This article originally appeared in Electronic House Magazine. Copyright ©, Electronic House. The article was written by Julie Jacobson. All photographs by Peter Peirce.
A spectacular view of New York City, combined with a cup of fresh coffee and a steamy shower. What may seem like a special treat to honeymooners or a harried executive on business travel, is just a typical morning for Michael Bolanos, the owner of an automated penthouse in Greenwich Village.
Although his living space is small - just 1,200 square feet -- the amenities are huge. Perched at the highest point in Greenwich Village, and packed with technology, Michael's penthouse puts him on top of the world.
As creative as he is, Michael's automation wish list didn't just spring magically from his mind. His plan took months of research -- scouring back issues of Electronic House, sitting through demonstration videos and combing through home automation books, catalogs and Web sites. "I was very proactive," he says. "I knew that I wanted to use a PC interface and that I wanted a system that could do its own thing, so I could enjoy those rare moments at home."
Finding the right people for the job was easy for Michael. The gregarious young CEO of eDrive, an entertainment news company with a Hollywood-style Web site, is well-networked in New York City. He first chose a remodeler who recommended an electrical contractor, who knew of a talented home systems integrator: Al Diamanti of Smart Home Systems Inc., Smithtown, NY.
When Al first visited the penthouse, he recalls Michael greeted him with a wish list on a scrap of paper and said. "Can you do this?" Al called up his design and integration partner Ken Donnelly of KD Systems, Sayville, NY, and the rest is history.
Most of all, the on-the-go businessman wanted a morning routine that eased him out of bed and into his business suit. "Mornings are a nightmare for me," says Michael.
Before he goes to bed at night Michael sets his alarm clock not an ordinary clock but a 16-button tabletop controller from X-10 PRO. Lest he oversleep and miss an important meeting, an IntellaVoice voice annunciator from Intella-Home verbally confirms the time selected for wakeup.
When the alarm goes off, the electronics wake up, but the resident sleepyhead doesn't.
As Michael gains consciousness, the Thermasol steam shower revs up, the bathroom towel warmer and space heater crank on, and the coffee maker starts brewing. Meanwhile, the AM/FM tuner shuttles radio tunes to Meridian loudspeakers in the bedroom as the Easy Rise black-out shades from Hunter Douglas lift to reveal the awesome New York skyline.
Overhead, the lights ramp up slowly to simulate sunrise. Five minutes later, the radio fades as the 72-inch motorized video screen from Da-Lite drops from the ceiling and a SharpVision LCD projector powers up. CNBC automatically pops onto the screen, giving Michael a glimpse of the morning news and the stock report.
The BEDROOM scenario also lights a pathway to the kitchen where Michael grabs a cup of hot coffee. In the adjacent office nook, he rifles through some of the 200 emails he's received overnight from Europe and Asia. Finally, he heads to the beckoning shower which by now is fully fogged.
While Michael suds up, he won't miss a beat of the morning news. The stereo system pipes audio to the waterproof Niles speakers in the shower.
On his way out the front door Michael presses AWAY on a four-button Leviton controller, and the electronically active home shuts down for a long nap. Except for a few lights for Peter, his pet rabbit, any piece of equipment left on automatically turns off until Michael returns.
After a tough day at the office, it's easy to unwind when he crosses the threshold of his comfortable co-op. Even entertaining is easy -- pressing the PARTY button primes the penthouse for a scientifically engineered soiree: "There are ways to trigger people to do things naturally based on lighting and sound," says Michael, who formerly produced live concert events. "It's psychographic," he says.
While the party is young, for example, music plays somewhat loudly and the lights are bright to relax guests during the awkward, get-to-know-each-other stage. But after 20 minutes, as the conversation flows more freely, the music level lowers and the lights dim.
During quiet evenings at home, Michael slips into bed, surrounded by wall-to-wall luxury. Before him is a fully equipped entertainment center; to his right the New York skyline fills an entire window-lined wall; and at the opposite end of the room, colored lights masked behind Japanese Shoji paper-like panels ramp up gradually when photocell sensors signal the arrival of dusk.
Michael ends his day by pressing the GOODNIGHT button on a nearby wall-mounted controller or on a handheld remote. The command lowers the blackout shades and pulls the plug on any lights and appliances that Michael may have left on.
Most homes with ambitious automation systems have a stash of controllers in a special automation closet built for the task. But in a New York City co-op, you can't expect a generous attic, basement or utility closet for housing the controllers. In Michael's place, all of the components responsible for the co-op's intelligence reside in a compact cabinet cleverly concealed behind the removable back panel of a stereo cabinet.
Most of Michael's lights and appliances are plugged into ultra-affordable X-10 PRO modules.
The focal point of the equipment cabinet is a TimeCommander-Plus (TC-P) controller from JDS Technologies. Virtually every electronic system in the unit connects ultimately to the TC-P controller, which issues commands to the various electronic components based on certain events or times of day.
To enact a scene manually, Michael uses any one of the Leviton keypads mounted in every room of his home or one of two X-10 PRO tabletop controllers. Signals are sent from the controllers to the TC-P over the penthouse's existing AC powerlines via X-10 technology. If Michael needs to call in from the road, a telephone interface from Telemaster, which ties into the TC-P, turns touchtone signals into automation commands.
Except for the track lights connected to sophisticated lighting control modules from Powerline Control Systems (PCS), most of Michael's lights and appliances are plugged into ultra-affordable X-10 PRO modules that receive instructions from signals sent over the powerlines.
Racks of audio/video gear take their cues from a JDS IR Xpander, which plugs into the TC-P and transmits appropriate infrared commands to the Sharp, Pioneer, Marantz and Rotel A/V components.
The first course of action for integrating the audio/video components into the grand automation scheme was to fold the functions of Michael's 11 hand-held remotes into a single URC-1 learning remote from Xantech. For this grueling task, Ken had to "teach" the URC-1 the infrared codes of virtually every command -- ON, OFF, VOLUME UP, VOLUME DOWN, FAST FORWARD, and so on -- of each original remote.
As for controlling his extensive array of Meridian speakers and audio processors, Michael wouldn't part with his sleek, easy-to-use Meridian remote. Eventually, the new IntelliControl from Niles Audio will replace the entire lot of remotes.
For now, Michael can operate virtually every electronic device in the house - including the surround sound system in his bedroom -- and enact any scene at any time from his Xantech remote. He simply points the remote at the X-10 Infrared Command Center tucked in the A/V shelves in his bedroom. The command center converts the IR signals to X-10 commands, which are shuttled to the IR Xpander mounted in the cabinet. The Xpander in turn sends the appropriate commands to the A/V equipment and other electronic devices plugged into the whole-house network.
It takes a special touch -- and special equipment -- to automate an apartment. In this case, because of the extent of the planned renovation, Michael needed permission from the co-op board to proceed. No problem there, says Michael: "The board was supportive and the neighbors couldn't wait to see the finished product."
That technicality was tiny compared to the significant electrical challenges posed by the post-war powerlines. Apartments and other non-residential facilities rely on three-phase electrical service, as opposed to one-phase service for homes. Special hardware and software were, therefore, required.
Fighting interference inherent to the powerlines of an ordinary home is challenging enough, but Michael's system had to battle noise from every unit in the complex. To build a "rock-solid" system, Al installed special noise filters and signal strengtheners at Michael's electrical service panel.
The one-foot-thick concrete and plaster walls posed another challenge to the installation. High-speed carbide-tipped saws were used to create channels in the stubborn ceilings through which to run the various electrical, A/V and communications cables.
Furthermore, the electrical service for the co-op, as in most apartments, accommodates only 40 amps of power, which made programming Michael's MORNING scene particularly difficult. The steam shower alone requires 25 amps. The start-up of each component involved in this scene is carefully synchronized with appropriate delays to avoid tripping the circuit breakers.
Finally, perhaps the biggest puzzle for Smart Home Systems was how to usurp control of the heater from the complex's central furnace. Typically, heat control for apartment dwellers consists of opening and closing windows to maintain the right comfort level. But residents who care to locate the appropriate switches can manipulate the furnace fan in their individual units to increase or decrease the flow of hot air throughout the unit. To grant convenient control of the temperature, Al wired the fan to an Enerzone thermostat for one-touch or automated control of the indoor climate.
A compact apartment undergoing a massive renovation involving dozens of contractors takes a mighty effort to coordinate. In Michael's case, the project was even more complicated because the jet-setting executive was never around.
To get the ball rolling, Michael held a preliminary meeting with the whole gang. After that, emails between Michael and Al kept the project on track.
In the end, the contractors and their absent leader pulled it off -- the carpenter worked with the A/V designers to design the perfect cabinetry; the home systems integrators worked with the plumber to automate the steam shower; and the electricians worked with the telecom contractor to wire in the phone lines. Thanks to a group effort, the pint-sized mansion was up -- 34 stories up - and running in hardly more than a New York minute.