Extreme Automated Home with Crestron and iPhones
Taking It to the Max
December 13, 2013 by Lisa Montgomery

Armed with nothing more than an iPhone—something she totes with her all day anyway—the owner of this newly constructed contemporary home in downtown Chicago manages all things electronic with just a few taps on the screen of the ubiquitous mobile device. “I control everything from my iPhone—non-stop,” she says. It’s a convenience that has made the five levels of her and her husband’s custom-designed house, not to mention their children, a breeze to monitor and manage. “Without this technology it would have been a nightmare to just turn off the lights before bedtime or to answer the front door when we are watching movie in the home theater,” says the owner as she proudly shows me around the house, which was recently honored by home control manufacturer Crestron as a “Biggest, Baddest Home” winner in its annual Integration Awards contest. 

Waving the Magic Wand

Although all the magic seemingly stems from the iPhone, it’s the home’s powerful, custom-programmed Crestron automation system that really runs the show in this ultra-modern yet family-focused homestead. Driven by a robust processor, the Crestron system is what enables the owners’ iPhones, as well as iPads and touchpanels that are stationed at convenient “checkpoints” throughout the house, to fire off commands to hundreds of different components … and we mean hundreds. “We really wanted to push the limits of automation in this house,” says the homeowner. Custom electronics (CE) professional Gideon Elfassy agrees: “They really pushed the boundaries of the Crestron system’s capabilities. We incorporated features into this house that were innovative and new even to us.” Elfassy and the rest of the team at Chicago-based Sound Specialists were introduced to the home while it was under construction, and during the three-year project routed miles of high-speed wire, installed tons of electronic devices and customized the smart technology to work flawlessly for the family. 

Today the system synchronously monitors and manages 20 thermostats, 20 surveillance cameras, 32 zones of music, 16 zones of video and 91 motorized shades. And there are plans for and wiring available to take on more, like the addition of a controllable gas firepit in the courtyard and likely a few extra speakers for a bit more audio punch during backyard barbecues.

Mapping a Course for Control

Engineered to automate the functionality of systems employed in even the biggest of estates, the Crestron system is fully capable of juggling this home’s remarkable scope and diversity of technology. Its talents might have gone sorely underutilized, though, if not for the intuitively designed user interfaces customized for the homeowners by the CE pros at Sound Specialists. Whether the owners are looking at the screen of an iPhone that’s in their hands or glancing at an iPad that’s mounted to a wall, the layout of the graphical user interface (GUI, which you might hear pronounced as “gooey”) is always the same. And for this project, this common graphic is a true-to-scale floorplan of the house.

Serving as a “home page” of sorts, the floorplan simplifies what could have been a complicated process of hunting for commands to usher music to an area, adjust a thermostat of a particular part of the house or open and close a group of draperies, for example. A unique floorplan was created for each level of the house, and on each floorplan the rooms are clearly labeled. Through their tie to the Crestron system, the iPads and iPhones are smart enough to know which floor they happen to be located and display the respective floorplan as its home page. From this main page, the owners touch a room or rooms and then choose what type of control they’d like to enact within them. For instance, after touching the kitchen area on the map, they can tap the music icon to select something to play over the kitchen’s in-ceiling speakers. Tapping on the living room, they can add music to that space, or do something different like operate the room’s motorized shades, dim the lights or activate the security sensors of every door and window.

Finding Their Comfort Zone

The ability to adjust the temperature settings of each of the home’s 39 distinct heating and cooling zones via the maps is a homeowner favorite. The 39 zones, powered by a geothermal system, are a lot to manage in any large home, not to mention the fact that both radiant heating and forced air cooling systems are employed throughout. “The HVAC system is extensive,” the homeowner says, “but by engineering it this way, the house is comfortable for everyone and efficient. The map is our tool to visually ensure that the temperature of every room of the house is just right.”

In addition to providing a more efficient means of regulating the settings of many thermostats, the Crestron system helps preserve the home’s clean, uncluttered aesthetic. Instead of marring the walls with a thermostat in each zone, Sound Specialists was able to hide them together on a wall in a utility room. Inconspicuous quarter-size sensors monitor and measure the temperature of the individual zones instead.

Eyes and Ears of the House

The five individual floorplans aren’t purely about control, though. They also serve as a handy way for the homeowners to monitor what’s happening around the house. Explains the homeowner, “I can be in a room on the fourth floor and in just a few seconds see where my kids might be or if someone happened to enter or exit the house.” A red TV icon displayed on the media room portion of the map could be her indication that the kids are playing video games; a red dot next to the door that opens to the courtyard might mean that they’re playing in the yard. Of course, with 20 surveillance cameras placed strategically throughout the residence, she can always go in for closer inspection, as real-time video from every camera can be displayed on the screen of any iDevice or Crestron touchpanel. It’s up to the owners whether they’d like to see views from all 20 cameras at once, go to a full-screen view captured by a specific camera, or pick and choose to display video from a small group of cameras.

It’s often in the sanctuary of her dressing area that housewide sweeps like this happen. “It’s become my high-tech haven. I can feel confident that I can manage security, media, temperature and shades from this one location,” she explains of her daily routine. “It’s here that I’ll have my iPad, iPhone and the Crestron touchpanel all going at the same time.” Should she need to communicate verbally with anyone inside or outside the house, the system facilitates this, too. Tapping an icon on the main menu transforms all touchpanels, iPads and iPhones into full-fledged intercom stations.
Biometric fingerprint scanners are another method of gaining entrance into the house, but this works only for the kids, the nanny and Mom and Dad. Each person’s unique fingerprint was programmed into each of the home’s three Siedle readers, so only those fingerprints are recognized, which signals to unlock that particular door. In addition to the front and side doors, the homeowners elected to put a fingerprint reader at the entrance to their wine cellar. This one, of course, recognizes only Mom’s and Dad’s fingerprints.

Automatic Alterations

As fast, efficient and easy as the map-based interface is for the family to use, there are certain functions the homeowners wanted to have happen without any human interaction at all. For example, LED step lights activate automatically when sensors detect motion at the top or bottom of stairwells. The opening of certain doors does the same for the light fixtures inside closets. “Having the lights turn on automatically is a great feature, especially when your hands are occupied,” the homeowner says. “It also minimized the number of switches and keypads that had to be mounted to the walls,” adds Elfassy. Sound Specialists used the intelligence of the Crestron system also to automate some of the home’s Lutron motorized window shades and draperies. Certain tracks and rollers open and close the window coverings in sync with the rising and setting of the sun. And should an outdoor motion sensor trip during a predefined timeframe, any TV that’s on switches to temporarily display the video from the nearest surveillance camera. This TV could be the 65-inch Sony in the first-floor media room, the 47-inch Sony in the home gym, or the “baby” 21-incher stowed inside a cabinet in the kitchen, as well as any of 13 other high-def flat panels. Even the 117-inch, CinemaScope-format Stewart Filmscreen projection screen in the home theater can work like a surveillance monitor. Of course, watching the landscaper prune the bushes on a screen of this size would be overkill, so Sound Specialists employed Crestron’s Quad Window Processor to create a configuration that would let the family view as many as four independent streams of video simultaneously on the one big screen. “Where the split screen really makes an impact is during video gaming,” says Elfassy, “and this happens a lot with several children in the house.” Xbox is the video platform of choice in the theater, and each user has his own controller. Using a mobile touchpanel, the kids (and adults) can select a unique configuration for the screen, be it two screens side by side, four quadrants or even three individual screens. Again, from the touchpanel, they can select a video source for each screen. This split-screen presentation can be shared with other displays in the house, which lets the kids play games together without even being in the same room. 

While video games give the screens a good workout, there are plenty of other video options available for the Sony projector to beam onto the Stewart screen: 3D Blu-rays along with 3D glasses for everyone in the 12-seat theater, family photos and streaming content from an AppleTV, and scads of movies stored on three Kaleidescape media servers keep everyone entertained. Similar to how the family controls everything else in the house, they use an iPad, iPhone or touchpanel to choose the room in which they want to watch video and select the component they want to watch.

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Lisa Montgomery - Contributing Writer
Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.

Equipment List


Control: Crestron
Lighting Control: Crestron
Motorized Shades: Lutron
Displays: Sony
Multiroom A/V: Crestron
Multiroom Speakers:  Sonance
Surround-Sound Speakers: James Loudspeaker
Theater Projector:  Sony
Theater Screen: Stewart Filmscreen
Theater Speakers: James Loudspeaker, Sunfire
Theater Receiver: Integra
Surveillance: IC Realtime
Security: Elk, Siedle
Networking: Cisco, Pakedge

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