Old Brownstone Gets High-Tech Overhaul

The owners of this classic 1865 brownstone add a few modern conveniences, and a lot of technology to their "new" home.

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Bob and Leslie Saltzman's 142-year-old brownstone is brimming with high-tech conveniences.

The 1865 brownstone purchased by Bob and Leslie Saltzman had all the features you’d expect to see in a home first occupied by a descendant of William Penn. There was a root cellar where a dumbwaiter would deliver items up to a prep kitchen and then up another level to a serving kitchen, heavy chestnut doors on the exterior and lots and lots of stairs—four flights of them, to be exact. And that’s not counting the stairs that lead to the three levels below grade. While stair climbing is great cardiovascular exercise, the Saltzmans knew it would be an inefficient way to manage their large house. “Each floor had its own air conditioner and thermostat,” Bob explains. “So whenever we wanted to change the temperature, we had to travel up and down the steps to each level. It was absolutely crazy, so I started looking for a way to consolidate the thermostats so that I could control them all from anywhere in the house.”

To find a suitable solution, Bob did what any tech-savvy homeowner would do: He booted up his computer, jumped online, and scoured the Internet for information about controls for heating and cooling systems. His search led him to Home Automation Inc. (HAI), a Louisiana-based company that manufactures a line of smart communicating thermostats, among other products. Bob immediately contacted an HAI rep in his area and began what would become a huge high-tech overhaul—involving the hiring of several separate contractors who would install a wide assortment of electronic products from dozens of manufacturers.

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Running Hot and Cold
One of the first technology experts on the scene was Charles Whitney of C. Whitney Mech., based in Croydon, PA. At the top of his to-do list: Update the home’s existing heating and cooling units with a control system that would allow the Saltzmans to adjust the temperature from anywhere in the house. It would be a tricky endeavor, given the home’s unusual combination of steam, radiant and heat pump systems, plus four individual air-conditioning compressors serving four different zones of the house. Over the course of about a month, the existing heating and cooling units were networked to new HAI thermostats and interactive, wall-mounted touchpanels.

Located on every floor, the touchpanels show the homeowners the current temperature on each level and allow them to adjust the setting of each thermostat directly from the screen. Most of the time, though, the thermostats adjust automatically, having been programmed to raise and lower at predefined times each day based on Bob and Leslie’s routines.

Systems in Sync
The thermostats also react whenever the home’s security sensors are activated. For example, whenever the Saltzmans engage the away button on an HAI touchpanel, every sensor turns on, and the thermostats adjust to a preset energy-saving level. Home systems contractor Michael Gourdine of MG Smart Homes in Cherry Hill, NJ, installed a variety of sensors, including contacts on every exterior window and door, glassbreak detectors and motion sensors in the main hallways. The motion sensors work a double shift, converting from security devices to lighting actuators whenever the HAI system is set to home mode. In that setting, the motion sensors switch on select lights whenever they sense someone pass by. For example, when Bob and Leslie enter the house (having first disarmed the security system from a handheld keyfob device), a motion sensor near the entrance activates the lights in the foyer, stairwell and living room. Walking further into the house, motion sensors trigger on additional lights. The only time the Saltzmans really need to touch something to set the lights is when they’re entertaining. Whitney programmed several lighting scenes into the HAI system so the Saltzmans need only press one button on an HAI touchpanel to arrange dozens of lights for a gathering of friends.

Open-Door Policies
Even when Bob and Leslie are on the top floor of their brownstone where their home offices and gym are located, they know immediately when their friends have arrived and can welcome them inside. A network of surveillance cameras feeds real-time images to every computer and TV screen in the house so the two can see who’s at the door. By pressing certain buttons on one of several Panasonic phones, they can speak with the visitor and unlock the front door and vestibule door. This elaborate entry system is particularly helpful to Bob, who works from home in an office on the fourth floor. “If I’m working and see that the UPS man has rung the bell, I can buzz open the front door and use the intercom to ask him to leave the package in the vestibule. But if it’s my sister-in-law, I can buzz open both doors to let her inside,” he explains. “It [the phone-based entry system] has become a critical part of our house.”

Network-Friendly Entertainment
Also important to Bob and Leslie was having a way to link their computers to their entertainment gear. For now, Bob’s network of TVs, computers and speakers is fed by a Media Center PC stashed in a second-floor closet along with a computer server and hub (each floor has its own server and hub for reliable communications between computers). The Saltzmans have filled the 100-gigabyte hard drive of the Media Center with more than 400 CDs, digital photos, and music and movies downloaded from the Internet. Using a remote control, they can view the Media Center library on the screen of any TV that’s connected to a Media Center Extender. Together, these components form an in-home World Wide Web where audio and video travel freely throughout the house. And the network doesn’t stop there. Al Coston of Cosanco Enterprises in Jonesboro, GA, also put the HAI home control system on the IP network so that the Saltzmans can view the status of their home’s lights, thermostats and security system on any TV screen and make adjustments via the remote.

Routers help keep the traffic flowing between the home’s four floors, and high-capacity gigabit switches ensure that the network can handle any new type of content that comes its way. “When IPTV service takes off, my house will have the pipeline to support it,” Bob raves. “I’ll be able to bring the content into the house and move it to any flat-screen TV or computer device.”

To take advantage of the rich array of entertainment choices, the Saltzmans brought in yet another contractor, Paul Jones of Systema Sound and Vision in Audubon, PA, to design several mini theaters in different areas of the house. The most serious setup occupies the basement rec room, where a 50-inch Samsung plasma HDTV and a Denon 5.1 surround-sound system bring movies and video games to life. Additional media setups were installed in the master bedroom, home office, den and rec room. The den’s DLPTV and the office’s plasma TV each have a Media Center Extender plugged into them so that they can derive content from the Media Center PC. The Saltzmans plan to eventually provide every TV with access to the Media Center.

Room to Grow
The ability to expand and integrate additional products onto the IP network is the real beauty of Bob and Leslie Saltzman’s historic brownstone. They can enjoy the technologies they’ve chosen for their home today without feeling trapped into systems that will eventually become antiquated. Should something newer or better come along, they can always upgrade the network, giving their 142-year-old home the high-tech backbone it needs to stand the test of time.

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