The Multipurpose Media Room

A media room can take many forms. It can resemble a movie theater, a combination family/TV room, or a game room with pool tables, video games and multiple TVs. For homeowners with no space to spare for a dedicated home theater, designing a multipurpose family or game room is the popular choice.

Home technology is in more demand than ever. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, sales of consumer electronics will grow 8 percent in 2006 and 6 percent in 2007 as home sales are predicted to slide. For home technology, triple-digit growth was seen between 2004 and 2005 in purchases of lighting controls, home automation and energy management, based on a CEA survey of 998 adults who purchased or planned to purchase a new home in the previous or subsequent 12 months.

The CEA survey also reveals that for home buyers who did not purchase a multiroom audio system or a home theater system, 23 percent say they regret that decision. In addition, only 60 percent of home automation systems and 43 percent of home theater systems were installed during construction of the new home. The remaining systems were installed within a year of construction, to which the CEA reminds builders they are missing out on sales opportunities in these product areas.

Sight, light and height

Builders and architects might not always ask a customer enough questions, or the right questions, and end up with a media room that is not designed for how the customer actually will use it, says Clinton Howell, general manager/founder, Howell and Associates in Burlington, Ontario. “Above all a media room has to be functional. Builders and designers must think about the intended functionality, and plan around how many people will be in the room at once, or at most. For example, provide quality seating with good viewing angles.”

Any multipurpose room by its nature will have a pathway through it, so it’s important to position the main traffic route at the back of a room so people don’t walk in front of the screen, says Josh Christian, vice president of marketing, DSI Entertainment Systems in Studio City, Calif. Open archways and doorways should be eliminated, and doors should be installed as a way to close off the room, he adds.

Sight lines are important in media rooms so a specific approach is taken for creating them, says Scott Sullivan, president, Soundvision in Novato, Calif. “In a dedicated theater, we dictate where people sit, the screen size and its location, and then we tell a designer to design around our plans because first and foremost, watching movies is the purpose of the room. Whereas in a family room that also serves as the media room, the client dictates what the room looks like. Then I lobby for changes that make the media experience better in that room. But ultimately we take a designer’s concept and integrate my design into their concept.”

In family rooms that double as media rooms, typically homeowners want a plasma over the fireplace. In these situations, Sullivan drops everything as low as he can, including the fireplace and, preferably, eliminates the mantel because in a perfect world the TV should be 28 in. above the floor, he says. “I want to pull that stuff down to get it as low as possible because you’ll be in here watching TV and the height will annoy you. And tilting it will not fix the problem. Based on human ergonomics, with the head level and eyes looking up, it’ll be five minutes before you’re falling asleep.”

Sight lines are directly related to the layout of the room and furniture placement within it, says Bob Foust, vice president, Electronic Creations in Orlando, Fla., but so is lighting control, which a builder might not consider. Incoming light through windows can wash out a TV picture, he explains. “You can address this by making sure windows are located so they don’t create glare on the screen. But many people don’t do this because of the level of flexibility required, so we can add motorized shades or window treatments that block out the sunlight. These treatments can be made invisible so they are stealth-operated.”

Stealth is important to interior designers, who must be included early in a project. Upon entering a project, Darlene Jurow, ASID, CID, ASID past president, and principal, Jurow Design Associates in Lafayette, Calif. (, works with all the specialists involved. “Their jobs are to make everything work, and my job is to make it work beautifully. When people are spending this kind of money, they want as much as possible to be invisible, and flawless. My job is to make it look like the electronics are not there until they want them to be seen,” she says.

“I don’t feel you need to cover up a TV in a private gym or a bedroom; not in a private space. But in a living room you should try to cover it. Only now with the wall-hung flat screens, people really don’t want to cover them up. They’re a status symbol,” she says.

Sound control makes sense

In addition to proper traffic flow, TV height and viewing angles, it’s important to create a soundstage in the room that is relative to the seating and display placement, Sullivan says. The soundstage has to match the monitor location otherwise action on screen is out of synch with the sound.

To accomplish this, close collaboration between architect, electronics contractor and interior designer is essential. First a wiring schematic is supplied to ensure component positions are accounted for, Christian says. “But many builders or architects don’t realize the dimensions of a room can affect bass quality. If the dimensions are multiples of each other (10 by 20 by 30) the sound is terrible; the room becomes boomy. Typically an architect is not thinking about that. So if they give me size parameters for a room, I’ll work the math and tell you what dimensions will sound the best.”

Builders also should pay attention to how a media room can be closed off, Christian adds. If a room is not closed off properly, bass travels into the next room. “If we can contain the bass, it won’t disturb others in the home. To take that further, we can request construction details such as stagger-stud construction or double walls. Double walls have an air gap between the two sides because air is an excellent insulator.”

Soundproofing should be addressed at the framing stage, adds Howell, who advises architects to think of soundproofing as controlling weather. “Imagine you had a storm in a media room. How would you contain it? Sound will leave any room through air leaks. Trying to isolate that room from an airflow perspective involves HVAC, so if pot lights are not sealed, your mid and high frequencies will go right through those spaces. But having an airtight room is not enough because you’ll still hear the low frequencies. Bass can be stopped with double-studded walls; or create a wall surface that’s not connected to the next surface. Or make things heavy so they’re hard to vibrate, like double-drywall glued together. What’s best is concrete walls.”

Howell equates a well-designed media room to a sports car. “A Ferrari is a Ferrari because of the engineering and components that went into it, not because of what it looks like. Appearance is the last thing. The same applies to a media room.”

Add dedicated power circuits to the list of issues a custom builder might not think of, says Scott Jordan, systems consultant, Electronics Design Group in Piscataway, N.J. “And if you’ve got cable or satellite, the outlet in the garage that’s powering those components should be on the same phase as the a/v equipment. If not, you can see ghosts and noise in the video. We educate electricians on that all the time.”

Ultimately the most important feature of a media room is ease of use. “For as much as our clients spend, if you don’t have a good control system that’s intuitive and babysitter-proof, they’re never going to find value in it,” Jordan says. Expect the control system to cost 25 to 30 percent of the entire media system.

Get involved early

Involving an electronic systems contractor early in a project can guarantee success by addressing issues such as space requirements. “We can wire the house so the rack of components is not in the media room itself. If builders call me early, we can stick components hidden away in a dedicated closet. Also, we can ask a builder to make the component room its own HVAC zone with independent controls,” Christian says.

Too often electronics contractors are called too late in the process to maximize their effectiveness. “A builder came to me and said he’s got two weeks to the drywall stage and asked what I could do,” Jordan notes. “I told him that for me to do the preparation paperwork properly would take two weeks at a minimum. Then I’d have to order parts, and then I’d be able to get in there. I’ve got to be brought in earlier to do a good job.”

Sullivan has a solution to these problems. “I believe there should be a standard process in all construction projects. It should start with a homeowner and architect deciding on the look and flow of the home. Then an interior designer should do a space plan, including furniture and how traffic should flow. They should consider the clients’ lifestyle, which spaces they will use and when, and how they will entertain,” he explains.

“Then they should take the space plan to a lighting designer. The space plan and lighting plan should be brought to the electronics systems contractor while it’s all still on paper. We look at that space and might play with the designer’s space plan, make changes to the positioning of the fireplace, window and door locations, seating, all based on how these elements make sense relative to the portions of the home that relate to our world. This would be a good process to follow,” he says.

Sullivan believes if homeowners are involving an electronics contractor in their project, they already know the difference between them and going to Best Buy. “We’re at an equal level with architects and interior designers. It’s my responsibility to inform clients of all the options available to them, and the repercussions of their decisions based on that information. My job, just like an architect’s job, is not about dragging the client on my journey; it’s about guiding them on their own journey. But simply giving an uneducated client exactly what he asks for is not exactly what’s best for him, and it’s our job to point out the difference.”