Planning a High-Tech Home

Emily Brooks reveals what it takes to build an intelligent, one-touch control home
Emily Brooks
by Emily Brooks
26th November 2012

You may not think you have a smart home, but everyone has one to some extent: from security lights that come on when you enter your driveway to an iPod dock in the kitchen, we all own some technology that makes our lives a little easier.

Case study: Smart Home

This house in London (pictured above) has been been refurbished and extended to offer four-storey living.

As part of the overhaul, Cyber Homes was asked to integrate automated control systems for the lighting, blinds and curtains, audio-visual equipment and heating.

The finished installation runs off a Control 4 hub, with a Rako wired system controlling the LED lighting, blinds and curtains according to pre-programmed, fully customisable settings and scenes.

Multiple heating zones are controlled at the touch of a button with the Heatmiser system, which links to remote thermostats and underfloor sensors.

When it comes to having a truly intelligent home, however, the future really has arrived. Fingerprint or face-recognition entry systems, windows that automatically close when it rains and heating that you can control remotely are all part of the here and now, and the possibilities for automating your home are bewilderingly complex.

Getting started

There are plenty of stand-alone features available. These include everything from remote control curtain tracks to glass that changes from opaque to transparent, as well as surveillance, entertainment or lighting systems. More manufacturers are launching products that can be controlled remotely: Worcester Bosch, for example, unveils its Netcom100 system later this year, which allows you to phone or text your boiler to turn it on before you get home.

While this non-integrated approach can have impressive results, you may find that operating each feature separately doesn’t save much time. And as Matthew Tillman, director of upmarket automation specialists Gibson Music, points out: “You can have stand-alone systems for lighting, security, heating and so on, but you’ll end up with ‘wall acne’ where there are control panels everywhere.”

Good home automation systems should be seamless, and advances in technology now make that possible. “No single manufacturer offers everything – one that does entertainment won’t do lighting and heating, for example,” says Jane Scotland, chair of CEDIA (the membership body for the home automation industry). “Ideally you want to end up with one touch panel for everything.”

That single, simple panel really will do everything, from setting the scene with mood lighting to letting you check your e-mails. Send a text message to your system to tell it you’re on the way home and it’ll switch on the heating, turn on the lights as you enter the room, then run you a bath and play your favourite music – and you will have barely lifted a finger. There’s an important energy-saving aspect to all this automation, too: zoned temperature and lighting controls mean that you never use more energy than you need and never accidentally leave a light on.

Planning ahead

This is all good news for making our lives easier, but it can be daunting if you’re at the start of a building project and don’t know what you need, and, crucially, what you might need in a few years’ time. A specialist home automation company will be able to advise on the right products for you, knit them together with custom-designed software, do all the wiring and infrastructure and then offer aftercare should anything go wrong or you want to upgrade later on.

“Think about what you want right at the beginning of the project,” says Jane Scotland. “Decisions like where you want your TVs – and what you want to watch on those TVs – are determined at first fix.” Retrofitting cabling is best avoided, but not impossible with a good builder and electrician on hand, and may be your only option if you are renovating.

The other main planning issue is storage for your central processor – the ‘brain’ of your system – and all the associated bits of kit. If you want to access Sky and Blu-ray movies in four rooms of your house, for example, then you’ll need four Blu-ray players and four Sky boxes stacked up somewhere, ideally in a cool place. “A lot of people use basements or plant rooms, but they need to be ventilated or cooled with air conditioning if possible,” says Matthew Tilman. “A heat recovery unit that extracts the hot air and uses it to warm up your home is an alternative to air-con. You should also allow extra space to upgrade the system.”

You may wonder why you need cabling when so much can be done wirelessly these days. “There’s a reliability issue – new houses are better insulated, and insulation is very good at blocking signals,” says Jane Scotland. “It’s also about capacity. TV signals take a lot of bandwidth but a wireless signal just can’t cope. It’s best to install a combination of wired and wireless systems, using cables to get as close as you can and then wireless technology within each room.”

Setting a budget

Costs for building an intelligent home vary hugely. The good news is that prices are coming down for products that used to be very expensive, such as cinema-quality projector screens. New, inexpensive control systems are now coming onto the market. They may have less components and capabilities than high-end brands, but are fine for the average homeowner’s needs.

Your dream set-up will probably far outstrip your budget, so be prepared to scale down your ambitions. “It’s less about cutting corners and more about prioritising what you really want,” says Matthew Tillman. “You could have smaller speakers, or a more compact touch screen panel that might not control your security but will do everything else, for example.” Matthew estimates that £20,000-£30,000 could buy you audio-visual reach in several rooms, intelligent lighting and a cinema room.

“Try to make your smart home adaptable and future proof,” says Iain Gordon from GES digital. “Installing cabling everywhere, even if you don’t need it yet, is very cheap. Doing so for a three- or four-bed house would cost £1,000 and give you complete flexibility.” But don’t assume running reels of Cat5 cabling means the job’s done: for example, fibre-optic cable is now becoming the standard way to distribute large amounts of data. It’s more expensive than Cat5 (about £3.50 a metre versus 70p a metre) and you need to make sure your electrician has worked with it before, as it’s a delicate product. This is a time of transition for cabling technology, so it makes sense to ask an expert for advice.

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