Just press play
Once the exclusive province of tech geeks or the super-wealthy, home automation has entered the mainstream, controlling everything from security to ambience. Microsoft’s former chairman Bill Gates may have spent more than $100-million on his ultra-intelligent Washington home, where lights appear to come on miraculously while preferred tunes follow electronically chipped occupants as they move about, but these days such integrated technology is no longer reserved for just the ultra-rich or, for that matter, the technologically astute. ‘The birth of the smartphone, which made everything available at one’s fingertips, completely revolutionised the industry. The more devices can be integrated the more people want to control them,’ says Nick Caripis, managing director of BNC Technology, a Johannesburg-based company that specialises in state-of-the-art home technology solutions, including home automation, audio and video distribution, home cinema and media rooms, integrated security and acoustic design. While Caripis admits that the present smart-home market is relatively fragmented in this country, it is nonetheless growing in terms of functionality, sales and expectations. ‘To harness the full potential of smart-home automation, disparate manufacturers will have to develop technologies based on common open standards,’ he says, adding that very few, if any, firms produce every device found in a home and that it is unlikely that consumers would be brand-loyal enough to buy every household device, or even the majority of them, from a single manufacturer. ‘So, if manufacturers want to ensure that their devices talk to others, they will have to be developed under common standards – standards also shared by software companies. This level of collaboration may take some time – many of these firms are direct competitors, after all – but it is necessary.’ And if data from the US portends a new dawn for home tech globally, the future of the industry looks positively fluorescent. Berg Insight reports that sales of home automation systems could grow to around $9.5-billion (about R113-billion) this year, while CNN predicts that by 2017 that number could balloon to $44-billion (about R525-billion). The reality is that all the electronics in your home are fair game for the tech revolution. ‘Most of the advanced systems on the market are very intuitive and easy to use,’ says Walther Blersch of Cape-based Nuru Intelligent Buildings. ‘There is also a single screen for all devices, so one does not have to get used to different menus. Keypads and touch screens are brought down to a minimum and placed in the most convenient areas of the house. And, of course, the need for multiple light switches is eliminated.’ Blersch, whose company specialises in the Control4 bouquet of home tech products, adds that the projects he typically works on entail the automation of lighting, music, TVs and security systems (both alarms and surveillance). ‘Climate control comes into about 60 per cent of houses, as do irrigation, blinds or curtains, albeit to a lesser extent. One does get funny requests, such as an owner’s Rottweiler having to be fitted with a radio-frequency identification tag so as not to trigger a peripheral geosphere intended to detain burglars.’ Whatever your automation requirements, however, Blersch insists these are best considered, wherever possible, at the start of a project. ‘This allows for a proper wiring-layout schedule – if the electrician is shown from the start where the various light switches and keypads, speakers, TV points, touch screens, thermostats, infrared beams and motors (for blinds and curtains) will be placed, he can position the conduits in the correct places.’ Blersch adds that lighting requirements typically all go to a distribution board, while everything else is directed to one’s server station. ‘The electrician must know this to do a proper layout,’ he says, explaining that Nuru ideally implements the systems at architectural-planning level. ‘This is beneficial in that all devices are provided for and the amount of chasing that will need to be done afterwards is limited. All these devices will then be hard-wired and will not have to be controlled wirelessly, which makes one dependent on a signal.’ According to Blersch, once the proper conduits have been installed in the house, everything else falls into place: ‘The system is completely modular and can easily be up- or downscaled, as new and old devices will run on the same wiring.’ And the cost for such a system? ‘We find our quotes are anything between R80 000 for a one-bedroom apartment to R800 000 for a four-bedroom house. Of course, this is fully customisable and all depends on the owner’s needs. However, the good systems still need to be imported.’
Power to the People
South Africa’s electricity woes may be a thing of the Dark Ages, thanks to local lad-made-good Elon Musk – he of electric-car fame. Musk’s Tesla recently announced the introduction of the Powerwall Home Battery, an easy-to-use lithium-ion battery system that provides efficient energy to homeowners seeking a sustainable source of domestic energy. The fully automated, wall-mounted battery (a far cry from the unwieldy, racket-producing generators currently on the market) draws energy either from home solar panels or from the grid itself (during off-peak hours) as the need arises. Available in two versions – a $3 000 (about R36 000), 7kWh model and a larger $3 500 (about R41 000), 10kWh unit – the battery comes with the added advantage of being so easy to instal that even technophobes will find it a simple task. And it requires zero maintenance.
Case Study: Kloof Road House, Johannesburg
A project undertaken jointly by BNC Technology and Nico Van Der Meulen Architects, Kloof Road House could well serve as the film set for The Jetsons. Not only is Wi-Fi present throughout the strikingly contemporary house, with high-definition image quality deployed to every TV and a motorised picture lift concealed in the kitchen counter, but all audio-video systems are remote controlled, with touch panels located in high-traffic areas, such as the kitchen and master bedroom. Lighting throughout is delivered via a fully automated system, and the 70 or so blinds in the home are all controlled wirelessly. The entire solution is compatible with apps for iOS and Android and, to top it all, the complete absence of visible cabling means it was implemented with absolutely no impact on the building’s aesthetics. ‘Our programming philosophy is also important, as we try give the client everything while simplifying the operation, labelling and programming,’ says BNC’s Nick Caripis, who explains that there are several design challenges and considerations involved when developing a home automation system, many of which are determined by the user’s needs. ‘Once these have been decided upon, the designer can choose the appropriate processor, sensors and communication protocol for the system,’ he adds. Caripis insists that working closely with the architect enabled BNC to more effectively achieve the required technological and architectural objectives. ‘It’s not just about the technology or the architecture; it’s the intelligence of both disciplines providing the ultimate in efficiency,’ he says. ‘When designing or constructing high-end homes, too often we find there is a big misconception about when the home technology professionals should be brought in to consult on the project. We’ve found it commonly (and incorrectly) perceived that the systems designer isn’t needed until the house is built and “ready for the equipment”. On the contrary, the designer should become part of the project at its earliest stages. One of the key elements to a successful project is comprehensive and organised design during the planning phase.’ Importantly, all home technology solutions provided by BNC adhere to a stringent set of guidelines laid down by the internationally accredited Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association.
Case study: Efficiency house plus, Berlin
Located in inner-city Berlin, the ambitious Efficiency House Plus, or F87, was the winning design in a competition run by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure. The arresting full-scale glass-enclosed house, created under the direction of Professor Werner Sobek and the University of Stuttgart’s Working Society, demonstrates ‘the potential of providing inhabitants with the highest level of comfort while ensuring that an optimal energy balance is achieved’, says Frank Heinlein, one of the lead designers on the project. Heinlein explains that to achieve this goal, the suitability and orientation of the construction site were carefully analysed: ‘The Efficiency House Plus utilises the entire available site, thus maximising the roof surface, which is employed to generate current from a solar cell. The closed facade, on the north side, minimises thermal losses, while the south side, also equipped with a solar-cell system, maximises energy recovery. The entrance to the home – on the west side – consists of a picture window behind which electric vehicles are parked and charged.’ According to Heinlein, the house’s energy is generated from two sources: ‘An air-water heat pump recovers the necessary heat from the ambient air in winter. The solar cells on the roof and along the southern façade generate current. This current is either available immediately, can be stored and used later or can be used to charge an electric vehicle. Any additional generated power can be fed to the public supply grid. Innovative technology and intelligent energy management therefore allows bidirectional battery operation – that is, both as a power consumer as well as a power supplier to the public grid. ‘In my view, there is no reason whatsoever why a smart home should be more complicated or expensive than a conventional house,’ insists Heinlein. ‘Of course, much depends on the “smartness” of the design, but, where hitherto many intelligent homes required purpose-built hard- and software, with wiring through the whole house, this is no longer necessarily the case. In our projects we now use a “plug-and-play” system that only needs a Wi-Fi connection. All sensors work without wiring and without batteries. This, of course, makes life – and installation – so much easier.’ ‘There is no reason why a smart home should be more complicated or expensive than a conventional house … In our projects we now use a “plug-and-play” system that only needs a Wi-Fi connection’ – Frank Heinlein, a lead designer on the Efficiency House Plus project
Conceptualised by UK designers David Ben-Grünberg and Daniel Woolfson, the D-Haus is a home for all seasons. The modular house can unfold into eight configurations in accordance with changes in climate and weather patterns, and each structural arrangement is designed to make the most ecological and sustainable use of the specific environmental conditions of the site. ‘The house automatically moves itself into the most efficient formation according to the time of day and year,’ explains Ben-Grünberg. ‘In winter the house is in a square formation, with thick, heavy external walls, small windows and a high thermal mass. It literally hugs itself. As the seasons change and the climate warms, the building opens up, mimicking the petals of a flower, allowing light and air to penetrate to the inside through the now-unfolded glass internal walls.’ Ben-Grünberg believes that the D-Haus is the house of the future. ‘A house like this has never been done before in the history of architecture and we believe that creating buildings that can adapt and change is a much more sustainable way of living,’ he says. For now it remains at concept stage.
- BNC Technology: bnctechnology.co.za
- Berg Insight: berginsight.com
- CNN: cnn.com
- Nuru Intelligent Buildings: nuru.co.za
- Powerwall Home Battery: teslamotors.com/powerwall
- Nico Van Der Meulen Architects: nicovdmeulen.com
- Professor Werner Sobek: wernersobek.de
- The D-Haus: thedhaus.com
Text: Jocelyn Warrington Photographs: BNC Technology, Nico Van Der Meulen Architects, Matthias Koslik, Ulrich Schwartz, D-Haus Company