With a little help from smart-home experts Bob Hetherington and Bob Vila, you can install the gadgets and wiring to give your abode — new or old — an IQ boost.


Ben Hewitt

by Ben Hewitt

With a little help from smart-home experts Bob Hetherington and Bob Vila, you can install the gadgets and wiring to give your abode - new or old - an IQ boost.

Reprinted with permission

Illustration by William Taylor

It's unlikely you'll ever be a guest at Bill Gates' house, but if you were, you'd witness what is perhaps the ultimate display of "smart house" technology. That's because the Microsoft founder's 66,000-square-foot home incorporates touch-sensitive pads in each room to control music, lighting, and climate. Guests can be outfitted with tiny electronic pins that tell the home's computer system who and where they are; the computer then adjusts individual room settings to the wearer's preferences.

Great, you say, but what does that have to do with me? After all, your house is probably less than a 20th the size of the Gates' abode. And try as you might (which is pretty darn hard), you simply can't shut off your teenage son's music from the living room.

Maybe not at the moment, but it's surprisingly simple to renovate or build a home that incorporates the latest in home tech (see "5 Great Wired Resources" on page 40). Who better to answer your questions than a dream-team of home technology experts: the best-known contractor in the U.S., Bob Vila, along with Bob Hetherington, editor of www.hometoys.com, the leading online home technology library and e-magazine.

First, Vila wants you to banish the commonly used term "smart house" from your vocabulary. "Eight years ago, we built a house in Malibu," remembers Vila, creator and host of the popular television show Bob Vila's Home Again. "With all the salt in the air, the 'smart' wiring turned out to be real dumb."

So what title does Vila apply to the burgeoning trend of building and renovating homes with the latest technologies to control everything from the television to the toaster to the thermostat? "I call it 'connected,' because so much of it is about how the Internet plays a role in managing and running a home," explains Vila, whose summer home on Martha's Vineyard bristles with wireless technology. "Learning to use the controls has been the hardest part," admits the straight-talking contractor-turned-celebrity. "But it's just astonishing what's possible. Still, I'm trying not to live with a remote control around my neck."

Like Vila, most homeowners aren't interested in becoming slaves to their remotes, but they are interested in discovering how these technologies can make their lives better. And although there are countless applications, interest runs particularly high in two categories.

Of all the 21st-century wonders built into Vila's Vineyard home, he's most enamored with his security system, which utilizes a digital recorder to provide real-time images. "I can be on a business trip anywhere in the world, and beam up a live picture of my backyard on my laptop," says Vila.

This application has obvious appeal to frequent travelers like Vila, but even stay-at-home parents can benefit from the technology. By training the camera on their children's backyard jungle gym or tree fort, they're gaining an extra set of eyes.

High-tech systems can actually amplify security, according to Hetherington. "Automation added to security provides a whole new dimension. It means that you can use the security panel to activate numerous security functions, such as lighting scenes and camera angles, without having to learn another gadget."

Now that satellite TV and home theater systems have become almost ubiquitous, what's next? It's called "whole house entertainment," and it means pretty much what it sounds like: entertainment systems that emanate from a central source to deliver music or images throughout the house. "Networking of devices and systems is the buzz, and that will be true for some time," says Hetherington. "Integration of entertainment systems makes a lot of sense and that is where we are going."

In layman's terms, this means you'll be able to reduce the volume of the music in your son's room to a dull roar, without leaving the living room. Even better, program your new system to pipe in some Barry Manilow. Now, that's revenge.

Even for the homeowner well-versed in technospeak, navigating the home technology marketplace can feel like driving through downtown Boston. In a tractor-trailer. With no reverse. To help make your journey easier, we sat down with Bob Hetherington for some straight talk on home technology.

American Way: I'm building a new house, and would like to incorporate some of these technologies. But given that my computer was obsolete within months of purchase, won't these technologies meet the same fate?

Bob Hetherington
: Not really. If you install lots of wiring and do a bit of planning, you'll be covered. Manufacturers don't really want to leave you behind; they want you to get more out of the infrastructure you already have. Yes, there will always be newer and better technologies being developed, but if you want to upgrade, there will most likely be backward compatibility in some form. Even the wireless market seems to be settling down to a common technology standard.

American Way: I'm confused. You're telling me to install wiring, but I thought wireless was all the rage?

Wireless, especially for entertainment networks, is not there yet. My experience with wireless speakers and other components is less than stellar. The future may be wireless, but we have to live in the present.

American Way: I'm not sure which technologies I want, but I know I want to be ready for them when I do decide. How should I prepare?

When building a new home, the main thing to do is install wire, and then more wire, and then some more wire still. Yes, some of it will be irrelevant in the future, but it's not expensive to do. And if it's not there when you want it, you'll be dealing with a big headache and big bills.

American Way: When you say "wire," what do you mean? Fiber optic?

Fiber optic is not necessary in my opinion. You want Cat5 wire for communications and data networks, RG6 wire for video distribution, and good quality speaker wire for multiroom audio, and some Cat5 wire may be required for control of the multiroom system.

American Way: What trends are you seeing in home technology?

We're moving from wild technology development to solid product availability. More and more new homes are being fitted with some sort of wiring network, and manufacturers are developing products that take advantage of this infrastructure.

American Way: What's the next big thing in the home technology market?

I'm not sure that there is a next big thing. There are already more big things than we need; now, we just need to implement them in the real marketplace.

American Way: What's your favorite example of recent home technology?

My personal favorite is the home audio server, which stores thousands of hours of music on a hard disk. New versions of these are available with several output zones so that when used in a multiroom system each room can be playing a different tune, all from the same central audio server. Many of these can also be plugged into the Internet as well, so that when you go to burn your CD onto the server it goes to an Internet database of CD information [CDDB] and gets all the track and album information to display on your system automatically. Cool!

American Way: OK, I'm ready to go with my new house. But how do I find a contractor who's qualified to install these high-tech systems?

A systems integrator is key to a successful installation. As with any other contractor or consultant, it's best to ask for references. Find out from others if they are happy and whether their system works. Also, do some research into what equipment brands you want to use and go to the manufacturers for a list of local integrators who handle the products.

American Way: What if I'm not building a new house, but I'd like to add some technology to my existing home or apartment. Am I out of luck?

If possible, it's best to install the wiring that you need for the project behind the walls or in the attic. But this can be expensive and is always messy in an existing home. For computers, there are other solutions such as wireless, powerline [existing electric wires and outlets], and existing telephone wire networks. Home lighting and appliance control over the powerline is also an option that works well in most applications.

BEN HEWITT writes for a number of magazines, including Men's Journal, Bicycling, Bike, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, Powder, and Skiing.

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