertainment, so units are stacked and designed to slide out for maintenance. Some are hidden behind cabinet doors. Says Guenther, "People spend a lot of money on this stuff so some want to show it off. Others don't." He adds, "Guys especially want to show it off."
Voice recognition systems, number pad systems, and Web-based systems are all available means of controlling the home automation.
With the myriad of options available, homeowners rely greatly on the builder's expertise. The actual "smart home" consultation takes place early in the design process. Wiring must be installed before the drywall goes up, so the automation system is planned during the working drawings, explaining why 95 percent of home automation systems are installed in new construction. Only five percent-mostly easier-to-retrofit landscape lighting-goes into current properties. The installer programs the system and trains the homeowner in its use. "We let the homeowner live with it, then come back to adjust as needed," says Winsler. "It's easier to start with something, then tweak it."
Some people want to arrange the programming themselves but those can be counted on one hand- evidently it's the rare hand that can program a VCR. Most people welcome the offer to handle the programming. "On 98 percent of our clients," says Winsler, "we lock the programming so they can't accidentally mess it up."
The potential is still wide as space. Manufacturers of home appliances are making the next move by creating products that make the kitchen work like something out of a Jetsons cartoon. "Smart appliances" are usually Web-based, downloading relevant data from the Internet and applying it to daily life. Imagine scanning the bar code on a food product as you put it in your microwave oven to thaw. The oven accesses the Internet to automatically provide the correct defrosting time while a monitor on the microwave suggests recipes. A quick scan as you remove an item from the refrigerator adds that item to a replacement grocery list, which it sends to the online grocer, who delivers it. The same refrigerator might tell you if the meat has reached its expiration date-and just for the heck of it, reminds you of the weather.
With all the advances in "smart homes" we might even update an old adage: Home is where the hard drive is.
Some ideas for photos:
The showroom at Advanced Audio Design has some jazzy things - from stacked electronics units to plasma TV's to the theater seating mentioned in the article to wall key pads and flat keypads in the theater. (It's a better showroom than Automation Innovators)
Contact Andrew Guenther at 925-2673 or AGuenther@advanced-audio.com
Mike Collinwood has done many automation systems in his homes, through Advanced Audio Design. He mentioned the lighting systems etc. You'd have to call him for some homes to shoot. Phone 365-8333 /email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see if Robert Winsler (Automation Innovators) knows of any systems to shoot he's at 926-0950 or email@example.com