Home is where the 'nerve centre' is

Custom-building a house means you can wire in a network of high-tech functions before you slap on the plaster. By Jason Orme
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We've all seen how much the technology of our cars has changed in the last two decades. The 1980 version: wind down windows; manual locking; possibly a radio; uncomfortable seats; unreliable ventilation. The 2005 version: GPS Sat Nav; memorised seat positions for each driver; digital radio which automatically tunes into traffic reports; air conditioning; central remote locking and parking sensors.

We've all seen how much the technology of our cars has changed in the last two decades. The 1980 version: wind down windows; manual locking; possibly a radio; uncomfortable seats; unreliable ventilation. The 2005 version: GPS Sat Nav; memorised seat positions for each driver; digital radio which automatically tunes into traffic reports; air conditioning; central remote locking and parking sensors.

Let's compare this transformation in comfort and practicality - the result of years of research and development driven by consumer demand - to the standard house. Apart from a few alterations in exterior styling; a larger kitchen; wooden flooring and so on (all design-led preferences) not much has really changed on a functional level.

So what if you were to be told that the technology exists today - and has existed for quite a while, in fact - for your home to centrally lock itself upon request; for the appliances, lighting and heating to be controlled by laptop from any location in the world; for music, vision and internet information to be fed throughout the house, with audio systems controllable from touchpads in each room; for centrally controlled, motion-sensitive mood lighting; and even for an automatic lawnmower, equipped with the technology to memorise the perimeters of the lawn and stop dead when approached by nosy pets?

"We can do all of these things in today's home, and an awful lot more," says Karl Littardi, managing director of custom installer House Electronic ( www.houselectronic.co.uk). "We have been developing technology to enable the home to leap into the 21st century for years - and it is only now beginning to filter into the mainstream. Self-builders are at the forefront of the integration of this technology into the home and we're sure that, within a decade, this kind of thing will be commonplace within the developer market too."

Self-builders are in the vanguard because, first of all, it is much easier to install the network of hard CAT 5+ cabling that these systems rely upon (much like a standard electrical circuit) before plastering, and secondly, most canny self-builders want to ensure that their homes are "future-proofed" for resale.

"A standard installation for us would include a hard-wired network with four room audio source, four touchpads, a plasma TV, and a mood lighting system which operates both in and out and plenty more besides. At the very least, I'd recommend that all self-builders look closely at the option of at least putting in the basic infrastructure of a wiring circuit with plenty of CAT5+ sockets, even if they feel they can't afford or don't want the 'sexier' items like speakers, entertainment systems and touchpads," says Karl Littardi.

"To put our standard-fit package into a typical four-bed detached house is around £2,000," says Hugh Whalley, business manager for Siemens Smart Home Technology. "The 'enabling' package consists of pre-wire for lighting, heating, curtains or blinds, audio, video, TV, telephones and data. There is also an element of hardware included within this price. Once this enabling package has been installed, the amount of additional functionality that can then be added is huge and there is a wide range to choose from."

All very well - but at the crucial budgeting stage of a small self-build project where every penny counts, it is difficult to imagine too many self-builders prioritising a high-tech piece of equipment over, say, a better kitchen or bathroom. The main problem, for now, is that an all whistles-and-bells system would comfortably cost five figures. "There's no denying that these are still seen as luxury items for many self-builders," says Karl Littardi. "However, there are several pieces of kit that are slowly bringing down the costs and we expect these to fall further over the next couple of years."

Barn converter Tim Dawson has installed such a system, which enables him to adjust almost any of the intelligent functions of the home - the mood lighting, security systems, even the opening and closing of the curtains - from a phone anywhere in the world. The "nerve centre", as Tim calls it, actually contains a feast of wires and controls covered in, rather alarmingly, post-it notes. "It sounds terribly complicated," he says, "but future owners will be able to use it easily and enjoy the benefits."

The fantasy lifestyle that self-builders could enjoy is certainly something to behold. Music would no longer emanate from traditional loudspeakers -- advanced electronic wallpaper would be able to oscillate, meaning that an entire wall could act as a speaker. This wallpaper would also be able to display TV, movies or even attractive scenes across an entire wall.

Voice control would enable dimming of lights, replying to messages, turning appliances on or off, or controlling the climate. Your responses would eventually be learned and your lifestyle patterns would be predicted and automated.

In terms of security, a central management system would not only be able to alert you to intruders, but it could even monitor your health (for instance through automatic testing of toilet waste). "While this is clearly a futuristic vision, the reality is that a lot of this technology has already been developed," says Karl Littardi. "It is often just a case of the demand catching up with the supply."

Intelligent home technology is already being used by many of the nation's growing army of self-builders - without the need for a fully integrated wired system. Home appliances producer Zanussi-Electrolux ( www.zanussi-electrolux.co.uk) has been busy producing "intelligent appliances" that could transform the way we live on a much simpler level. Two in particular stand out: the Voice is effectively an interactive washing machine that gives voice instructions for ease of use, and uses "fuzzy logic" to make decisions on the most efficient programme for the weight of the wash, helping to save detergent and energy in the process.

The second product, the Automower, is based on the company's automatic vacuum cleaner technology and is effectively a lawnmowing mini-robot that wanders off and cuts the grass as often as required. When it is tired it recharges itself and it is sensitive to the perimeters of the lawn and any children or pets that may get in the way. Whether self-builders or the wider homeowning public feel that they need such labour-saving devices remains to be seen, but they are certainly readily accessible.

In terms of going the whole hog and installing a full network, however, there is another option that is slowly becoming one of the key areas for development. Just as laptop and communications technology is going wireless, so the automated infrastructure can become wireless too. O'Heocha ( www.oheocha.com) has just released the world's first fully wireless, high-end Hi-fi/AV surround sound speaker system. At £10,000 a pair, they are not cheap, but the stylish 100watt audiophile-grade speakers show that the era of the wire-free home cinema system is just around the corner. More importantly, from an infrastructure point of view, Wi-fi-enabled controls are beginning to be launched on the market, signifying that many of the main manufacturers see wireless technology as being very much part of their future.

Companies specialising in wireless control include Crestron ( www.crestron.com) and Philips ( www.philips.com). In terms of a totally wireless home network, however, there remains a certain amount of scepticism within the industry - for the simple reason that wireless systems lack stability. It's all very well not being able to get a mobile phone signal in certain parts of the house - but what if your security and lighting systems depended on it?

There's no denying that the sheer variety of choice available for self-builders in the automated home field can be bewildering at times - yet for an individual home to be truly successful, it must also work for you.

Finding a way through this jungle is worthwhile as long as you know exactly what you want from the outset. As many of the suppliers say, "the only limit is your imagination" - and contact an expert. It may change the way you use your home - or at the very least, the way you mow your lawn.

Jason Orme is editor of 'Homebuilding & Renovating' magazine