“Our goal from the beginning was to have a house that would celebrate the outdoors and be purposeful in its design,” says our featured Chicagoland homeowner of her family’s three-year-long homebuilding journey. As a result, this ultra-contemporary giant blends in with its wooded surroundings, evokes a relaxing, serene environment, and showcases the use of natural materials like stone and wood. Perhaps best of all, the home functions efficiently by patterning itself effortlessly to the family’s schedules and routines.
However, this contemporary design presented a huge departure of style—both for a family that previously lived in quaint, traditional homes and for the surrounding community of historic homes.
“We’re lucky because both my husband and I have always been huge fans of contemporary architecture, so we were in total agreement of breaking the stereotype of the community—and that we were able to build our house in a wooded area far back from the road so it didn’t stick out like a sore thumb,” the homeowner says.
Not that they’ll ever regret their choice to buck conformity. They’re proud of their home’s ability to evoke a tranquil setting and use intelligent technologies to maintain that peaceful state. “We spent an entire year going over plans for our house with our architect,” relates the homeowner. “They asked us how we liked to open the doors—with a handle on the left or right—how we brush our teeth, where we like to store silverware …”
It was a seemingly endless list of questions that would ultimately help them design every aspect of this house to be as efficient and useful as possible.
Deemphasizing the Devices
Part of that process involved meetings with a custom electronics (CE) professional. As the blueprints for the 16,700-square-foot house were being drawn up, Chicago-based architectural firm Wheeler Kearns Architects suggested that the family consider integrating a control system into their residence that would “allow us to live in the house
like we wanted to live in it,” says the homeowner
After visiting the downtown Chicago showroom of Integrisys, the family also learned that remarkably, the technology could dramatically minimize the appearance of common everyday electronic devices like light switches, thermostats and TV screens. Given the solid walnut paneling, concrete, stone and glass that would comprise almost all of the wall space, these pieces of technology would have had a hard time fi tting into the aesthetic. The owners were more than happy to clear them away from the walls in favor of much more practical, modern and low-profi le devices.
Four AMX touchpanels, which are part of a complete, custom-programmed, microprocessor-driven AMX home control system, are used to operate 112 loads of lights, a whole-house audio and video system, 22 zones of heating and cooling, plus 65 motorized window shades and drapes. The screens of the touchpanels, most of which are portable, display a menu based on Integrisys’ proprietary LivSystem software that effectively categorizes the controls of the house by system, room and the family’s schedule.
Serenity by Technology
On the living room menu, for example, the family is presented with options for operating 20-foot-high walls of glass that stretch across the entire east and west sides of the room. “The idea,” explains Eric Wolfram, principal at Integrisys, “is that the family would be able to operate the motorized window shades, window screens and glass panels to open the room up to the outdoors.” A user can elect to control only certain shades and windows instead of the entire wall—keeping the glass closed but the shades open, for example, on chilly Midwestern afternoons. Lighting finishes off the effect, as a user can choose to activate certain groups of exterior and interior fixtures, either from an AMX panel or the room’s Lutron
lighting keypad, which effectively does the job of multiple light switches.
What about music for this serene environment? The AMX system has that covered, too. Audio components, which are stashed in a specially designed equipment closet, are connected to a centralized AMX AutoPatch switcher that sends the tunes to Sonance speakers in 16 different audio zones. Via the LivSystem menu, the owners enter their music selections for any iPod that’s plugged into one of two iPort docking stations, AM/FM radio, and satellite radio. Speakers from Sonance are installed discretely into the walls and ceilings to maintain a clean aesthetic.
Another piece of technology that goes undetected in this ultra-high-tech residence is the video equipment. Several Panasonic and Sony flat-panel TVs are tucked away inside cabinetry, each lifting into view via a motorized assembly at the touch of a button. While it’s a more costly and laborious solution than simply mounting a screen to the wall, it was a preferred option to keep the walls of natural stone, concrete and walnut unadorned. Covering them with screens would have undermined the aesthetic, says Wolfram.
Modes of Control
One very important screen that’s fixed to the walls is a 7-inch AMX touchpanel in the vestibule. It’s the first thing the owners touch when they enter the house and the last as they exit. On it, Integrisys created a page of commands via its proprietary LivSystem software, which divides the functions of the house into “modes.” There’s an away mode that closes the shades and turns off the lights and A/V for the family’s departure, plus a typical evening mode that sets the lights and audio system for a night at home. Other LivModes are room-specific. In the master bedroom, wakeup activates automatically based on a schedule set by the homeowners to open the window shades, brighten the lights, turn the TV to the local news and kick on the radiant floor heating system in the connected bathroom. These and other modes can be accessed on any of the portable AMX touchpanels peppered throughout the house, or from a menu on an iPad.
“The LivModes do a good job of making an otherwise very complicated system easy to operate and intuitive,” say the homeowners. Nowhere is that more evident than in the operation of the home’s commercialgrade heating and cooling system. There are 22 independent heating and cooling zones in this house—meaning there are 22 thermostats—which, thanks to the AMX system, the owners never have to touch. In fact, they don’t even need to look at them. Instead, they peer at the screen of an AMX touchpanel to monitor the temperature of each space and make adjustments if necessary. Extensive zoning like this enables the owners to set back the temperature of unused areas of the house—like the bedrooms during the day—to conserve energy. Even if they forget to adjust the thermostats, the AMX system is there as backup. Based on the family’s interaction with the LivSystem control menu, the AMX system can tell which rooms are occupied. For those that aren’t, it signals the HVAC system to turn down the heat in the winter or the AC in the summer.
While the home today is well-managed and controlled by the LivSystem software and AMX system, there are still a few tweaks in its future, says Wolfram. It’s typical of a family to alter the system during the fi rst few months of use, so Integrisys intentionally labeled the buttons of the Lutron keypads
(each room has at least one) with a paper-printed legend beside the buttons. “We’ll order engraved button kits after the family is certain of how they’d like them labeled,” says Wolfram (see sidebar for details). For example, the family might decide that it makes more sense to label a button UNWIND instead of DIM, or EVENING instead of GOODNIGHT. As the labeling changes, so can the way the AMX system communicates with the home’s various electronic systems. Through the LivSystem software, the family can access a cloud-based copy of the home control program. From there, they can reconfi gure settings remotely, like having the thermostats set back to 65 degrees instead of 70. Just as the house design was created as a refl ection of the family’s unique routines and habits, so can the LivSystem software and AMX home control processor adapt continuously to the changing needs of the homeowners.
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Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.