The Family Room: Controlling It All
Get the most out of your home's most popular room with lighting and entertainment control systems.
Family Room
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March 01, 2006 by Lisa Montgomery

It’s natural to spend a lot of time in a family room. Typically, it’s the largest room of the house, so there’s plenty of space to sprawl out when you’re entertaining guests or helping your kids tackle a science project. The family room is also usually positioned as one of the first areas you encounter when you enter a home, so briefcases, backpacks, shoes and other items naturally fall there. Because the room is such a popular spot for hanging out, furnishing it with items that reflect your family’s tastes, hobbies and style is important. Fireplaces, huge windows, leather sofas and artwork are common family room amenities. More recently, electronic products have become a popular choice. Big-screen TVs, speakers, architectural lighting and computer stations are just some of the products homeowners are choosing to incorporate into their family rooms these days. In addition to simply being a great place to kick off your shoes and relax, the family room can also serve as a home theater, a library and a place to entertain company.

Throwing a Party
What’s the occasion: a birthday bash for your best friend or a friendly card game for a few of your favorite co-workers? It doesn’t really matter what type of get-together you’re hosting; having it at your home is always a great idea. Your guests are bound to feel more comfortable in your cozy family room than at a cold, sterile banquet hall. And although there’s always a good amount of cleaning up to do afterwards, as the host, you’re in charge. By setting the lights a certain way and playing the right music, you can control the energy of the party. For example, when you’re in the mood for a quiet, intimate affair, dimming the lights and playing jazz softly in the background can set the mood. Then when you’re ready to get wild and crazy with 50 of your closest friends, you can crank up the tunes and turn on a group of pin lights to accent your favorite pieces of art. Your son’s monthly Cub Scout pack meeting, meanwhile, calls for something totally different. They’ll be able to read their handbooks and concentrate on a presentation better when every light is at its brightest and the music is off. If your family room will be used for any type of gathering, you’ll definitely want to consider having a lighting control system and a music system installed.

A lighting control system can set the mood at the press of a single button. A button labeled romantic, for example, could dim all but a couple of wall sconces, while a entertain button could brighten every corner of the room. A home systems installer can create any number of scenes for your family room, but most lighting control keypads hold between four and eight buttons. What you call each scene is completely up to you.

The same buttons that set the family room lights can also be used to control the stereo system. For example, the entertain button could set your satellite radio tuner to a station that plays nothing but classic rock as it arranges the lights. However, if your music collection is rather large, or if you’re picky about the songs you listen to, consider using a separate keypad to control the music. One with a built-in screen is particularly useful. A home systems installer can configure it to display the titles of your entire CD collection as well as your favorite satellite radio stations and the MP3 files stored on your computer or music server. You can use the buttons of the keypad to scroll through and select the songs as if you were using a jukebox.

Watching Movies
Many homeowners simply don’t have the space or the money to dedicate a room to a home theater. Using the family room is a great alternative. If the area is large, you may even be able to incorporate a huge 100-inch screen into the space. However, having a home theater takes more than just a gigantic display. The whole environment must be conducive to watching movies. For starters, the room should be dark, it should be equipped with at least five speakers and the equipment should be easy to operate.

There are many types of TVs that function beautifully in any type of lighting. The pictures presented by plasma TVs, direct-view TVs, rear-projection TVs and LCD TVs look nearly as stunning in a bright room as they do in a room that’s dark. Keep them in mind if you plan to watch movies and other programs with the lights on. This style of TV watching is what many home systems installers call “casual viewing” and is very common in a multipurpose family room. As long as the screen is fairly large (at least 42 inches diagonally) this type of TV also works well for when you’re ready to turn off the lights and become totally engrossed in a movie.

Being able to darken your family room requires two things: dimmable lighting and some type of window covering. Using dimmer switches instead of toggle switches is an affordable way to fade out the family room lights. However, if you’ll be using your family room for a number of activities, consider upgrading to a more advanced lighting control system. That way, you can tap one button on a keypad to turn off the lights, while the remaining buttons arrange the lights differently for all the other activities that take place.

Families tend to watch movies at night, so turning off the lights is all it takes to make the room nice and dark. However, a lazy Sunday afternoon is also a great time to catch a flick. In this case, darkening the room will require closing the window shades. Many window-covering manufacturers offer blackout shades specifically for home theater environments. Unlike most window treatments that filter incoming sunlight, blackout shades completely block it out. The shades can be attached to a motorized rod that can be controlled from a handheld remote or even the keypad of a lighting control system. The same movie button that activates the surround-sound system and TV and dims the lights can also shut the shades. Voila! Your family room has been transformed into a home theater.

Relaxing
If you’re like most homeowners, you’ve chosen comfortable furnishings for your family room: a couch that seems to wrap around your body, a recliner that’s a close second to your bed and plenty of coffee tables and end tables to hold your snacks and drinks. The electronic systems you choose for your family room should be just as soothing to the soul. That means music is a must. A home systems installer can help you choose components that fit your budget and your needs. For example, he might suggest a heavy-duty amplifier if you like your music loud or a music server if your CD library has run amok. Depending on the style of your family room, you can either store the components inside an entertainment cabinet or hide them away in a closet. If you prefer to conceal them, make sure to commandeer a closet before the construction of your house is finished so that a home systems installer can route the appropriate wiring to the hideout while the walls are exposed.

Of course, the room will need speakers. If the family room will be used as a place to entertain, it’s best to install several speakers into the ceiling so that the sound is balanced throughout the entire space. However, if you take your music seriously, you might create a special listening zone within the family room. This area could be a special corner of the room or a favorite chair that will sit directly in front of the TV screen. The in-ceiling speakers might suffice for your corner listening nook, but for a better listening experience, place two small but powerful bookshelf speakers at ear level. The speakers could be mounted to the surface of the wall or placed on a bookshelf.

For front and center music listening, the same five (or more) speakers that spill the dialogue and sound effects from a movie into the family room can also be used to play back music. A five-speaker arrangement is particularly well suited for SACD and DVD-Audio discs. With just a press of a button, your family room can switch from a home theater into a listening room.

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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.

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