July 26, 2010
| by Steven Castle
Simplicity rules when considering a home control system for a vacation home—especially if you have guests or renters; so does making sure the home’s electronics and entertainment components blend in well with the natural surroundings.
This 4,100-square-foot vacation home in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, N.C., was designed as a cool-air summer retreat. Or, as Scott Varn of local electronic installation company Harmony Interiors likes to call it, “hip mountain air.” Asheville, after all, is a haven for craftsman and artisans, such as Jim Koerber, who is responsible for the home’s gorgeous natural woodwork, some of it made from local locust trees and mountain laurel branches.
The Blue Moon Lodge, as it is called, was not only built within a beautiful natural setting; it was made from natural and eco-friendly materials, from the giant poplar posts to the refurbished 100-year-old barn boards to the solar electric systems, organic sheets, and Energy Star appliances.
The owners live in South Carolina and often rent out the home, so simplicity and remote operation of the control system was a must. “They may be there only on a weekend or a getaway, and you don’t want to be tech support,” says Varn.
To preclude complications, he steered the owners away from fancy touchscreens and toward the simple keypads of a Control4 home control system. Buttons on a keypad near the entry are marked HELLO, GOODBYE, and SHUTDOWN. HELLO sets the temperature in the home to a comfortable setting and puts on appropriate lighting. GOODBYE is designed for when the home is unoccupied temporarily. The setting doesn’t change the temperature, but it activates some of the exterior lighting for a safer, more comfortable return home at night. Finally, SHUTDOWN lowers the temperature, arms the security system, keeps the outdoor lights off, and cuts power to many of the electronics to help the owners save energy.
With these simple push-button settings, guests and renters can walk in and intuitively interact with the system. Remote access via a secure website allows the owners to get the house ready for occupants who are on their way.
The entertainment systems are easy to use, as well. A six-button keypad in each room allows simple control of whole-house music sources. There are engraved buttons for XM (Satellite Radio), FM, IPOD, SKIP and VOLUME UP and VOLUME DOWN. Users can choose between four preselected XM and FM stations by pressing the SKIP button. A Sonance iPort iPod dock in the kitchen allows iTunes to be played throughout the house, but Varn and Harmony didn’t want to complicate the control with a special interface for that.
“We consider an interface to go with an iPod [dock] a bad idea, because you have to learn it. Everybody knows how to use their iPod, so we put it in a mode to control it their own way,” Varn says. “The whole project was an exercise in not trying to overdo.”
The surround-sound system downstairs features a 52-inch Sharp LCD TV recessed into a natural stone hearth so it blends in, while unobtrusive Bose cube speakers dangle from the ceiling. And on the back porch is a pair of James Loudspeakers, enclosed in teak to blend with the natural woodwork. “We didn’t just want to hang big speakers out there that didn’t fit in,” Varn says. So the folks at James, who do custom design work, crafted two-way teak speakers to provide the background music as guests gaze out to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Thinking of installing in-wall or in-ceiling speakers? Even if they’re just going to be playing background music, don’t skimp on the speaker construction. An in-wall or in-ceiling speaker with a backbox (an enclosure around the back of the speaker) can offer many sonic benefits, says Varn.
For starters, a backbox forms a barrier to prevent sound from penetrating into adjacent rooms. It also protects the circuitry and wiring from exposure to insulation and other in-wall hazards.
Furthermore, speakers that come with backboxes are often tuned to accommodate the sonic effects of the backboxes. In other words, the final sound of the speaker depends on the construction of the backbox. Speakers without backboxes, on the other hand, will sound different depending on what kind of wall or ceiling they go into and the conditions of the structure.
Varn and his company are partial to backbox-style Tannoy in-ceiling speakers, which were used in this mountain vacation home, although companies including Totem, Triad and B&W, among others, also offer speakers with backboxes. Be sure to check with the manufacturer or your custom electronics expert. You’ll pay more for backbox speakers, but they are well worth the investment.
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Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates