Floor-to-ceiling windows, open airways, no attic, and a concrete slab foundation are not exactly a custom integrator’s ideal canvas for a client who wants a centralized and accessible integrated home automation system to run his minimalistic home. When the slab is scheduled to be poured in three days and the client has not yet sorted out his home’s wiring infrastructure, a residential systems integrator faces an even more daunting challenge.
By turning to Microsoft’s Windows Media Center for digital media management and Exceptional Innovation’s Life-ware for automation, Gordon van Zuiden and his integration team from cyber- Manor, were able to deliver an intuitive, high-level solution in their client’s 3,000-square-foot Sunnyvale, California, home. cyberManor’s creative answers to vexing integration hurdles earned the company the 2008 Windows Media Center Ultimate Install prize for maximizing the Windows Media Center platform and delivering on its promise that an entire home’s digital ecosystem can be easily managed and controlled by a consistent
cyberManor’s integration work inside a glass-walled Eichler-style home required creative solutions to vexing challenges. The various hurdles were conquered by the Los Gatos, California-based cyberManor team, from left to right, Jim Kohl, project manager; Gordon van Zuiden, president; Rick Kalm, lead programmer and lighting control expert; and Chris Rosiak, lead installer.
and pervasive interface.
“It was very much the case of the shrinking space project,” said Jim Kohl, project manager for Los- Gatos, California-based cyberManor. “When we have a complex project like this, there is usually plenty of room to work around the other trades. But with an Eichler-style home, you have to do things a little different.”
The lack of an attic prevented the cyberManor team from keeping low-voltage wires safely hidden in a traditional location. Kohl explained that because all of the construction trades had to share the same space, air conditioning ducts, sprinkler pipes, plumbing pipes, vacuum pipes, lighting cans, electrical runs, and their own cable runs had to all fit into a restricted roof space. One errant roofing nail could disrupt multiple systems if it hit the wrong spot. Extra nail plates and metal straps were installed as safeguards.
Crawl space was also at a minimum. While there were conduits run in the slab of the new addition area of the home, there was limited space in the closet where they exited the slab, so the conduit diameters had to be limited in size to fit the allocated space in the closet.
Space also was a major issue in selecting the rack. Kohl explained that with a project as complex as this, he would normally choose a rack that is at least 10 percent bigger in rackspace count to accommodate any future changes. A wider rack also offers more room to manage the interconnect cables
The homeowner, Mike Kreaden (right) had very specific goals for his integrated home. He wanted only one user interface design for all his systems. along the inside and also enables building up the back with ancillary devices without interfering with the cables attached to the
primary components loaded from the front. But this project had its own set of rules. To fit in the closet, the Middle Atlantic rack had to be shorter in depth than normal to allow for the Lutron lighting panels, conduit pop-ups, and other cable management devices that the closet had to accommodate. The cyber- Manor team ended up populating the interior closet walls above the door height with two subwoofer amplifiers and several smaller ancillary devices to support the overflow.
Managing the power plugs and transformers inside the rack also demanded a high level of efficiency, with nearly 40 devices plugged into the 40U rackspace rack—not counting the overflow devices in the closet.
The team also had to overcome the technical AV distribution challenge of placing a majority of the AV source equipment in a centralized rack to minimize the amount of equipment that would be placed in a given room. The client, Mike Kreadon, only wanted large flat screens on the walls in his primary viewing areas. To accomplish this, cyber- Manor ran HDMI signals over Cat-6 shielded cables to these rooms over Gefen extenders to support the AV distribution of centralized HD audio/video content.
Kreaden had very specific goals for his integrated home. He wanted only one user interface design for all his systems, and it had to be accessible from any wall-mounted touchscreen,
To fit in the closet, the Middle Atlantic rack had to be shorter in depth than normal to allow for the Lutron lighting panels, conduit pop-ups, and other cable management devices. on-screen video displays, desktop computers, and ultra-mobile portable platforms—plus be accessible over a secure, remote-access connection. He wanted to store all of his HD-recorded content on one centralized hard drive, and be able to access and control this content from any TV in the home without disrupting anyone else’s viewing experience. The system had to be scalable and all systems had to operate independently in the event of centralized control system outage in the home.
To complement the sleek style of the home, the system needed to be very interior-design friendly. For cyberManor, this meant ensuring a clean viewing experience from each room with a minimal amount of equipment in each room.
Having worked in the Internet software space, Kreaden knew what he wanted, but was not sure how to find the right person to make it happen. He interviewed several installation firms, but was disappointed with their lack of experience with IPbased systems. “I was looking for a complete automation, control, and entertainment system, not just a home theater,” he said. “Once I made the selection of Life-ware, the choice became easy. I asked who was doing the most cutting-edge work, and that’s how I met up with Gordon.”
van Zuiden is a strong proponent of the Windows Media Center/Life-ware solution, because, he said, it offers the customer one consistent user interface for the control of all electronics in the home. “It’s not easy to remember how to use the interfaces for all your components, whether it’s the iTunes library, AT&T Uverse, Xbox or Blu-ray, and if you can’t remember all the tricks on how to use each of these products, then you probably won’t use them,” he said
According to van Zuiden, that’s what Media Center is uniquely designed to do. “It’s putting media first and control second, and that’s the right way to do it,” he said.
DE-BUGGING NEW TECHNOLOGY
van Zuiden found that having a tech-savvy client was a benefit, because many of the products used were still in their infancy when the project got underway. “CableCARDs were just being rolled out, and Media Center standards were pretty much still Xboxs,” he said. “There weren’t a lot of other choices, so there were some products we were counting on coming together. We were all running on first-generation stuff and it took some iterative learning to get everything working well by the time the client moved in.”
Integrating and securing a reliably consistent performance from the cableCARDs and Media Center Extenders offered challenges that took some fine tuning. The first problem was that nearly half of the cableCARDs that cyberManor received from the local service provider were bad. Then, the installation of four cableCARD tuners attached to the Niveus Media Center required the programming of some complex registry edits. The ATI firmware supporting these cableCARDs was buggy, but an upgrade cleared up most of these issues.
The problems with the Media Center Extenders included very long boot-up times, occasional freezing of images, and intermittent loss of connection between the Extenders and the host Media Center computer. van Zuiden originally tried Extenders from Niveus, Xbox, Linksys, and D-Link, but is now only using the Niveus EDGE and Xbox products, because they have shown the greatest reliability over a period of several months. Niveus is van Zuiden’s preferred platform when fanless performance is required.
THE LIFE-WARE EXPERIENCE
When selecting home automation components, van Zuiden looked at what products Life-ware supported and then which of those offered the highest degree of integrity and reliability. “Life-ware is uniquely positioned as a product that really supports the whole range of home control functionality under one software package,” van Zuiden said. “We didn’t want to have a bunch of individual software packages; we wanted something that could talk to any one of those packages under one interface.”
It was important to select subsystems that would still work in the event that something happened to the Media Center, van Zuiden noted. “We knew the Lutron Homeworks system would be stable, and it communicated well with Lifeware,” he said. “The same logic is true with the whole-house Russound UNO system. We’ve done hundreds of Russound installs, and we knew that the whole-house audio system would be stable and enhanced.”
Kreaden agreed that, “without a doubt,” the best part of his system has been Life-ware. “This is the missing link to unify and simplify the integration of all these systems,” he said.
Kreaden uses the Life-ware/Media Center interface to control his lighting, TV viewing and recording, video streaming and Blu-ray, radiant heating (one zone per room), HVAC, surveillance cameras, window shades, and water fountain. He also has Internet access to the system via Slingbox to remotely control his home and to view content.
Through the Life-ware system, Kreaden can easily create his own custom scenes. For his “Firepit” scene, Kreaden’s landscape and house lighting are automatically turned on at specific intensities and a favorite play list from the Media Center is triggered (at a pre-determined level) for the outdoor garden via the Russound system. He also has developed automation scenes for air conditioning pre-set comfort controls, and shower and bath scenes that automatically lower the shades, set the lighting, and turn on the ventilation fan.
“Prior to this solution we did not run Windows Media Center or have any Xbox devices at home,” Kreaden said. “Now this is the central pillar of our home system, working side by side with our Mac OS computers that we use for creating and authoring our digital content.”
Karen Sussman is a freelance writer living in Carmel, IN.