Think smart home technology and thoughts tend to first turn to more obvious solutions like state-of-the-art cinema rooms, but as Will Brocklebank of Face to Face Digital indicates: “Household technology should not just be about AV (audio visual).” Options are numerous, but broadly consist of multi-room audio and/or visual, intelligent lighting, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) –which may or may not be linked to blind control – internet provision and security.
“The most popular are audio, video and lighting, but heating control is pushing to the forefront, too,” says Brilliant’s Iain Shaw.
It’s easy to see technology as a bit of a luxury, or as something to impress guests, if the budget allows. If the budget doesn’t look so healthy, then it’s perhaps an area that most look to cut first. But in this day and age, should we really be considering smart home solutions as a bolt-on, or has technology become an intrinsic part of the building and renovating process?
“It’s no longer a luxury; it’s become vital to the way we live,” argues Face to Face Digital’s Will Brocklebank, “but it is a cost centre, like the kitchen or bathroom(s).”
With an overwhelming number of options, how do you begin making choices? And what can be achieved on a modest budget?
Where to Begin: Designing and Planning a Smart Home
Thinking about the way you’d like to live in your new home, and perhaps putting together a wish list, is a good place to start. To do this, you could begin by visualising how you hope to use each room.
“The kitchen, for example, has become a multi-purpose room where you may check emails, watch TV or listen to music while cooking, or where children may do their homework on a laptop,” says Brocklebank. So provision for internet – be it wired or wireless – is something to give serious thought to.
“The kitchen is likely to be the first place you set down your bag, and so including a dedicated concealed charging point for your phone, without lots of visible wires, makes sense,” adds Brocklebank. “You begin to get a sense of how technology can make our lives easier.”
It’s essential to consider how the house will function as a whole, too, and decide whether you’d like some degree of integration, such as the option to switch off lighting and electrical devices (with the exception of the fridge and alarm clock!) from a central control, or the ability to stream Sky+HD on a couple of TVs. If you plan to live here for the foreseeable future, deciding how your changing needs will be met should also shape your plans.
A specialist installer/designer can really come into their own whilst you brainstorm, making suggestions you’d perhaps never considered, or thought impossible. They can also help whittle down your wish list to reflect your priorities and budget. “We provide clients with a questionnaire which helps us to establish what really is and is not a priority,” says Iain Shaw of Brilliant.
You should ideally engage with one early on. “A good time to approach an installer/designer is typically after planning permission has been obtained, but at a stage where the homeowner has a good idea about how they will use the interior,” adds Iain Shaw. “Just before first fix is really very late in the process.”
What Should Your Budget be for Smart Home Technology?
When it comes to home technology, the sky really can be the limit, and a fully integrated whole-house system with lots of features, programmed back to a central control, is likely to set you back tens of thousands.
So what can be achieved on a more modest budget?
- Budget £500–1,000 for multi-room audio
- A sophisticated heating control system will cost about £2,000
- Design and installation of a Cat6 and coaxial system may cost around £2,000–3,000
- An integrated TV room with control system and concealed wires could set you back £5,000–6,000
In an age where wireless is readily and cheaply available, why go to the trouble and expense of introducing a wired infrastructure? The answer is pretty simple: web browsing aside, if you want to introduce technology within the home then a wired infrastructure is the basis from which it will work.
If you’re building from scratch, and intend to remain in the house for the foreseeable future at least, then experts agree it makes absolute sense to future-proof in this way. It’s also a good selling point if you’re moving on.
Interference, from neighbouring wireless networks and signals around the home, is an issue when relying solely on wireless. “Wireless is fine for browsing the web, but when it comes to things like streaming a movie, which requires stable bandwidth, then it doesn’t really work,” says Will Brocklebank of Face to Face Digital. Adrian Ickeringill of WyreStorm agrees: “We all like the idea of wireless; sitting on the sofa with the laptop. But when it comes down to video distribution, then wireless doesn’t lend itself.”
Another issue for self builders is that the very materials which go into building the modern home can actually be prohibitive to wireless. “Some plasterboard, foil-back insulation, even underfloor heating, can act as a barrier to wireless,” adds Ickeringill of WyreStorm. “If you have the backbone of cabling in, then you’ve got something to fall back on.”
How to Create a Wired Network
There’s two main ways to achieve a wired network: employ an experienced electrician to install the cabling for you, or approach a smart home design/installation specialist. The benefit of a specialist design/installation company (find one at cedia.org) is that they’ll design the wired system with your present and future needs in mind.
“Qualified electrical and/or aerial installers can also run the cabling properly, away from electrical and aerial cables. For a typical four-bed home then you’re likely looking at a day’s labour, plus a couple of hundred for the cabling,” says WyreStorm’s Adrian Ickeringill.
There are a few points to bear in mind. “Cat5 and Cat6 has to be properly terminated, and once installed your network should be tested and you should be given printed results,” advises Will Brocklebank. Cables should also be routed back to a central location, such as in an understair cupboard, and be clearly marked. For more detailed advice, check out CEDIA’s comprehensive wiring guidelines.
A wired infrastructure can also be introduced within an existing home, with cabling even run discreetly on a house’s façade if required.
Know Your Cats
Cat5 was up until recently the staple in the home, but Cat6 has now pushed to the forefront. “The mark-up on Cat6 is about 15-20%,” says Ickeringill, who recommends this additional cost for future-proofing. But as Brocklebank adds: “It’s important to remember that nearly every office across the world operates off Cat5.”
You may have also heard of Cat7 and Cat8 (which aren’t as yet ‘ratified standards’), and it’s tempting to ask, why not install this to future-proof? “There is Cat7, too, but it’s very unlikely you’ll need the bandwidth it delivers in a residential property in the near future,” assures WyreStorm’s Ickeringill.
Options to Consider
Multi-room audio provides the option to play the same music across every zone/room or choose different music (and volumes) in different zones.
Visual from multi-room systems which allow you to stream HD inputs (such as Sky+HD, Blu-ray or a PS3) to a number of HDTVs in the house, to cinema rooms utilising ‘invisible’ speakers (check out Amina), which can be discreetly installed in the walls and plastered over — a good solution for period homes.
Lighting options are again plentiful: from remote control of the lighting ‘moods’, to energy-saving dimmers, to whole-house intelligent lighting which mimics your daily use whilst you’re on holiday. “You could even introduce a bedside switch which turns on the hall light by a specified amount,” says Future Systems’ Gary Lewis.
When it comes to products, Lutron and Creston are big names. One thing renovators should bear in mind is that if you don’t plan to rewire then a whole-house intelligent lighting setup is difficult to achieve. There are, however, options such as Rako’s wireless products which offer a room-by-room retrofit solution.
Smart heating controls are very important as we become increasingly aware of our energy use (and subsequent utility bills). Options include controls or smartphone and tablet apps which allow you to monitor and fine-tune the temperature in each room. “Underfloor heating (UFH) is zoned anyway, so adding a control which allows you to set the temperature in each zone is a good idea. Another mistake is running UFH on the same control as radiators; the least you can do is have separate controls for both,” says Will Brocklebank.
“The classic case of the heating being left on during a holiday or even a short absence has got even worse with the rise in popularity of UFH,” adds Dave Robinson of Sensible Heat. “These systems take so long to heat a cold house that owners are unwilling to wait to be comfortable, so they leave the heating on permanently. These problems can be solved by proper zoning, and by providing easy-to-use interfaces.”
And, a key benefit is that heating controls are noninvasive, meaning they can be retrofitted with ease. “It’s something which can easily be introduced into a listed home, for example,” says Will Brocklebank.