It is not often that you get paid to return to a favorite childhood destination, but that was the case when I visited Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry this summer to meet with 3G Applied Technologies owner Rick Simpson to discuss his company’s involvement with the facility’s Smart Home: Green + Wired exhibit.
The project, which remains open until January 4, is a freestanding, 2,500- square-foot All American Homes modular house built on the grounds of a museum that opened its doors in 1933. Like many kids growing up in the Midwest, I took several field trips to Chicago’s MSI and never got tired of the place. Though some of it remains in a nostalgic time warp, the Smart Home project is quantum leap in time from the still-popular coal mine and German U-boat exhibits that are among my favorite permanent exhibits from youth.
3G volunteered its time to wire the Museum of Science and Industry’s Smart Home exhibit (above) for AV, selecting Lifeware (below) to control lighting, audio, climate, cameras, and digital entertainment. The 3G team, pictured from left to right, are: Craig “MacGyver” Eggert, Jonathan “Electro” Griffin, Greg “G” Owens, Matt Beer League” Brunner, and owner Rick Simpson.
Designed by renowned “green” architect, Michelle Kaufmann, the purpose of the Smart Home is to invite guests to learn about the small and big ways that they can be more eco-friendly in their own homes. Featuring state-of-the-art solar panels on the roof, gray water collection underground, and recycled building materials inside, the exhibit is everything you might imagine about a “green home.” But as one would expect, there’s a technology angle to the project as well.
3G Applied Technologies served as the driving force behind the home’s integrated technology. Simpson and his team volunteered their time to wire the facility for AV, selecting Life-ware to control lighting, audio, climate, cameras, and digital entertainment, signing on NuVo for its multi-room audio systems, and adding Jamo for its inceiling speakers, and Lutron for its HomeWorks lighting and shades control. The decidedly Midwest-based collection of vendors were selected to help enable automation scenes for visitors who are led on guided tours throughout the home. Triggered by tour guides from a Lutron Maestro wireless controller, scenes include such custom integration staples as “Wake Up,” which replaces a traditional alarm clock by slowly raising the lights, Somfy window shades, and music volume. Theoretically, the system is programmed to send e-mail or text message alerts from the power utility to the home when electricity prices are high, helping the homeowner to save money and reduce peak demand, which can cut greenhouse gas emissions. The entire 20-minute tour is timed down to the second, with lights flashing to signal to the guide when it’s time to move to the next room on the tour.
Although the electronics in the home are vital to the museum’s core focus on science and industry, 3G’s presence is relatively subtle, taking a backseat to more visible elements such as Plexiglass floors for viewing the “mechanicals” of a water treatment system or the roof that showcases innovative “roll up” solar panels. Despite his company’s behind-the-scenes role, the museum project alreadyhas paid huge dividends for 3G’s 37-year-old Simpson and a team of highly trained integrators in the two-year-old company.
“This taught me more about what was possible because we came into this treating it like a normal house, not necessarily like an exhibit,” Simpson said. “Because it’s an exhibit, we had to go far outside the normal scope that we would go to make everything work like it’s supposed to work.”
The project features new products that required on-the-job training for Simpson’s crew during the museum installation. “This experience broadened our knowledge of products and our thought process about how to use them,” Simpson noted.
Two of Life-ware’s Life-point 8.9 touchpanels are included in the system, as is NuVo’s NV-M3 audio server and its ENERGY STAR-rated Essentia E6G, which runs the Grand Concerta platform. Other products include RoHS-compliant speakers from Jamo, a Panasonic IP camera, Samsung Q1 Ultra flatscreen on a K2 Mounts automated mount, an Okoro media server, and an Extron video switcher.
The big lesson for the 3G own team, Simpson noted, was believing in the mantra that an entire home could be connected, leaving no “one-offs” untethered. “We are not traditional AV integrators by any stretch,” Simpson explained. “Most of us came from the IT world. I’m teaching everybody that we’re a solutions provider appealing to three screens: the television, computer, and cell phone.”
Energy management is a focus of the Smart Home, which provided the 3G team with several new opportunities to integrate with new technology for the first time. The concept that Simpson believes in and that his team finally embraced on the Smart Home project was that “if it talks, then it can be controlled.” Even if it’s something that his team has not worked with before, Simpson teaches his crew that the programmers, developers, and technical support staff from Life-ware, will always enable them to solve new challenges. “When you’re a solutions provider, nothing can be outside your scope,” Simpson said. “It may cost a little bit more to the end user, but if they’ve got something they want to try to do, it’s our job to figure out how to do it and apply whatever technology it takes to get it done.”
Energy management is a focus of the Smart Home, which provided the 3G team with several new opportunities to integrate with new technology for the first time.
Project management proved to be the biggest commitment for 3G during its initial three-month installation. Working under a microscope and on a tight timeline was a unique challenge for the team, particularly for 3G’s certified project management professional (PMP).
“A lot of us hadn’t dealt with a highly visible project before,” Simpson said. “But in particular it gave my project manager a lot of experience dealing with the pressure of deadlines and because it is a museum the request for changes are numerous.”
The payback for 3G’s donated time was visibility on a project that may be viewed by a million people in less than a year. The company’s name appears in all of the museum’s literature, as well as on a special educational wall inside the museum. Simpson has taken great care in structuring his own website with the museum project in mind, all in the name of growing his business and the industry as a whole.
“As the owner of a startup, it’s my job to market the company and put us in the position to make some sales,” Simpson said. “And plus the project enabled me to work with Michelle Kaufman, a member of the Top 10 of “Who’s Who” in Business 2.0 magazine. I may never work with her again, but I can always say that I worked with Michelle Kaufmann.”
Architect Michelle Kaufmann, founder and chair of Michelle Kaufmann Designs, is a leader in the green design community, and her commitment to sustainable living remains constant throughout all of her work. She and her husband live in a “green home” of her own design in California’s Marin County. 3G’s success on the “big stage” has already helped connect the company with other highprofile clients in the Chicago area, and placed it in a position to work with other up-and-coming integration companies in the territory. Simpson seems to relish his role as a mentor to these other young firms, even if they ultimately become competitors down the road.
“One of the approaches that we’re taking that a lot of integrators just don’t get is pushing to get others involved in the business and we’ll teach them,” he said. “We’re not worried about competing with them. Part of my responsibility as a Certified Home Integrator is to train others.”
Jeremy J. Glowacki ([email protected]) serves as editorial director of Residential Systems magazine.