Smart Houses

Adjusting your thermostat from your Palm Pilot is no longer a sci-fi fantasy. Just ask your talking touchpad.

Like a lot of fathers, Mitchell Harwood was working when his first child, 11-month-old Eric, took his first steps. But that didn't keep him from seeing the milestone moment. When Harwood, bent over a laptop in his home office, heard his wife's joyous calls, he was able to turn back the clock, as it were, and watch Eric in instant replay.

Harwood could do this not because his wife, Fran, was holding a camcorder, but because Eric's first foray was picked up by a tiny infrared camera in the baby's room, one of several inconspicuous video eyes in Harwood's 4,000-square-foot apartment on Park Avenue in Manhattan. All Harwood had to do was walk to the nearest flat-panel plasma-screen TV—there's one embedded in the wall in almost every room—press a few buttons on a touch-screen remote, and relive the big event.

"We have 'All Eric, All the Time,' " says Harwood proudly. "It was great to be able to see it."

Welcome to the 21st century's latest amenity, the smart house. Eric's retrievable strides were only a fringe benefit of a hardwired system that allows the Harwoods to control virtually anything in the apartment that's electric or electronic from touch-screen pads in every room.

The system puts at their fingertips not only the babycam but all the lights and many of the window shades; the security, heating, and central air conditioning systems; and all the household entertainment, including radio, surround-sound stereo, satellite TV, and large collections of CDs and DVDs, all playable in any room. An avid photographer, Harwood enjoys uploading digital pictures of Eric and Fran and scenes from family vacations to make slide shows that can play on all screens at once.

"We have a lot of family in the area," he says. "Seeing pictures on a big screen with a room full of people makes it even more enjoyable."

And then there are the phones, which display voicemail information on an Internet-surfable screen, answer the doorbell, communicate with the doorman in the lobby, and serve as an in-house intercom. Since the phones and all the electronics are linked in a Local Area Network that is tied into the Internet, Harwood can access most of the features from any phone on earth. An investment banker who specializes in restructuring troubled companies, Harwood carries as many as three cell phones and two pagers, and has six phone lines coming into his house. He receives 100 to 250 e-mails a day, many of which need to be answered immediately. Now he can read them on any TV screen in the apartment.

"When you're in the financial industry, your livelihood depends on instant access to information," he says. "This system untethers me from places where I might otherwise be tethered, so I can spend more time with my son. It enables me to live and work seamlessly, regardless of where I am."

Only a few years ago, household automation was the futuristic plaything of mega-moguls like Bill Gates, whose 66,000-square-foot house in Medina, Washington, was said to adjust music, lighting, and climate as guests moved from room to room wearing digital ID pins. Then ordinary multimillionaires got into the act, spending hundreds of thousands or even a million dollars or more to give their sprawling mansions the operational convenience of a simple cottage. More recently, as digital technology has pervaded everything from toasters to thermostats, automation of a more limited sort has trickled down to within the reach of upper-middle class budgets—$10,000 to $50,000—and that is where the growth is today.

Systems like Mitchell Harwood's, which took two years to design and install and cost several hundred thousand dollars, represent the cutting edge in quality and customization. But many middle-class houses are now being designed with, at the very least, a "media room"—a place to watch DVDs on a big-screen flat-panel TV with sound tracks reverberating over wafer-thin speakers hidden in the walls. The "family room" or "den" is quickly becoming an old-fashioned notion, a throwback from the days before ones and zeroes became the lingua franca of daily life. In fact, home theater is one of the fastest-growing segments within custom electronics. Robert Kaufman, president of Audio Command Systems of Westbury, Long Island, one of the nation's largest installers, or "integrators," with revenue last year of $21 million, says his firm builds about 25 home theaters a year that cost $200,000 each. An entry-level package might cost as little as $35,000 and, says Kaufman, "ninety percent of the people in the world would be thrilled with it."

Jason Knott, the editor of CE Pro, a trade journal for integrators, chalks the growth up to "the economy, post-9/11, the whole cocooning issue. People want to stay home." By his estimates, "the average consumer now spends about $1,200 a year on electronics for home use—that's as much as they spend on newspapers, magazines, and airline tickets."

As ranked by CE Pro, the "Top 100 Integrators" grossed $409 million in 2001. Widespread belt-tightening in 2002 dropped the number to $336 million, but this year the trend is again on the rise. The shakeout in the telecom and information technology fields, as well as in the highly competitive home-security-system business, has spurred "a lot of highly skilled technicians to migrate to the residential market," Knott says. "And all of this is happening at the same time that high-speed Internet access is becoming widely available, home networking is catching on, TVs are getting bigger, broadcast TV is going to high-definition, and DVD players and personal video recorders like TiVo have taken the world by storm." In addition, hard-drive-based music systems are making it easy to store, organize, and play hundreds of hours of audio without juggling CDs.

The Internet's role as a catalyst in the smart house boom cannot be overstated. It enables control systems to talk to each other and be connected in a way that is "transparent" to the end-user. And what most increases the budget in home automation is not the quality of the hardware but the quality of what integrators call the "UI," or user interface. "As you pay more," says Jan Vitrofsky, the president and CEO of HED South, a large installation company in Hollywood, Florida, "you get a system that's easier and more intuitive to use."

But as these systems are getting simpler for the person holding the remote control, they are getting more complicated to design and install. "It's kind of like your car," observes Knott. "In the old days you used to be able to work on it. You knew where the carburetor was and the distributor and that sort of stuff. Now it's less likely the consumer can do it himself. So we're seeing a rapid growth in the installation side of the market."

Audio Command Systems, which installed the audio systems in Harwood's apartment, advises that the best time to turn a regular house into a smart house is when it's under construction, because several miles of wire and cable have to be threaded through the walls and ceilings. Things that are smart have brains, and a typical smart house is no exception. All wires lead to a central temperature-controlled data room packed with digital equipment. Feeding into the data room is a power line delivering up to 800 amperes, 200 of which are needed just to run the master control system (200 amps is usually more than enough to run an entire house).

Before any wires are run, ACS dispatches a project coordinator like Don Steinfeld, a sandy-haired 35-year-old former stockbroker, to the client's home for a consultation. In fact, Steinfeld says that he invests a great deal of time and thought in "front-end engineering," planning and design based on many hours of interviewing the client. "I spend many nights on the phone with clients," he says. "I need to understand how their life works, what they're used to, how they entertain, how they relax, and what their needs are—in this job you really are a technology architect."

Steinfeld specializes in ACS' larger jobs, typically $500,000 or more. These almost always include some unique challenge. He recently completed a $300,000 system for the hip-hop entrepreneur Karrem Burke, CEO of Roc-A-Fella records, the label of the rap star Jay-Z. Burke, whose music-biz moniker is Biggs, lives in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in the penthouse of a high-rise apartment building overlooking the Hudson River and George Washington Bridge. Burke likes to scan the Manhattan skyline with a 12-inch motorized telescope he keeps on his balcony.

"The most exciting thing to me now is that I can control the telescope through a remote and watch it on a 60-inch plasma TV screen," he says. Steinfeld also created an audio link from Burke's apartment to a New York studio where Roc-A-Fella often records its artists. "Now I can be home and listen to the session as it's happening and give ideas," says the executive producer. "It's just as effective as being there because it's really about listening to the song."

In a major installation for a corporate executive who is building a 9,000-square-foot home in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, Steinfeld had to ensure that the client could operate all the systems in the home while he was on his yacht. Aside from being able to answer the phone or adjust the security or climate settings while offshore, the executive can also tap into his vast CD and DVD collection and play any selection as easily as if it were on-board. When the house is done, the executive will be able to entertain guests in a 14-seat state-of-the-art movie theater in the basement.

Smart houses haven't been around long enough to have a meaningful track record as investments. "I see pluses and minuses," admits ACS' Kaufman. "Audio and video equipment go down in value as they age, but the underlying control system tends to hold its value." When a smart house is sold, you can take it with you—at least the hardware.

"Is it possible some people won't want to buy this apartment because maintaining the system is complicated?" asks Harwood. "It's possible. But on balance, it's more likely that I'll find someone who will consider it an enhancement. And in this price bracket, people are not going to maintain it themselves. They'll get professionals to do it."

Electricity consumption also cuts both ways. Well-programmed lighting, heating and cooling, and automatic window shades can actually promote energy efficiency. "The cost of running the electronics is marginal compared to central air-conditioning," says Harwood. "The big issue is really the fees you pay for all the services—satellite TV, satellite radio, Replay TV, all the phone lines."

The future, it seems, will only bring more services to manage. Biometrics is just taking off. That includes things like fingerprint or retinal scanners (à la Mission: Impossible). Smarter kitchens are just over the horizon. Bar-code scanners in the fridge and pantry will notice when you're running low on a staple and automatically reorder from an Internet grocery store. Then there are home weather stations, voice recognition software, and the ability to control your house from a PDA. "Actually, everything is doable now," says Vitrofsky. "It's just a matter of bringing the price down."

And working out the kinks. Harwood cautions that "the debugging period goes on for a really long time. The more you want to customize it, the more patient you have to be." For example, getting the doorbell to ring with a unique tone on the phones was not that hard. "But having the phone stop ringing after you answer the door—that was something people hadn't focused on."

All this might make a Thoreau-like life in a cabin in the woods sound appealing, but for some there's just no putting the computerized genie back in the bottle. Steinfeld, the ace installer, has become such a connoisseur of home theater technology that he no longer enjoys going to a movie theater.

"The first thing I notice is the blemishes on the screen," he says. "Then the projection equipment, the seats, the sound usually don't measure up. I can never get the exact seat I want—in the 'hot spot' of the room. I have to go to a brand-new theater, if I'm going to go at all. I know all the multiplexes in the area, and which theaters in them are decent. So I'll call up and say, 'Is it playing in theater 3?' Because if it's not, I'm not going."

How about your wife and friends? Wouldn't they rather do anything than go to a movie with you?

"No, most everyone in my life is into this. It's a labor of love. I have no hobbies outside of what I do. This is my hobby. This is what drives me."

It can be a consuming passion, no doubt. As Harwood puts it, "This is so cool it's unbelievable. I'm commanding the technology instead of it commanding me."


Components for Connoisseurs

When assembling a smart house, it's important to remember that the company you choose for the job doesn't actually make all the components; it only installs them so they interact seamlessly. If you're an audiophile, techie, or computer whiz, you'll want to know who manufactures all your parts. Some of the brands integrators swear by are familiar: Crown amplifiers, Nakamichi tape decks, McIntosh amps and tuners, Krell speakers. Other names will be unfamiliar, but within the world of home automation they are as vaunted as Rolex and Rolls-Royce. Here are a few of the hottest:

CRESTRON touchpanels have high-resolution screens that can be programmed to display the controls of all the systems in the house. They're available in hardwired and wireless versions. LUTRON is the leader in wall-mounted lighting-control keypads. All the lights and window shades in a room can be adjusted to preset levels at the touch of a button. AUDIO REQUEST makes sophisticated digital music servers that function like industrial-strength iPods with hard-drive storage space for up to 6,500 CDs. FAROUDJA digital video processors provide the brains for some of the best video-projection systems, which often feature RUNCO projectors. To make the most of an HDTV signal, Runco also produces high-resolution flat-panel plasma TVs that are a mere five inches thick but have screens measuring up to 61 inches diagonally. CINEMATECH makes mogul-ready seating for home theaters. The motorized recliners are custom-made in Germany and covered with hand-picked leathers.


Smart House Smarts

There are more home automation companies out there than you can shake a wireless remote at—about 20,000 nationwide. Choosing the right one is not unlike choosing a doctor: The more questions you ask, the more confident you'll be in making a decision. The Internet is a good place to gather information before you start your search.

The CONSUMER ELECTRONICS ASSOCIATION Web site maintains a database of more than 1,000 member companies at www.ce.org/integratorsearch. The CEA is a trade organization of manufacturers and dealers that offers its members training and certification in various technologies. Its TECHHOME division (www.ce.org/techhomerating) has primers on evaluating the tech-readiness of your home and understanding the kinds of systems that are available. Of similar utility is the "Find a Designer" area of the CUSTOM ELECTRONIC DESIGN & INSTALLATION ASSOCIATION (www.cedia.net). It offers links to lots of leading equipment manufacturers and integrators. CE-PRO MAGAZINE (www.ce-pro.com) publishes an annual list of the 100 largest installation companies. Large companies like those in the top 100 tend to offer more services and have well-established track records. Still, a company too small to make this list is not necessarily a poor choice and could give you as much or even more personal attention.