Tracking the Mega Job - Part 1: Spec Out

April 18, 2013
We recently landed the biggest project in our company’s 18 year history – both in physical size of the home and in financial scope of the job – and I thought I would start a multi-part blog post chronicling the project over the next several months, the decisions I made in system design, the proposal process, the prewire, trim out and installation.

I have a feeling that many readers out there have custom install shops like my own – single location, sub 10-man operation – and do the lion’s share of their work in the sub $25,000 job space. As I’m sure many of you have, we’ve done our share of 6-figure projects over the course of our history, but these jobs are (sadly) atypical. Almost every project that we do involves some major budget restrictions, and – let’s be honest – it is incredibly fun to be able to work on a project where the fetters and bonds of a tight checkbook can be broken and you can spec in the things that really make an awesome system.

This home is being built by a husband and wife team – Rod and Sandy – that we have worked with previously. In fact, prior to this job, the biggest project that I had done was with Rod and Sandy. This gave us a great advantage on this project because the builder had worked with us previously and knew the quality of our work, and had also seen – for several years – our customer follow-up and support.

One of the things that we pride ourselves on is not holding up the project; we will do whatever we can in our power to meet your deadline. With this project, the timeline was really compressed, with the homeowner wanting to move in by November – within a year of the groundbreaking!

Rod gave me a set of the plans and it honestly didn’t really seem too impressive. Even though it said 1/8-inch scale (instead of the typical 1/4-inch) it just looked like just a regular house. But then I put a scale ruler on the page and saw that the house is almost 250-feet from one side to the other! And the house is 21,500 square feet under roof. On one floor. It also sits on 4 acres of property just back from the ocean.
 
I took a trip up to the jobsite to walk-thru and get an idea of the feel of the job and the layout and the construction and my first words were literally, “Oh…my…DAY-UM!” It was immense. Literally overwhelming. With the stud walls it is impossible to see from one side of the house to the other, but to give you an idea of the size of the house, here is a picture inside the basement with me standing against one wall, and my installer, Marc, standing against the other wall. He is over 6-feet tall:
 
 

Obviously having a full and massive basement was going to be a huge advantage on this project, allowing us to run wire far more quickly and in much shorter lengths than if we had to go up over and down to everything. But even still, with the security – cameras and alarm panel – all going on one extreme side of the home, wiring lengths were something we had to take into account, especially on camera power. The exterior of the house is all poured ICF, and the home has really high ceilings, 12-feet or more in all the bedrooms and over 30 in the kitchen and family room. In fact, the family room and kitchen alone are like 150 percent bigger than my entire house! The family room ceiling has some amazing wood beam detail:

The homeowner is quite busy and travels a lot – I’ve actually yet to meet with her. Yes, I said her. Just blew your preconceptions, didn’t I? – so I talked to Rod and Sandy for a bit and tried to gauge what they were looking for in the home. They wanted something very user friendly but also high-tech and fitting a home of this size and scope. There would be principally three people living in the home and they would all need to have independent control over their own viewing and listening. They said that they homeowner does a lot of entertaining – not unusual to have 50 or more guests over – and that the backyard area would be a real focal point with lots of gatherings and a massive double-level swimming pool. They specifically mentioned wanting an awesome home theater and said that a budget of $90,000 for the theater wouldn’t scare them.

After walking through the job and getting a sense of the space, I came back to my showroom and just stared at the plans. Where to begin? This house was just intimidating to think about. I originally thought about a centralized, whole-home audio/video distribution system that would feed the whole house with all of the gear located in an equipment rom in a couple of giant racks. We have the HydraConnect HDMI matrix in our store and I’ve been really happy with that, and know that Leaf Products manufacturers a 20 x 20 matrix. But after looking at the project for a while, and thinking how things might change and evolve over the years, I decided to take a different approach.

Instead of a centralized distribution hub, I decided to build separate systems for each of the five suites. This allowed me to solve a few issues. For one, instead of just the typical pair of speakers in each room and then having disjointed TV audio coming out of the ceiling, I could put in a local AV receiver and now give each room a much better surround system. It also allowed each suite to be easily upgraded as technology or needs change. They also didn’t know if they were going to have cable, use a cable box, or go with satellite, and this approach allowed me to let them to change easily at any time. It also saved me a ton of networking back at the rack as I would be able to run a Cat6 to each room and then set a local switch. Many problems solved!

So, I started building the suites first in my design, just copying them from suite to suite and making tweaks which also saved me a lot of time on the design phase. I went with a Definitive Technology passive L/C/R sound bar in each room for a nice clean look, but also for much better TV audio, with a pair of Definitive DI-series speakers back by the bed for surround and music listening and a sub for solid low-end. I put a local Blu-ray player in each room for rental disc and Netflix viewing along with a Kaleidescape M300 to be fed from the Kaleidescape server sitting in the main rack. All of the local suite gear sitting in an OmniMount RE18 rack in the closet for a nice, clean finished look.

With prewire quotes, we typically quote “per drop” pricing, but on a job like this, I was worried that I would have an inaccurate “per drop” number and would end up being way off in my calculations. So I went back to the scaled ruler and measure each wire run and calculating each area individually. This allowed me to come up with “days of labor” and figuring how much I thought we could realistically get done in a day instead of just putting down a big labor figure that might end up being way off.

For control, I selected Control4 for a variety of reasons. One, both my business partner and I have Control4 in our own homes, so we’re very familiar with the system and the programming. Also, we have multiple people in our company that are able to program Control4, so there wouldn’t be a job-stopping bottleneck if “the programmer” wasn’t available. Finally, we’ve installed many Control4 systems over the past few years and we’re very comfortable with it and since the job is about 45-minutes from our store, the remote log-in capability was going to be massive.

With Control4 we also got a really nice video intercom feature between the multiple (11 so far) 7-inch touchpanels which would address paging and, “Who is at the door?” issues. It also let me put wand remotes in each room for easier bedside control for TV watching. With an HC800 processor in the main rack, and local HC250 processors in each room, I would have a lot of horsepower to draw on and great nodes of control.

Since the network was going to be so crucial in this home – running the automation system, the Kaleidescape streaming, the camera DVR, WiFi usage – I went with Pakedge. I have a Pakedge WAP in my home and it has been incredibly stable and provides great range. So I sent a copy of the plans to Pakedge along with a list of what I wanted from the system and they prepared a networking proposal with multiple PoE switches, and 24-port Gigabit router and multiple WAPs located inside and outside of the home to provide excellent coverage wherever the homeowner or guests happened to be. I see lots of times where people would be out by the pool wanting to control the system via iPhone/iPad so outdoor coverage was key.

We found a large pantry closet that was yet to be spoken for and Rod said we could take it over. We had him frame it out deeper to accommodate all of our wiring and the OmniMount RE42 racks I was going to use. (I like the OmniMount RE rack systems because they come totally built and finished, include shelving, side panels, and locking front and rear panels and a fan system. I’ve used them on several projects and don’t see any reason to change.) In the rack would go the two 16-channel Control4 amplifiers and audio matrix, the 24-port router, the Kaleidescape M700 disc vault and 1U server, 4 Sonos: Connects for multiple streaming audio options (using Extra Vegetables great Sonos Control4 driver), plus cable boxes for the porch and kitchen TVs.

We have a few lengthy HDMI cable runs so I made the choice early on to go with RedMere cables in the suites up to 60-feet and then using dual Cat6 runs and HDBaseT baluns for the others. We use HDBaseT in our store and have never had an issue. I also spec’d an Atlona HDMi distribution amp with HDBaseT built in to allow me to send the Kaleidescape M700 video to multiple TVs that didn’t need their own feed.

With a house of this size, lighting control is a real necessity, so we went with Lutron’s HomeWorks Interactive system. My biz partner, Allen, has a real passion for lighting control, so I handed this off to him and let him handle the lighting system spec out. One change we had to make early on was going to multiple smaller lighting enclosures instead of fewer large ones because we had to be more than 3-feet above the floor in the basement.

I saved the theater for last because, well, that’s my favorite part. (Insert smiley.) The theater room is almost 21 feet wide and just over 40 feet long, so I wasn’t sure where they would want to put the projector. My initial thought was to go with the new Sony VPL-VW1000ES 4K projector showed at CEDIA this past year. It would be easy to get the homeowner on board with it being truly the future of projection technology, and I was super impressed with the image quality from the times I’d seen it demonstrated – and those on really large screens. However, with the Sony’s throw, it would put the projector on a pole about two-thirds back in the room. So I gave them an option of going with a Runco Xtreme series projector with a long-throw lens in a cooled enclosure built into the cabinetry at the far end of the room.

I decided that a theater like this needed anamorphic and a curved screen, and I knew that the builder liked what we did at the previous project with the speakers hidden behind the screen. I really wanted to go with a Stewart 4-way masking CineCurve screen, but it totally blew my budget. So I decided to go with a Screen Research and their new acoustically transparent 4K materially that is both THX and ISF approved. I’ve used Screen Research multiple times in the past and have always been really happy with the performance. The screen is just under 12-feet wide and is going to look awesome in the room. I own and love the new Marantz AV-8801 pre-pro, so I went with it along with two Marantz amplifiers – 5 and 7 channels – to give me 12-channels of power to play with. Because of the tall front wall, it was a natural to go with height channels, and I spec’d in a pair of side surrounds flanking each row of seats and a set of surround backs in the rear of the room which will be great for discrete rear effects in the lengthy room. For audio, I went with Monitor Audio Platinum in-walls for the screen channels, and eight WT 380 IDCs for the height and surround channels and two 15-inch Gold Series subs to hammer out the bass.

Due to the construction of the room – the entire right side wall was poured concrete and segmented with three large windows and the builder wanting to use sconces and posters and the left side having a door and no symmetry with the right wall – I decided to go with in-ceiling surround speakers. This isn’t my favorite solution, but I think it will work out for the surround channels, and with the AV-8801’s ability to do Audyssey MultXQ XT32 pro-calibration, I’m hoping I can dial everything in for a really amazing, immersive surround experience.

In Part 2, I will go over the proposal presentation process and detail how I went over this system with the builder and ultimately landed the job!

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