Easy Automation Simplifies Huge Ariz. Home


Credit: Joseph Hilliard

This home caters to the needs of guests and its owners by providing easy, one-touch control of lights, music, video, shades and more.

Jan. 27, 2010 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

A belief among custom electronics professionals (CE pros) is that if your mother-in-law can operate the electronics gear you installed, you’ve done your job well. Chad Bessette of ASL Home Entertainment Group in Tucson, Ariz., thinks kids can be a good measuring stick of simplicity, too.

Bessette’s 6-year-old daughter Abbey recently gave her stamp of approval to one of the most elaborate design and installation projects his company has ever done. “I put a remote in my daughter’s hand and told her to play the music, turn on the TVs and switch on and off the lights,” he recalls. “We wanted the remote to be as easy as an ATM machine to use,” and for good reason.

Located near the mountains of Tucson, the 17,000-square-foot ranch that ASL was hired to automate is a popular overnight stomping grounds of the owners’ friends and family (click here to view a slideshow of the home). While guests are present, they’re treated to the best tech in town: amenities like a whole-house video and music system, an architectural lighting system and a zoned heating and cooling system. These systems can be controlled directly from each of four guest suites by using a 6-inch portable Crestron touchpanel.

“The owners wanted their guests to be comfortable, and that meant giving them the tools to easily control their room environments without having to pull out a user’s manual,” Bessette explains. Specially programmed by ASL’s Bryan Schlegel, the touchpanels display a menu of commands intuitive enough for even the most tech-challenged person to figure out. It takes no more than a few button presses to choose a movie from a Kaleidescape media server to watch on a 42-inch Pioneer flat-panel TV, adjust the room temperature and stream music from the server to speakers on the suite’s own private patio.

No Dead Zones or Drop Outs
All of this can be accomplished without affecting the rest of the house, says Bessette.  The owners are free to use the electronic systems as they wish, regardless of what their houseguests are doing. They can play whatever music or video they want and enjoy it in an atmosphere where the lights, thermostats and motorized shades are set to their liking.

One amenity that’s always on their hit list is music. “Whether they’re entertaining guests or just hanging out, there’s always something playing in the background,” Bessette says. Sometimes the music comes from the Kaleidescape server; other times it’s delivered by a DirecTV satellite receiver. It just depends on which button the owners press on one of the home’s 20 touchpanels.

There is one constant, though. No matter what song is piping through the home’s built-in speakers, it sounds wonderful. “Everywhere you go, you’re hit with stereo sound,” says Bessette. “It’s almost as if you’re wearing headphones. There are absolutely no dead spots anywhere.”

ASL accomplished this effect through a combination of well-designed amplification and strategic speaker placement. “Every speaker has its own 100-watt channel on the multichannel Elan amplifiers,” Bessette explains. “This allowed us during the installation to adjust the output of each speaker individually to balance out the sound.” As for speaker coverage, ASL left no space untouched, installing in-wall and in-ceiling speakers everywhere, including hallways, powder rooms, closets, the garage and even the shower.

A Change of Atmosphere
Lights and motorized shades also enhance the atmosphere, and like the music system, they’re completely controllable from the Crestron touchpanels. The touchpanels provide all the basic commands, such as ON, OFF, OPEN and CLOSE, as well as a few “scene” controls that synchronize the settings of multiple devices.

An ENTERTAIN scene, for example, adjusts the brightness levels of select lights to accentuate the home’s unique architectural features, while also opening the motorized draperies to provide a view of the mountains from the floor-to-ceiling windows.

Other scenes, such as GOOD MORNING, switch on fixtures in certain rooms, while GOODBYE sweeps through the house to ensure that every light is turned off during the owners’ absence. Then there are scenes designed in deference to houseguests. GOODNIGHT WITH GUESTS, for example, switches off every light except for the fixtures in the guest suites and hallways.

Private Matters
Despite all the special accommodations provided for their guests, the owners relish their privacy and rely on several electronic systems to maintain it. Sixteen surveillance cameras watch over the property, all of which can be accessed, controlled and viewed on any touchpanel. The owners can pull up a view from any camera at any time, or review video that’s been recorded over the past 24 hours on the hard drive of a special DVR.

Tied to the Crestron system, some of the surveillance features have been automated for the owners’ convenience. For example, when a vehicle pulls into the driveway at night, a hidden underground sensor signals the Crestron processor that triggers the exterior lights at the front of the house to illuminate and repositions the nearest camera for a closer look at the car. Inside, touchpanels alert the owners of the visitor by emitting a chime and automatically displaying a live video feed from the camera.

Even if the owners are traveling, they always know what’s happening at home. The only difference, says Bessette, is that the chime and video is delivered to their computer laptop. From thousands of miles away, the owners can see who’s at the house and decide whether they should log into the Crestron system to disarm the security sensors.

Overcoming a Tough Design
Keeping tabs on the property is particularly important when the owners have escaped to their 12-seat theater for the evening. Featuring a 160-inch CinemaScope screen, a 7.2 surround-sound system, and seats fitted with built-in motors, shakers and heaters, it’s easy to get lost in the action.

It would take a lot more than a huge display and killer audio, though, to create the immersive environment the owners wanted. Hundreds of hours of acoustical engineering were required of ASL to combat “one of the most unaccommodating room designs we’ve ever come across,” says Bessette. “The interior designer wanted to have wood walls on the sides and a glass wall at the back.” It was a decision that didn’t sit well with ASL, as these hard, reflective surfaces would cause the sound to reflect throughout the theater, making dialogue and effects difficult to discern.

“At first we were concerned that there was nothing we could do to improve the room acoustics,” says Bessette. Fortunately, ASL had an experienced acoustical engineer on staff, who up until this point had worked mainly on the company’s commercial projects. Using sophisticated computer modeling software, he ran hundreds of hours of tests, bouncing every audio frequency imaginable off the walls to figure out where the ASL team would need to install bass traps and other types of acoustical treatments. “The owners had invested $1 million in this theater, including the electronic components, so we couldn’t simply guess where to put the treatments,” says Steve O’Hara, ASL owner. “We had to be exact.”

Fortunately, the solution was simpler than ASL had anticipated. Plush carpeting and strategically positioned bass traps were installed to absorb the unwanted reflections.  Since too much absorption can make a room too acoustically “dead,” ASL added sound diffusers between sections of the wood wall paneling. Made of hardwood molding, the 1-foot-wide diffusers blended right in with the wall surface. 

Only when the room environment was acceptable did ASL start installing the equipment. Seven Tannoy speakers were placed behind the fluted wall diffusers, and two Tannoy subwoofers went beside the screen. A Digital Projection 1080p projector was placed near the back wall inside a specially constructed soffit, and a shape-shifting screen was fixed to the wall at the front. Electronically-controlled masking material changes the size of the Screen Research display automatically, depending on the format of the movie that’s selected by the owners. For example, if a 16:9 movie is chosen, black fabric covers the top and sides of the screen. Should they pick a flick that’s been filmed in CinemaScope, the masking material rolls back into its housing to reveal the entire 2.35:1 screen.

The same 600 or so movies available to the theater via the Kaleidescape server can also be viewed on numerous flat-panel TVs in the house, as well as on two 32-inch weatherproof SunBriteTV sets on the patio. Many of the Crestron touchpanels are portable, so users can select from a list of movies by genre, actor or other categories—as well as control the lights, temperature and window shades—as they stroll the enormous property.

With free access to movies, music, and temperature and lighting controls, guests might get the royal treatment from the Crestron system, but it’s the owners who ultimately rule the roost in this fully automated home. They’re able to operate what they want, how they want, from wherever they want with the ease of a kid-tested, mother-in-law approved home management system.

Systems Design and Installation
ASL Home Entertainment Group
Tucson, Ariz.

Robinette Architects
Tucson, Ariz.

Jeff Willmeng Homes
Tucson, Ariz.

Interior Designer
Lori Carroll and Associates
Tucson, Ariz.

Main Equipment
Home control: Crestron
Whole-house audio & video: Crestron
Entertainment server: Kaleidescape
Lighting control: Crestron
Security: HAI
Motorized shades: Somfy

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