The simplest things are often the most difficult to create. Behind the sleek lines of a contemporary design are hundreds of hours of planning and craftsmanship. Behind a simple press of a button are intricate technical processes that would baffle most minds. And both are evident in this contemporary Chicago home.
Its three stories of brick make the building appear as if it has been in this urban neighborhood for generations, yet this home is a new construction. Inside, its clean lines provide bright and open spaces that are warmed by comfortable, earth-toned furnishings. It’s clear that some serious thought and planning went into the design.
If it weren’t for the plasma-based video monitors here and there, one might think there wasn’t much technology in the home. But like any great design, there is more than meets the eye. In fact, the residence is packed with electronics, from whole-house audio and video systems to a serious media room to lighting and climate control systems. All the home’s systems are designed to be as discreet as possible—and all are very simple to use. But that simplicity in both design and usability is never an easy thing to create.
Lines of Design
The homeowners knew that they wanted a clean, contemporary feel in their new Chicago home, so they contracted Wheeler Kearns Architects, known for its sleek and livable designs. What architect Lawrence Kearns came up with was a blueprint that tied together everything the family needed, while providing some separation between spaces.
The house is divided into a front and a back by a staircase between two brick walls. Landings at each floor provide crossovers from the kitchen and family room to the dining and living rooms, the office loft to the master bedroom, the children’s bedrooms to their playrooms and media and exercise rooms to the guest quarters.
It’s a neat design. But try planning electronic systems that tie the two towers of this home together. That complicated effort fell to Baumeister Electronic Architects of Niles, IL. “All the wire [for the various systems] had to be thought out ahead of time and run in conduit that was encased in concrete under the staircase,” explains John Baumeister.
Baumeister and Wheeler Kearns had worked on several projects together, so they knew how to coordinate their efforts and effectively plan a home with numerous electronic systems. Baumeister was also in touch with the homeowner, but because the family was living overseas at the time, the two parties had limited face time and had to communicate about the project largely by phone and email.
The homeowners essentially wanted two things from their home systems: for the technology to be largely unseen and for it to be simple to use. Walk from room to room in this house, and you’re never assaulted by technology. A 42-inch plasma screen is framed in the cabinets in the two-story family room off the kitchen. There’s another 42 incher in the master bedroom and a 61-inch Runco PlasmaWall in the inviting downstairs media room. That’s about all the technology you will see, other than a few touchscreens and keypads to operate all the systems.
“The thing that’s nice about the home’s design is that the minimalist style matches the stuff we put in,” says Baumeister. He says his company believes in keeping a system as simple as possible, even if it can do many things.
A Wealth of Stealth
“Because of challenges of the house and structure, there was a minimal amount of space to put anything in, so we had to be creative about where everything would go,” Baumeister notes. “Every system in the house had to be designed for stealth.”
The eight-zone audio system is one example. Classical or jazz can be played throughout the house, but hardly a loudspeaker or audio component is visible. Sonance in-ceiling speakers were flush mounted into the ceilings and appear only as round white grilles that blend with the surrounding decor. The speakers for the family and media room entertainment systems are nearly as unobtrusive, though they are more powerful. Longer, rectangular Sonance Silhouette speakers are mounted in the walls that flank the plasma-based screens in both spaces. In the media room, four more Silhouette speakers are mounted sideways in the soffit to provide realistic surround sound from the sides and back.
All of the audio and video equipment, with the exception of a video game console, is hidden in an exercise room adjacent to the media room. Two large racks of equipment provide nearly all the audio and video and electronic control for the home. The exercise room also has doors that hide lighting and networking panels.
So how does the family listen to CDs or watch DVDs if all the equipment is in the exercise room, which happens to be in the basement? Their music collection is stored on the hard disk of an Escient FireBall media server, and their DVDs are in a 400-disc Sony DVD changer operated by Escient’s DVDM-100 system. Both the CD and DVD collections can be browsed on the screens by using Escient’s easy- to-operate graphical interface. The homeowners can even call up personal music playlists of their favorite artists.
And they can do all this without the help of a TV screen. There are eight Crestron touchscreen remote controls scattered throughout the house to help the family access all their audio and video, as well as operate the lighting and climate controls.
Don’t think the controls are all out in the open. In the bedroom, the fascias of two night tables that flank the bed flip down to reveal keypads. The six buttons on each include two for lighting scenes, two for raising and lowering the temperature and two to alert the fire and police departments in case of an emergency.
The Simple Electronic Life
Simplicity is evident in all the controls. Baumeister Electronic Architects included only the necessary controls for each location. For example, a wall-mounted keypad off the kitchen moves blinds up and down and provides various lighting functions. Another keypad in the kids’ area offers control for lighting and room temperature, but the temperature button is set to be raised or lowered only to certain levels.
Crestron’s control system doesn’t just operate all the subsystems. The company’s systems were also used for lighting control, whole- house audio and video systems and temperature control. Using one platform for all these systems helped achieve simplicity of operation. It also ensured that the home systems could grow with the homeowners, so features and functions can be added easily in the future.
“[The man of the house] is very technology savvy; he wanted just about everything from the get go. However his wife was afraid of technology,” says Baumeister. “They had a sense that they weren’t going to be able to use it, because they had seen technology that hadn’t worked before.”
Now Dad can control all aspects of the house via his computer, a laptop, the Crestron touchscreens or a wireless web tablet. And Mom has grown to love the temperature controls on the keypads. “But we didn’t provide that on the wireless touchscreens so [things] wouldn’t get too complicated,” Baumeister explains.
The tech-savvy homeowner is already looking to add to his electronic conveniences. “Even though this is a new house, he still wants new things,” says Baumeister. “He wants to have his computer in his office getting high-def video—basically a high-def TiVo on the computer screen.”
That couldn’t be too tough to do. Or could it?
- Fujitsu P42HHA10WS 42” plasma monitors (2)
- Sonance Silhouette speakers (9)
- Sharp LC20B2UB 20” LCD TV
- Niles Audio CM6HD ceiling speakers (2)
- Leviton 47605-42W network enclosures (2)
- Spaun SMS5801NF satellite multiswitch
- Panasonic KX-TD 5-telephone system
- Crestron CNX-BIPAD8 audio distribution processor
- Crestron CNAMPX-12X60 12-channel stereo amplifier
- Crestron CNX-PVID 8x3 video switcher
- Crestron ST-TUNE AM/FM stereo tuner
- Hughes TV satellite receiver
- Zenith HDTV satellite dish
- Escient FireBall DVDM-100 controller integrator
- Sony CDP-CX420 400-disc CD change
- Mitsubishi HS-U747 S-VHS VCR
- Middle Atlantic Products AXS rack enclosures (2)
- Monster Cable AVS 2000 power protection system
- Monster Cable MP HTS3600 power protection systems (2)
- Runco PL-61cx 61-inch plasma TV
- Crestron lighting system
- GE ITI Advent home navigator
- AAS proximity/keypad entry system
- Crestron PRO2E processor
- Crestron C2ENET2 Ethernet card
- Crestron CNXHUB Cresnet Expander Hub
- Crestron ST-1550C Color LCD touchscreens (3)
- Crestron CT-1000 Color LCD touchscreens (5)
- Crestron ML-500 wireless remote
- Crestron CNRFGWA radio transceivers (2)
- Crestron CNHBLOCK network terminal blocks (2)
- Lexicon MC-12 preamplifier/processor
- Lexicon LX-7 7-channel amplifier
- Sonance Silhouette III in-wall speakers (2)
- Sonance Silhouette II in-wall speakers (4)
- Genelec HTS3 Single 10” active subwoofer
- Sonance ceiling back boxes (4)
- Monster interconnects
- Monster Cable
- Monster Cable CAT-5 telephone cable
- Pro Flex structured wire
Electronics Design & Installation
Baumeister Electronic Architects, Niles, IL
Wheeler Kearns Architects, Chicago IL
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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