Using screens and touch panels throughout this Starr Systems-equipped home, homeowners can control window coverings and lighting, access their digital music and video collections, adjust heating and cooling systems and use live video feeds to monitor children playing in other parts of the house.
In the murky past, new homes were built with only two wiring systems, one for electricity and one for phone service. Modern life demands more. "The combined growth of personal home computers, consumer electronics, entertainment systems and home security products—not to mention the dynamic evolution of the technology behind them—has prompted builders to increasingly offer wiring schemes that enable whole-house communications, data and audio-visual sharing and other features," says Jeff Carpenter, president of Monticello Homes, a local building firm specializing in high-end custom properties.
Typically consisting of a combination of high-tech Category 5 wiring and coaxial cable, so-called "structured" or advanced wiring schemes allow homeowners to customize their use of technology to meet their individual needs. According to the National Association of Home Builders, 34 percent of homebuilders now offer structured wiring packages as standard or optional amenities. Fiber-optic cable is also available, but its installation is more difficult and expensive. (Bill Gates's $30-million Seattle home reportedly has miles of fiber-optic cable. Guests receive computer chips on entering that control lights, temperature and other settings as they move through the sprawling complex.)
When plans for a new luxury home include structured wiring, many different built-in home automation technologies become possible. The gamut runs from a fairly simple security system that will alert you via your computer at work should something be amiss back at home, to complete home-automation systems that seamlessly integrate home-entertainment systems, indoor and outdoor lighting, appliances, lawn sprinkler systems, climate control systems and Internet access points.
Starr Systems is a Baltimore-based provider of home automation systems that can be customized to meet the needs of any homeowner. Company president Sean Weiner says the important thing, when building a new home, is to get an automation firm involved as early as possible so that the wiring and the placement of screens, speakers and sensors throughout the house and landscape can be integrated in the overall design in the most cost-effective manor.
Once installation is complete, homeowners can control the entire system thanks to portable touch panels that can be mounted in dedicated wall niches, set in countertop cradles or carried around the house. Using the portable panels, homeowners can then program lighting designs that respond to motion detectors. They can access any of their music or video files stored in a central memory bank and play them in any room that's outfitted with built-in speakers or a screen. They can schedule the raising and lowering of motorized window shades. Or they can set a time for towel warmers to come on in the pool house, and the pool filter to start up prior to a morning swim.
While Starr Systems primarily works with individual homeowners, the company, which was founded in 1994, is currently outfitting Baltimore's Silo Point condominium community with the very latest home automation technologies. "In fact, what we're doing at Silo Point includes not just home automation, but amenities control as well," says Weiner. "We are establishing a system that will allow residents to schedule an appointment in the spa or fitness center, order food to be delivered from the restaurants that will be in the building, schedule service with a local dry cleaner and have packages brought up from the concierge desk. If the building's amenities package ultimately includes valet service, residents will be able to ask for one of their cars to be brought up from the garage, and will be able to see on the touch panel's video screen that the car is waiting for them out front." All of Starr Systems capabilities are on display in the company's Baltimore showroom, which Weiner describes as "Disneyland for adults."
David Hehman, CEO of EscapeHomes.com in San Francisco, says the new automation technologies have special applications in vacation properties or any homes that stay unoccupied for stretches of time. "Sensor technologies are improving so rapidly," he says. "They can sense if there is moisture in your vacation home's basement in Wisconsin and alert you when you're in Chicago." Your system can also be programmed for specific lighting scenes that give the home a lived-in appearance, deterring break-ins while you are away.
Though wireless "wi-fi" systems are coming on the market, Hehman believes the better choice is structured wiring. "In new construction, you have the opportunity to install it that you don't have in an existing home," he says. "The cost to implement it is so little and they add so much, builders would be crazy not to put some of this stuff in."
Weiner agrees that structured wiring is the most reliable means of achieving home automation, though he concedes the wireless systems have their place. "If you're doing a retrofit or a renovation," he says, "wireless can be a good choice."
The modern home office is another beneficiary of structured wiring. “At last count, more than four million people worked full time from home,” says Monticello’s Jeff Carpenter, “and professional builders are making space in their floor plans to meet the need for a work space that is separate, private and increasingly sophisticated. This trend is sure to continue as work and home management evolve in response to advances in electronic and communication science.” Market-savvy builders, says Carpenter, will be ready to meet the needs of such clients.