Getting to grips with smart homes

With the detrimental impact of the recession being felt across the UK housing sector, there is one niche area of the market that has performed well and is continuing to demonstrate its resilience in the face of the downturn. Properties in the £5 million plus price bracket in both London and the Country are part of a sector where supply is tighter and where the market is supported by a larger proportion of cash buyers and super-rich purchasers.

In this high-end, luxury homes sector, the project is often equivalent in size, scale and scope of works to a commercial or public sector development. Wealthy homeowners are frequently assembling project teams led by a project manager or architect which draws on expertise from all the traditional disciplines in the building supply chain, including the building services consultant.

At the same time, specialist top-end residential developers, such as, Candy & Candy and Westcity, have taken advantage of the market opportunity in this sector with landmark luxury home developments, including Number One Hyde Park in Knightsbridge and The Phillimores in Kensington amongst numerous others.  

Private clients who have large commercial property portfolios and are running their personal domestic projects use precisely the same team. Equally, there has been a rise in mixed-use developments which incorporate significant residential schemes. Since luxury-style penthouse apartments are invariably a high-profile element of these schemes, consultants are under pressure to get to grips with the different aspects of these projects, not least understanding the lifestyle tastes and preferences of the eventual homeowner, and the impact that these factors will have on services design.  With this high-end price tag come high expectations, especially with regard to home entertainment and the degree to which these sub-systems can and are required to be integrated.

High end control

The technology that’s required can include pretty much anything that’s electronically operated in the home: from high-end TV’s, media servers and multi-room hi-fi systems, to home networks which intelligently control all aspects of the home, including blinds and security systems, but also integrating with lighting and HVAC control systems. More and more of these control systems can monitor energy usage and fully shutdown equipment that consumes power even when not being used.

But it doesn’t stop there, specialist companies, represented by CEDIA, are often asked to integrate automatic systems for garden watering, swimming pool temperature monitoring and cover operation, letterbox delivery, fish-feeding, floor, wall, ceiling and bookcase moving amongst other things. You name it – if it can be automated.

This is very much a specialist area, albeit one where there is a degree of synergy and even overlap with traditional building services engineering and control disciplines. Both have a number of complex sub-systems to consider and then deliver on a project. To bring about the right solution requires extensive design and planning expertise. CIBSE and CEDIA members are also both responsible for translating the client’s brief into a reality that they can live with and adds value to the finished property.  It is true to say that a percentage of mechanical and electrical consultants may be aware of home technology and already enjoy good work relationships with CEDIA members. But they may not necessarily realise who or what CEDIA is and stands for and why they should be involving a CEDIA member as a specialist sub-contractor to design and install sophisticated entertainment and control systems on residential projects.

Technology specialists

Like CIBSE, CEDIA is a recognised and professional trade association. Originally founded in the US in 1989 CEDIA came to the UK in 1996 and represents over 400 member companies in Europe, Russia and the CIS, the Middle East and Africa. These member companies range from custom installers, or Electronic System Professionals (ESP’s), who are the businesses which specialise in the planning, design, supply, integration and concealment of home electronic systems to equipment distributors and the leading brand manufacturers.

In short, CEDIA ESP members are home technology specialists who have in-depth knowledge of the latest systems.  Keeping this knowledge current is a continual challenge.  CEDIA member companies spend a great deal of time and money in education. CEDIA certification is a mandatory requirement of membership for all the Association’s ESP members and places obligations upon members to continue their training which is equivalent to the CPD requirements familiar to many CIBSE members.

Building services consultants have a wide range of responsibilities on a project. It is fundamentally important and mutually beneficial for our two professions to work together. CEDIA members gain from having a professional building services engineer on the project who can incorporate their requirements into the overall project scheme.  Meanwhile, by working with a CEDIA member, the building services consultant can delegate the responsibility for home entertainment, data/telephony, lighting, home security and other control systems to a trained professional and trust in their advice, experience and competence.

After all, with the best will in the world, the building services consultant cannot be expected to be up to date on every smart home system on the market. How can he or she know, for example, the best ways of receiving and distributing high definition video content to all plasma screens on a development? Yet, because home technology is still not a common or automatic consideration on all properties in the UK, it sometimes falls to the M&E consultant to become an expert when the issue of technology arises.

Developing relationships

Ideally, CEDIA members should be involved as early as possible in the project.  Most smart home installations require cabling to be run. There will also be additional power and ventilation requirements for the equipment. Early involvement in the planning and design stage will ensure that these needs are identified in tender documents which can avoid unexpected costs and overruns later in the project.  

Regrettably, there are occasions when the technology is not thought about until right at the end of the project, purely because the TV screens and audio equipment aren’t typically installed until after the carpets are down and the furniture is in. But what we have to realise is that the cabling and power for all this equipment has to be installed at 1st fix.  It is, therefore, much better to bring home technology issues up early with your client when it can be planned in properly because not everything can be retrofitted easily or cost-effectively.

In addition, particularly in the residential sector, a high percentage of the home technology must be very discreet, hidden from sight, and work seamlessly with the building structure and interior décor.  To do this effectively, factors such as cable routing, cable separation from other high voltage electrical cables, as well as space planning to house head-end equipment, speakers, projectors and the like need to be considered in the design of the building at a very early stage.

Working more closely and developing stronger business relationships between CIBSE members and CEDIA members is a key objective of our Association. Here, we believe education has a major role to play. That’s why CEDIA has developed a special introductory course entitled Designing Integrated Future-Ready Homes which will shortly have CIBSE CPD approval. Building on Designing Integrated Future-Ready Homes and another CEDIA initiative of interest to M&E consultants and contractors will be the launch of a CEDIA Eco CPD course, scheduled for launch towards the en
d of 2009,

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