The High-Tech Steam Mill

A Virginia couple transforms an old steam mill into an award-winning contemporary abode, complete with flat-screen TVs and invisible speakers.


The backside of the 50-incher in the living room was built into the wall to maintain the home's clean architectural lines. Shrek 2 TM & © 2004 DreamWorks LLC. All rights reserved.

Martina and Braun Jones’s 150-year-old townhouse had all the trappings of a vintage abode: beautifully detailed moldings, rich woodwork and fine antique furniture. And true to its heritage, it was devoid of anything more high-tech than a five-disc CD changer. The techno-free furnishings suited the period and character of the house and were as comfortable to the couple as a pair of well-worn loafers. But Martina and Braun were ready for a big change. In 2001, they made the decision to sell all of their antique furniture and their beloved house to move three blocks down the street into a 2,400-square-foot condominium in the heart of historic Alexandria, VA.

They found the sturdy brick structure steeped in a colorful history. In the early 1800s, it had been home to the Green Steams Furniture Company, a factory that specialized in applying veneer to furniture by using steam. Later, it became a shoe factory and then an auto repair shop. Finally, in the 1970s, the factory was converted into several small condominiums.

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Remarkably, even after nearly 200 years of change, Braun and Martina’s new residence had remained true to the style and architecture of the building’s original time period. “There was a lot of exposed brick on the walls, and the rooms were very choppy,” Martina recalls.

But given their plans to incorporate 21st-century technology into the space, Braun and Martina were happy to convert the place into something completely different. They started by knocking down a few walls to open up the rooms, removing the heavy draperies and replacing the tinted windows with clear glass for a better view of the Potomac River. “We did a complete 180,” says Martina. “The place is now hugely contemporary. We even have an eggplant-colored chaise and a sunflower-yellow couch!”

TVs With a Twist
Amid the new eye-popping colors and the clean architectural lines, the home’s sophisticated music and video systems are nearly impossible to detect. But that’s the way Martina and Braun intended them to be. “We wanted a very clean look throughout, and that meant hiding all of the electronics,” Martina says. That’s a tall order in most homes, but because the couple planned to gut the place, most of the electronic gear would be able to be hidden behind newly constructed walls, closets and other structures. The only pieces of technology that would remain visible would be several flat-screen TVs and touchpanels, agreed home systems installer Bill Wiley of Systems by Design, interior designer Sydnye Pettengill of Sydnye Pettengill Interior Design Inc. and architect Patrick Camus of Bentley Adams Architects, all based in Alexandria.

Measuring less than four inches deep and designed to hug the wall, flat-panel TVs were the obvious choice of display. But rather than simply hanging them up, the installation crew at Systems by Design planted the backside of at least one set into the wall so that only the screen and bezel were visible. “We made a pact that all we were going to expose was glass [of the TVs],” Wiley recalls. In the living room, for example, a section of an inoperable fireplace flue was boxed out to hold a 50-inch plasma TV so that absolutely nothing protruded from the wall.

The look is so uncharacteristic of a typical TV that Martina sometimes uses the plasma more for invoking ambiance than for watching movies. To create the effect, Wiley loaded several screen savers onto a DVD that Martina can access by pressing a button on any of the five portable or three in-wall Crestron touchpanels located throughout the house. “When we’re entertaining guests, I might make the TV look like a fireplace or an aquarium filled with colorful fish,” Martina explains. The resolution of the screen is so spectacular that the displays look amazingly realistic.

In addition to the plasma in the living room, there are smaller plasmas or LCDs in the adjoining kitchen, the master bedroom and in both Martina and Braun’s offices. To avoid missing any of the action, the in-wall Crestron touchpanels can also function as TVs—a feature that is particularly appealing to Martina when she’s getting ready in the morning. “Every room offers the ability to watch TV,” says Wiley. “In some areas, the couple even has the choice of watching something on two different screens.”

One room where Braun and Martina find it easy to focus on one TV is in their master bedroom. There, a 30-inch LCD sits front and center at the end of their bed. Usually hidden in the footboard, the TV rises into perfect viewing position at the press of a button. The bed was custom made with TV watching in mind. “We designed a headboard with a comfortable pitch for seated viewing and made sure that the length and width of the bed correlated with the proper viewing distance,” Pettengill notes. Although Martina would rather read than watch TV, Braun’s late-night viewing never disturbs her. The TV mutes automatically the second Braun slips on a pair of headphones. Should he nod off, the TV stays in its elevated position until morning so that the noise of the motor doesn’t wake the sleeping couple.

Out of Sight
As Martina and Braun planned from the beginning, TV glass would be the only visible indication of technology. Everything else, from the speakers to the audio and video components, would remain completely out of sight. While the home was under construction, Systems by Design mounted 18 Sound Advance speakers to numerous wall studs. After the drywall was hung, the speakers were covered with plaster so not even their grilles peeked out. These invisible speakers are part of a whole-house music system that lets Braun and Martina listen to different music simultaneously in different rooms. “In my office area on the lower level I can listen to my music while Braun listens to his classics in his office,” Martina says. “When we did this in our old house, we needed equipment in each room. But in this house, each room pulls music from a central pod of equipment.”

The equipment, which includes three satellite receivers, an Arrakis hard-disk audio jukebox, a DVD player, a tape player and a VCR, resides inside a mechanical closet. As part of his electronic design, Wiley purposely located the closet near the center of the condo so that loading discs and tapes would be convenient for the Joneses. The central location, along with the small size of the condo, allowed every TV to share a single set of sources and precluded having to incorporate equipment into each area. “To accommodate the changes that we would inevitably be making to the system, we also ran conduit from the central closet to each video location,” Wiley adds. “This gives us great flexibility going forward and will allow us to adapt the system as necessary in five years, which was something that was important to Braun.”

One-Touch Control
Everything that sits inside the equipment closet can be controlled by any touchpanel in the house. For instance, Martina can scroll through a list of music stored in the Arrakis jukebox, select a song she wants to hear and adjust the volume. While she’s at it, she might dim the lights, close the drapes and bump up the heat. “It’s really changed the way we live,” Martina proclaims.

Having one-touch control of the house becomes even more convenient when the Joneses are preparing to leave for a long vacation. “Because we travel a lot, we had Bill program the system so that we can turn off everything from a touchpanel,” Martina says. When the vacation mode is engaged, the Crestron control system sweeps through the house, turning off the lights, music and TVs; setting back the thermostat; closing the drapes; and draining all the water from the plumbing so that the pipes won’t freeze. Most of the time, the Joneses are headed to their 62-foot yacht to spend a few months on the water. Having grown attached to their music system at home, however, they usually take a few CDs with them to play on the boat. Even if a CD accidentally falls overboard, neither Martina nor Braun are too upset. They know that every tune they own is stored on the hard drive of their audio jukebox at home.

Alive and Kicking
Back home after touring the Atlantic, the Joneses feel as if they had never left. The condo is warm, well-lit and comfortable within seconds of pressing the home button on a touchpanel. “The whole place springs back to life,” says Martina. Then it’s back to the reality of living in a smart, sophisticated house, where Braun might press office a/v on the touchpanel next to his desk to tune the plasma to a financial news station and feed classical music to a pair of invisible speakers. For Martina, coming home is more about rekindling her fondness for the view. On her command, the drapes slide open to reveal rows of historic homes, grand church steeples and the Potomac River.

Breaking it Down
Jukebox Hero – The DC6-1000 audio jukebox is actually six players in one. When it’s attached to a whole-house music system, like the Crestron system used in Martina and Braun Jones’s home, it can play six different songs at a time in different rooms.
Gaining Composure

Lighting it Up – The lighting in the Jones’ residence was designed to enhance the contemporary furnishings and architecture. The dimmers were installed inside an equipment closet to mitigate wall clutter. Instead, the couple uses slender Lightolier keypads or Crestron touchpanels to control the lights.

Rooms with a View – Motorized Sivoia shades from Lutron were applied to the skylights and windows so that the homeowners could open and shut the treatments simply by pressing a button.

40 hours – Interviews & Preliminary Design Systems by Design spent a considerable amount of time talking with Martina and Braun Jones about their desires and educating them on how electronic systems could enhance their new home. The initial concepts were refined with the assistance of Sydnye Pettengill, the interior designer, and Patrick Camus, the architect.

60 hours – Electronic Design & Engineering Systems by Design generated wiring plans and schedules as well as detailed schematics before any wiring was installed.

100 hours – Prewire & Rough-in Several miles of wiring were routed throughout the residence.

280 hours – Trim-out Various components were mounted and connected.

240 hours – Programming Systems by Design programmed the systems to ensure that the Joneses could operate everything effortlessly.

20 hours – Calibration The final step involved tweaking the displays, the audio system and the lighting scenes.

Equipment List

    Control & Switching

  • Crestron Pro 2-Series controller
  • Crestron Ethernet card
  • Crestron audio matrix switchers (2)
  • Crestron video matrix switcher
  • Crestron in-wall color touchpanels (3)
  • Crestron portable color touchpanels (5)
  • Audio & Video Sources

  • Arrakis Hard Disk Jukebox
  • Sony DVD player
  • Mitsubishi VCR
  • Zenith HD satellite receivers (2)
  • RCA satellite receiver
  • Denon dual-zone receiver
  • Displays

  • Fujitsu 50-inch plasma TV
  • Fujitsu 42-inch plasma TV
  • Hitachi 42-inch plasma TV
  • Sharp 30-inch LCD TV
  • Luce 22-inch LCD TV
  • Speakers & Amps

  • Sound Advance invisible speakers (18)
  • Triad in-wall subwoofers (4)
  • Sonance Mariner Jr. 20 outdoor speakers (2)
  • MTX enclosed ceiling speakers (2)
  • Sherbourn 12-channel amplifiers (2)
  • Climate Control

  • Enerzone Communications Base
  • Enerzone flush-mount temperature sensors (2)
  • Enerzone remote temperature sensor
  • Enerzone outdoor temperature sensor
  • Enerzone thermostat
  • Lighting Control

  • Lightolier Compose system
  • Lutron Sivoia motorized shades (6)

Electronics Design & Installation by
Systems by Design, LLC,
Alexandria, VA


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