From CCTV to mood lighting, today’s high-tech homes give you total control of your living space
For years there have been predictions about just what 21st-century living would be like. Robots as house help, anyone? Hover cars and holidays on the moon? Well, only the robot cleaners are anywhere near arriving, but the “smart home” — technology designed to make home life simpler, more luxurious and more efficient — certainly has.
Plasma and LCD screens, broadband internet and wireless connectivity have become mainstream, while technology more often associated with millionaires’ row — remote-controlled gates, CCTV, home cinemas, and the like — is slipping into ordinary city flats, traditional country piles and suburban semis. Britain is embracing a Jetsons lifestyle.
So what is smart technology — or rather, what can smart technology do for you? The answer is many, many things. It is being able to use your (hands-free) mobile phone while driving home from work to run a bath that will be ready the second you walk through the door; it is getting up in the morning, pressing a button next to your bed and having the shower already running — at the perfect temperature — by the time you reach the bathroom. It is pressing another button and watching your lights slowly ramp up to a level you have preset, so there’s no stumbling around a dark house on a bleak, wintry morning.
Was that the door bell? Check who is outside on your nearest LCD screen, which has come on automatically to show you. Forget about fumbling in that messy handbag for your door keys: the lock is activated by your fingerprint or iris. Scan the bar codes of food going into your high-tech refrigerator before discarding wrapping — your next shopping list is compiled.
No more dashing for a cuppa during commercial breaks to avoid missing a scene of your favourite soap: flatscreens in every room mean you won’t miss a second. Imagine having broadband internet, all your television channels — digital, Sky and terrestrial — all your films and your entire music collection in every room. That music is playing from invisible speakers, buried in the plaster of the walls.
“We’ve had clients who can lie in bed in their attic bedroom and part of the glass in the roof above them will slide back, so they can look at the stars or let cool air in on a hot night,” says Robin Courtenay, a director of SMC (www.smc-uk.com), a London-based smart-technology installer. “The roof will have rain sensors so that it closes automatically if it rains.”
In the living room of Alan Grosvenor’s luxurious three-bedroom flat in Kent, smart technology means by pressing only one button he can close the electric window blinds, slowly dim the lights, lower an 8ft projector screen from the ceiling and electrically drop a framed picture on the opposite wall to reveal a projector, transforming the room into a home cinema. Grosvenor knows exactly how smart technology can make his life easier: he installed the kit with his business partner, Jason Lawrence; the pair run Sevenoaks Sound & Vision (01865 241 773, www.ssav.com), a specialist installation firm.
Christiane Wuillamie’s two-bed mews house in South Kensington also gives a taste of the future: cabling, installed when she converted the property, links telephones, computers, a multi-room hi-fi system, the television and the burglar alarm, allowing her to watch pictures from security cameras on the television screen. A Sonos sound system sends a different track from more than 500 albums to speakers in each room.
“Christiane and her family can network their computers and their in-house music system, and plug in their laptops in any room,” says Jason Vaughan, of Kensington Home Technology, (020 7731 4272, www.kensingtonhometechnology.com), who did the work.
So you can have the earth and more. But how exactly do you get it? If you want the kind of super-duper pad that would stun even James Bond, then you should turn to a “custom integrator” company that will build you a tailor-made home network.
The Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (Cedia) has an online members directory (www.cedia.co.uk ). An installer should provide a complete service: design the system, work with architects, interior designers and other contractors to project manage the installation and, crucially, show you how to use it. They should also provide postinstallation support.
So where do you start? Set aside thoughts of fancy gadgets for a moment: the bedrock of a smart home is the cabling, hidden in the fabric of your house. This is connected to easy-to-use control pads, attached to walls much like light switches: one for each room is best — try Crestron (www.crestron.co.uk) and AMX (www.amxcontrols.co.uk) for stylish brushed-chrome versions.
Usually, Cat5, the standard cabling used for data and telephony, should suffice. Many control pads are compatible with Cat5, but some, such as those from Crestron and AMX, require specialist power cables to go with them (your installer will specify), and there is also speaker cabling, high-quality cables for video signals and HDMI cables to connect your Sky or digital boxes to your television.
Want to convert your shed into a home office with broadband internet? Then you will require externally rated Cat5 cables, which will be contained in a pipe and laid in a trench; normal Cat5 is not designed to withstand exposure to the elements and will rust.
Once the cabling is installed, you can turn on the radio, play music, control lights, raise or lower blinds or curtains, crank up heating in winter, cool the house via air conditiong in summer, take off the swimming pool cover, activate your spa bath …
Want to do the run-the-bath-on-the-way-home-from-work trick? Have your integrator set up your network so you can use your mobile phone or the internet from any computer, to turn on the taps until the bath is full, and then cut out.
There are several different ways to construct a system, but by far the most popular method is to have all of the functions “star wired” back to a central point in the house, such as a cupboard, where any bulky equipment, such as amplifiers, is stored. Every function is individually wired, so even though they are controlled by a single keypad, if any one system shuts down, it won’t take the entire network with it.
A good place to start looking at what you can do, and how to do it, is the T3 Smart Home Show at Birmingham’s NEC later this month. More than 60 “smart” companies will be demonstrating the latest in multi-room entertainment; audiovisual equipment; lighting, communications and security systems; wireless technology; and intelligent appliances.
So what does a smart home cost? There is no such thing as a typical installation. It is a bespoke service based on your home’s size and the technology you install. You can spend as little as £5,000 or hundreds of thousands of pounds, but installers generally agree that £35,000 will go a long way towards fully automating a four- to five-bedroom family home.
For that money, you could control lighting and electrics, have an audiovisual distribution system that will feed music and images to every room in the house, and a decent cinema room. A high-end installation might include a multi-home entertainment system giving you access to music, films and televi-sion from any zone in the house; a wired and wireless data network so you can have broadband, internet and telephone connections anywhere as well; and bespoke lighting programmes: press one switch and the lighting dims for a romantic dinner; press another, and the lights will go out gradually as you leave the house.
Where smart technology really comes into its own is in improving home security. This does not just entail CCTV monitoring. Lighting and blinds can be controlled electronically to create the illusion that people are at home. “Holiday” settings can monitor your living patterns for two weeks before you leave, then, while you are away, simulate your usual movements. Forget about outside flood-lights that come on if an intruder steps on your premises at night; smart technology will also switch lights on inside the house, as if the homeowner is getting up to check on things.
All this high-tech kit represents a substantial investment. Will it add value to your home? Robert Bailey, a high-end, London-based buying agent, says there is definitely demand for smart homes among his wealthy clients.
“At this stage you can’t say that smart technology would add a certain percentage to your property,” Bailey says. “But if you take an unmodernised flat selling at £1,000 per sq ft, on the back of adding smart technology you might expect to get between £1,300 and £1,500 per sq ft.”
If you want to get smart, but don’t want to blow the budget, install the correct wires and outlets to “future-proof” your home first and worry about connecting the gadgets later. The cables can lie in wait under floorboards and behind your walls until you need them, until you can afford to add technology, or until new products come on the market.
Today’s nursery, for example, is tomorrow’s home office if the broadband outlets are already there. There are also off-the-shelf products available for not much at all, while wireless technology can provide an alternative to cabling.
One of the dilemmas associated with smart technology is the knotty issue of how we can have all these timesaving features without damaging the environment.
“The biggest problem — and the most easy to remedy — is the needless wastage of energy from devices left in standby mode,” says Jim Hill, editor of T3 Home magazine. In particular, he is keen to encourage the sales of devices that use minimal amounts of energy when left in standby mode.
Smart technology can also be combined with green technology such as geothermal heat pumps, photovoltaic cells, solar panels and wind turbines.
Indeed, one of the core ideas behind smart homes — that equipment turns on and off precisely when you want it — should help to cut down on energy wastage.
“Climate control for the home should improve energy management by ensuring the home is not overheated,” says Michael Holmes, the editor-in-chief of Homebuilding & Renovating magazine. It is vital, though, to ensure savings are not offset by greater use of air conditioning, a massive user of energy.
Hugh Whalley, business manager of Siemens Smart Home Technology, believes Britain’s increasingly erratic climate will encourage people to control a home’s temperature while they are away so that they will be more economical in energy consumption.
“Using a mobile phone, the capacity to control your home and its boiler to cope with a sudden cold snap one day, followed by 16C heat the next, will come into its own,” says Whalley. He believes that in 10 years’ time every home will have a cabled system that makes it a smart home. Judging by our appetite for luxury technology, it seems inevitable. But, as for that hover car, don’t hold your breath.
Additional reporting, Karen Robinson
– Cedia’s consumer guide to the integrated home is released next month
World at their fingertips
Adam Kent’s 7,500sq ft home, outside Solihull in the West Midlands, which he shares with his girlfriend, Vikki Abrahard, 29, and his three children, Faye, 11, Isabelle, 9, and Luke, 8, looks like a traditional country pile.
Inside, however, its 28 rooms, including six bedrooms, six bathrooms and three cinemas, have huge plasma screens and multiple lighting circuits. Films and music tracks are downloaded onto a hard drive and distributed with radio, TV and the internet to every room.
“I can start watching a DVD in the cinema room, press pause, go to the bathroom, watch half-an-hour in the bath, press pause and finish watching in the bedroom,” says Kent, 43, who runs his own smart technology firm, Install Automation (0121 200 1031, 08708 550 010, www.installautomation.com). He spent more than £100,000 “smartening” up his home.
He can also control the property from anywhere in the world, via the internet or a mobile phone.
“If we’re all eating in the kitchen, one press of a button or click of a remote can immediately switch off all the other lights,” he says. “So bedroom lights are not left burning because the kids keep forgetting to switch them off.”
Lighting moods can be preset; the couple have “romantic”, “reading” and “chill” levels, for example. A button by the front door automatically activates the lights the family normally use each evening.
If one of them is coming home to an empty house, they can text ahead to put on the lights, heating or air-conditioning. Sensors installed in the ceiling and walls mean that at night, if anyone gets up, dim lights turn on automatically.
Smart home technology really comes into its own when it comes to home security, and the set-up at Kent’s home is a good example of how improved it can be. For a start, there are some 16 CCTV cameras. If the family are planning a holiday, a setting for lights and curtains monitors their routine for a fortnight and then mimics it while they are away. Kent is contacted — anywhere in the world — if the doorbell is pressed, and he can transmit a voice response, so it sounds as though he’s home.
Kent says his children are better at operating the controls than he is — and he’s a professional.
“They love it,” he says. “My 11-year-old daughter loves being able to listen to her music anywhere in the house.” Smart technology means other family members can listen to what they like as well: more than 2,000 CDs are loaded onto the music system, and different music can be heard throughout the house at the same time. “And they all love having friends over to the cinema rooms,” says their father.
The children’s televisions are controlled by him, so he can determine exactly how much television — and what programmes — they are allowed to watch.
Dawdling in bed on a school morning is also impossible: a button in the master bedroom lets him turn on the children’s bedroom lights and radios and open their curtains — from the comfort of his own bed. Now that really is parental control.