Wired for Reconstruction

To look at the interior of this house in San Francisco, one does not immediately recognize it as 100 years old. Thanks to a complete gutting and reconstruction, this house will see another hundred years, doing so in technological style. It is filled with features and functions any tech-lover would want.

The homeowner wanted control of as many elements of the house as possible. Total control is accomplished through the one-of-a-kind, touch-screen control panel, which is based on the home’s floor plan. The control system allows the user to touch a specific room on the layout to gain control of everything in it.

“All our touch panels are floor-plan based,” says Randy Stearns, president, Engineered Environments in Alameda, Calif. “Every project we do includes the floor-plan-based control. Homeowners can visually go from floor to floor and room to room to observe the status of windows, doors, motion detectors, occupancy, temperature, lighting or if the TV is on. They can get full feedback on everything that is going on in the house.”

Few if any electronics contractors use a floor-plan-based touch-panel, Stearns says, because it’s very complex and difficult to execute. “We’ve got a full-time graphics interface developer on staff to create these controls. It’s a challenge, and is not something that is easily done.”

A total of 14 touch panels of varying size throughout the house controls everything. The larger 12-in. touch panels are for whole-house control with one per floor. Wireless units also provide whole-house control but in locations where the home-owner might want to move around with it, Stearns explains.

“The one in the theater is just for theater control. He has one panel in his office, and one in the pool room where there was not a good in-wall location. The 4-in. panels are for smaller rooms like the master bath where they don’t need to control as many things except maybe the music, or TV or basic lighting. There’s also a panel at the front door that acts as a security keypad, plus other functions if they choose to use them,” Stearns says.

The best feature of the house, according to Stearns, is the ability to have whole-house control through one single, easy-to-use interface. “The floor-plan touch-panel control is the ultimate in home electronics,” he says.

Specifically for a sports junkie, the best feature is in the theater room, where a video scaling device splits multiple inputs into four different windows on one large screen, or combines them into one large image. “There are many different ways to configure the screen. From a touch screen, the owner can go to the multiview format, and select which window to control, and also which one he wants the audio to be coming from.”

Engineered Environments designed versatility into the controls. From a main whole-house touch panel, anyone can see which TV is on in which room, and what source is selected; TiVo or DVD or XM or am/fm radio, for example. “And if the equipment delivering a source is capable of providing feedback, the home-owner can see what’s actually being watched or listened to,” Stearns says.

Old house, new technology

Much like the final score of a baseball game does not tell the game’s entire story, neither do the photos of this house. The 8,000-sq.-ft. 100-year-old house sits in front of a level street on a downhill lot facing the bay, says architect Bill Remick, president, Remick Associates in Oakland, Calif. “The outside is traditional looking but has a contemporary wow factor on the inside,” he says.

“We shored up the street and hollowed the back yard and added a garage underneath,” Remick adds. “We gutted the interior and designed it to gain amenities. It was a simple old boxy house with a stairway with many landings that dominated the interior. We modified it so it is a continuous curving stairway that is the main traffic path through the house.”

A complete gutting and reconstruction of the home’s interior was necessary to accommodate everything the owner wanted. In a 100-year-old house that wasn’t designed for modern-day lifestyles, it was tough to meet the owner’s demands. The difficulty of cramming everything the owner wanted into the house was enough to test the skills of any veteran architect.

“We started with the challenge of getting the garage approved and the rest was really a shoehorn effort trying to fit everything into this space,” Remick says. “There is one major stairway in this five-story house. If it were built new today, you’d be required to have two means of egress, but there was no room for that here. I suggested an elevator, too, but (the owner) did not want to dedicate the space for it.”

In typical installations, Engineered Environments creates a dedicated equipment room in each house. But because the extensive whole-house electronics system was not part of the original plan for the house, there wasn’t room. The owner did not compromise his desires, so equipment was placed in any available space, and hidden as best as possible. A few equipment racks went into the exercise room closet, and some were installed in other rooms.

“There are two in the home theater, one in the penthouse, in his office, her office — a total of 12. Typically all of those would be centrally located,” Stearns explains. “We used a cubby hole under the stairs to terminate all the voice and data wires. We had to make use of every available piece of space. The challenge was that the electronics were not planned for in the original design of the house.”

The project grew as it progressed, and the homeowner kept adding features such as home technology, which explains why Engineered Environments was brought in late in the game, Remick says. “As the owner became more enthused with the house, he realized it’s where he wants to stay so he started asking for exactly what he wanted.”

The challenge with this home, as with many others, is to fit in all the features and not have it look like a technological monstrosity, Remick says. “In any house, you want to include all of the smart-home technology as unobtrusively as possible. For example, in this exercise room there are sliding panels on both sides of the TV that conceal two full racks of electronics equipment,” he explains.

Both Remick and Stearns agree the homeowner had high expectations which he would not compromise. “As an example, we planned plasma TVs in some locations, and we pulled their specs off the Internet and printed the cut sheet that showed dimensions,” Stearns explains. “We used the specs to build custom recesses out of exotic woods. When the TVs arrived, they were different dimensions than what the cut sheets said. We had a meeting with the architect, builder, client and interior designer. So we came up with alternatives to make it look OK with what we had built. But the owner said to rip out the walls and make it right. Thankfully the general contractor got creative and didn’t have to actually rip out the walls, and the work ended up being more minor than major. (Bill) Remick worked very well with us to accommodate the electronics.”

Bring electronics in early

Involving an electronic systems contractor early in any project creates the ability for the design team to integrate electronics into the décor of a home. “The last thing we want is for the electronics to look like an afterthought,” Stearns says. “We want to use in-floor subwoofers and speaker grilles that match the décor. But you can’t do that if you’re not brought in early enough.”

Pitfalls can exist, however. “We were under contract with the homeowner on this project, and that sometimes causes friction with the builder as we are not viewed as part of the team. So there can be less of an inclination to work together,” Stearns says. “But if we’re under contract with the builder, then we’d be their sub. In terms of smoothness we prefer working for the builder. But as a business model, for being paid better, I prefer to work with the homeowner.”

Until recently, electronics contractors were not one of the common construction team members, Remick notes. “We have to get used to thinking of them as a trade partner, and there’s a learning curve with that.”

With all its electronic tools and toys, the best element of this house is the client’s happiness with it, Remick says. “That’s always the bottom line. It’s true to its intent, and it responds to the various tastes and desires of the owner. My philosophy is to do a professional job and not force clients into anything. On top of all this, we retained a 100-year-old house so it has another hundred years of life.”