In a rehabbed single-family house in Wilmington, the technology we only dreamed of as kids is being realized.
The new future, on display inside Beyond the Studs, is a home automation system so discreet, it’s almost invisible, a system that uses off-the-shelf technology and intuitive, Web-based design to let anyone who can use a computer or high-end mobile phone become a true master of his domain.
From a single monitor or remote control such as a laptop computer, a homeowner can adjust a whole-house audio and video system, heating and air conditioning, security cameras and biometric fingerprint scanners, lighting—even individual electrical outlets.
That means you can spy on the babysitter and her boyfriend while you’re at the gala, crank the heat when your return flight lands, or start that casserole in the microwave before you leave the office.
Gone are the racks of black-faced components with digital displays and bouncing equalizer bars. Hardware that was once exposed is carefully hidden in dedicated spaces that are easily accessed, but removed from view. Remote controls are reduced from dozens to a single master.
“That’s a big thing that I pride myself on. I can do this in historic homes, I have done this sort of work in historic buildings, so I can make it as evident or not evident as anybody wants,” says owner and head engineer Greta Colgan. “I build in this stuff in ways that you don’t even have to know it’s there.”
Colgan taps a touch screen in the living room. Within seconds, a video begins to play on a flat-screen TV above a custom fireplace, audio starts to hum from surround-sound speakers overhead, the lights dim, and a dormant Zen table fountain burbles to life. A few taps later, the lights have changed again, the video has dimmed and music, stored on an iPod in the rear entry, fills the house.
Yet each room still maintains its own lighting and audio control, as well as the ability to choose audio and video from dedicated servers and household computers. That means Dad can listen to the Eagles in the den while Chip is jamming The Killers in his room.
In the bedroom, what appears to be a ceiling beam hides a drop-down flat screen TV that can be rotated by remote control to face either the bed or the large soaking tub. In the basement there’s more: a home theater that incorporates top-of-the-line video projection technology and surround-sound. “The goal of good home theater is to reproduce the experience the way the original film producer intended it to be—the picture, the color, the aspect ratio the way it was originally shot—and to reproduce the sound that you would get in the theater,” she says.
Reclining seats give comfort, and a radiant floor heating system staves off chill. It’s remotely controllable, of course.
For most homeowners, the technology behind Colgan’s walls might seem out of reach. But she emphasizes that what once seemed attainable by only the rich is more affordable for everyone.
It was her interest in proving that point that led her into the home networking and automationbusiness. Before she started Beyond the Studs, Colgan had accumulated 20 years of automation and control experience working for clients such as the U.S. Navy and Fortune 500 companies, installing similar systems for meeting rooms, laboratory facilities and other places.
“As prices of technology started to drop, it got to the point where you could conceivably network in your house,” she says. “I first got the idea to start doing this when I was remodeling my kitchen, and I got the thought, ‘I’m going to pull some cable,’ because we had the walls down. The guys who were working on my kitchen said, ‘That stuff doesn’t work,’ and I said, ‘Of course it does. Give me that.’
“What I ended up doing was altering industrial stuff to automate my own house, and it caught attention. It became obvious to me: Just like 20 years with computers, it was just an evolution that it was going from the workplace to the home network.”
She emphasizes network, stressing that to build a system that is truly efficient, easy to use and affordable, the designer must be able to assemble disparate bits of technology into a streamlined whole. Buying individual components and trying to pull them all together himself is akin to a car shopper buying separate systems from different manufacturers, then trying to make them all work together in a single vehicle.
A holistic network designed by a pro ensures that all components will work together and that a homeowner will be prepared for advances in technology, especially the movement toward delivery of nearly all media via computer download.
“You can’t really achieve that smoothly or easily without designing for it,” Colgan says. “It opens up possibilities that were never there before. I think now of all of the technology I put into a house as a system, more like when you put your heating and air conditioning in. It’s best to get in when a home is being designed and built. The next best is when someone is doing a significant remodeling project.”
Along with technical expertise, Colgan brings an aesthetic sense that helps homeowners make systems as beautiful as they are functional. She straddles a line between the mostly male world of gadgetry and the mostly female desire for a nice home.
“Typically, when we’re working with the millwork people, we’re building cabinets that fit the rooms and that fit the TVs,” she says. “We’re going to put it in so the whole thing comes together to be really beautiful.”
Flat-panel TVs help that simply because of their versatility, she says. “There are so many places these TVs can be hidden now as opposed to having that stupid TV sitting on your breakfast table or on the counter.”
It’s a lot to take in, but Colgan insists that what might now seem like the home of the future will soon be the status quo. In that not-too-distant future, being without basic automation and networking will “be like you don’t have electrical outlets in your house.”