Old Mill Transformed Into High-Tech Home

An old factory gets a modern-day facelift - as an automated residence. But retrofitting the building for security, control and A/V was no easy task.


The high ceilings of this former mill give plenty of space and light throughout the kitchen, dining and family room. Photo by Scott Arthur.

You’d think Mike and Ann White lived in a brand-new home. When they wake, a good morning scene on their whole-house control system opens the shades, sets the lights to predetermined levels, changes the thermostat settings and turns on the 50-inch HDTV in the family room and kitchen area to their favorite channel. Only the Whites don’t live in a new home. They live in a 1920s mill building that was once a pants factory.

From the outside, you can still almost hear the stitching of the sewing machines. You can imagine the workers toiling at rows of benches. Those workers are no longer there, but some of the sewing machines are kept in a museum room of this office building and residence. And it took plenty of guys in blue jeans to bring the old mill building into the high-tech age, complete with whole-house conveniences and a complicated but flexible security system.

The 33,000-square-foot structure in downtown Rome, GA, not only houses several small offices and businesses, but also a sprawling, multilevel 12,000-square-foot residence for the Whites, who own the building. Their spacious, brick-lined digs feature exposed steel beams and a high-tech home automation system, old wooden floors with sewing needles stuck in the cracks and 13 zones of heating and ventilation control, vintage doors fitted for electronic access and surveillance, a gym with a basketball court and whole-house audio/video entertainment, including two surround-sound systems.

The Whites loved the idea of a nearby restaurant with apartments above and wanted to do something similar, only with businesses and residences. The couple would also use some of the building as their primary residence, though they realized they could have more privacy at night if they leased only to businesses.

The project, which spanned the better part of two years, consisted of gutting much of the national historic landmark, making repairs to structural supports, replacing some windows, building new walls, refurbishing old wood floors, and routing and concealing all the wire.

Ann White says convenience and security were foremost on the homeowners’ minds. “You don’t want to be running around arming doors at night, and we can see what’s open. We can also turn music on anywhere in the building, check to see who’s at the front door and who’s in the parking lot.”

“The most difficult part was to conceal the wiring and make it aesthetically appealing,” says Ron Rimawi of electronics-installation company Digital Interiors, located in Alpharetta, GA. Every kind of wire from Category 5e networking wire to RG-6 and RG-59 coaxial cable for video and camera feeds to speaker wire, security wire and wire for the Crestron home control system, HAI Omni Pro heating and ventilation control, and CentraLite electronic lighting control systems were used. But because of the exposed ceilings, most of the wiring was routed through metal conduit pipe attached to the ceiling or brick walls and painted to match. “The wires have to go to a lot of different areas, and it had to be very carefully laid out,” Rimawi adds.

And plans changed. The Whites originally planned to have electronic access and monitoring of only the two doors to their residence with an HAI Omni system and Crestron home control system, but then decided on access and monitoring of all of the building’s 14 doors. To accommodate this, more conduit pipe had to be added.

In addition, old doors were used to retain the building’s historic look. “The doors were old and we needed to make sure door strikes and magnetic locks could hold the door closed but did not stand out, so they were colored to match. And the security contacts were recessed into the jambs,” says Rimawi.

Access to doors throughout the building had to be flexible. For example, the gym is open during the day to friends and family, but the doors from the gym to the private residence must remain locked. On the other hand, in one of the party scenes programmed into the Whites’ Crestron system, doors to a patio and courtyard are unlocked so people can go there without getting locked out.

Digital Interiors spent a lot of time working with Keyscan, the company that produced the access software for the doors. Conventional RS-232 serial connections like those used on computers were planned to allow the homeowners’ Crestron system control over the doors, but that didn’t work, so Digital Interiors had to find a way to control the doors via electronic relays through the HAI Omni system, says Rimawi.

Digital Interiors also programmed the Crestron system so if someone drives up to the gate and presses the call button, the video feed from the camera would appear on the touchscreen, and the owners could decide to let them in by pressing a button to release the door.

Installation of the Whites’ audio/video systems went somewhat smoother. On the third floor an art gallery sweeps around to the open family room and kitchen and conceals Sound Advance speakers that reside in the walls and behind a coat of plaster. Ten more pairs of Klipsch speakers throughout the residence are hidden in the ceilings and walls and painted to match. A ReQuest music server allows the Whites instant access of their favorite music stored on hard drives and is synced with companion systems in their other homes.

The open layouts and brick walls made some of the entertainment-based installations a bit trickier. In the family room the three front Infinity Prelude speakers are flush-mounted to flank the 50-inch TV in a wall of cutouts for the couple’s glass art collection, while the two surrounds hang from aircraft wire. And in one of the boy’s rooms, a flat-panel LCD is suspended by two 3⁄8-inch threaded rods supported by the steel plates of metal stairs to the roof.

Sometimes you have to get innovative in these old buildings.


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