Smart Home Technology and Aesthetics Don’t Have to Compete
2 January 2022
Debbie and I hope everyone had a great Christmas and wish everyone a happy New Year.
As we start into 2022, we’re excited about our smart home project despite the lessthan exciting news about the price increases in building materials. Not only has the price of wood doubled since mid-November, but drywall and brick are going up 20–30% on January 3rd. It seems everything else is more expensive as well.
As we move forward with our floor plan and electrical plant, I’m also moving into a phase I’ve experienced before during stadium and arena projects. Aesthetics considerations. Everybody — and especially with our smart home project — wants as much technology as possible to improve comfort, drive efficiency and entertain but they don’t want it looking like the control room in a nuclear power plant.
So the trick is to get it all in there as invisibly as possible. Smart home technology doesn’t need to take over the décor of a home and still get the job done. There is a wealth of options for hiding technology in a home. Some examples are:
- Multi-button smart keypads to trigger lighting scenes that operate multiple lighting loads in a room and eliminate a wall full of light switches.
- Motorized window coverings offer a wide range of benefits in a home and come in a large variety of fabrics, materials and styles to fit in with any décor.
- Smart Thermostats can save energy and money on utility bills. And they aren’t any more intrusive to a home’s décor than older models.
- There are many options for hiding speakers in a room including models that mount into drywall, building them into a wall and more.
- Motorized lifts can hide a TV inside a cabinet. A TV can also be framed to look like a wall mirror and images of artwork can be displayed on the TV to make it a statement piece in the room instead of an eyesore.
Some of these options can be costly but others are available at very reasonable prices.
Larger smart home integration projects, in many cases, coincide with the new construction or remodeling of a home. When TVs and distributed audio are added to a home, traditionally you need to run lots of wiring. But no one wants to see those wires. Same with adding power and wired ports for wifi, smart appliances, video security, etc.
In addition, the larger, or simply more expensive, the home is, the more likely that an interior designer will be involved in the project. The challenges of integrating technology into an interior designer’s vision for the décor of a home can be challenging and cause conflicts. Fortunately, there are companies making products today that allow technology to be hidden in a space rather than it being the dominant characteristic of it.
The realization of how important lighting is in a home has led to an increase in the number of lighting loads in a room. Task lights, accent lights, lights to illuminate artwork, lighting for wall wash effects and more, are now becoming much more common in homes. In a room with a large number of lighting loads, the challenge is to not design a wall that looks like this — or worse …
A single multi-button keypad can be used to trigger lighting scenes that provide a homeowner with the day-to-day control they need without a wall full of switches. Should the need for additional adjustments to the lights arise, a smart phone app can be used as well.
Crestron, Lutron and Control4 offer designer keypads that can control either individual loads or lighting scenes. They also offer custom engraving of the buttons so the function of each button can be permanently labeled on it. But none of these systems come cheap, though they offer the ability to integrate technology into a home and at the same time, hide the details of a high tech solution. I’d say these solutions are best for new builds and renovations as there can be a lot of wiring. Short of that, dependence on wifi to support the system s a concern and personally, not my favorite solution route.
Installing motorized blinds, shades and drapes isn’t the first choice for people starting to create a smart home. However, automating the operation of them has real advantages.
- Daylight harvesting — When the sun is not shining directly into a window the window treatment can be automatically opened to provide indirect light into the room that minimizes the need for using electrical lights during the day
- Solar heating — In the winter, smart window treatments can be opened to allow the sun to shine directly into a window to help heat a room. When the room gets too warm, or when the sun is no longer shining directly into the window, the window treatment can be closed to provide additional insulation against heat loss through the window. In the summer, smart window treatments can be closed when the sun is shining directly into a window to reduce solar heat gain and save on the energy required for air-conditioning your home.
- Glare reduction and protection of furnishings — Smart window treatments can be closed when the sun is directly shining through a window to reduce glare. Smart window treatments can also be closed when the sun is directly shining through a window to protect expensive furnishings and artwork from damage from the sun.
- Safety — Smart window treatments can be automatically opened during an emergency to make it easier for family members to exit the home if normal pathways are blocked by fire. It also allows first responders to see into the home to help find anyone who has not been able to get out by themselves. In the case of a burglary, opening window treatments allows neighbors and first responders to see what is happening in the home. Finally, having window treatments automatically closed in the evening keeps outsiders from knowing whether family members are home or not.
- Privacy — It is very easy for passers by to see into a home at night when lights are on in the home. Smart window treatments can be automatically closed at sunset to protect the privacy of the homeowners.
- Security — Programming smart window treatments to open or close during the day can, just like programming smart lighting to periodically turn on or off, make potential thieves believe that someone is home.
- Protection of valuable furnishings — Smart window treatments can be closed when the sun is directly shining through a window to protect expensive furnishings and artwork from damage from the sun.
There are a wide range of motorized shading solutions available. Even IKEA offers motorized roller shades that can be integrated with a smart home hub. In addition, there are manufacturers that offer motorized shades that:
- Are indistinguishable from their non-motorized counterparts.
- Have a wide selection of material options to fit into any décor.
- Are battery operated and wirelessly controlled so it isn’t necessary to run wiring to each window location. These aren’t my first choice with our new build as I can plan wiring to eliminate the need for batteries and even potentially hard wire networked.
Crestron and Lutron are premium providers of motorized shades. However, companies like Levolor, Hunter Douglas and Graber also have motorized shading solutions at more modest prices. Graber has Z-Wave, motorized, shades which are of particular interest to me. I prefer the Z-Wave network protocol as it eliminates the dependence on cloud and control of your technology outside your home. It pairs with hubs like SmartThings or Hubitat, for more advanced smart home integration. There’s also voice control with Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant using the Graber Gateway and a 2.4GHz, password protected, wifi network.
There are also a wide range of solutions for motorizing drapes and curtains. One solution is to install a motorized drapery track. Somfy is one manufacturer of this type of system. There are also retrofit solutions available from a variety of other manufacturers. Some of these are fairly inexpensive like the SwitchBot Curtain at only around $100.
Adding intelligence to the operation of a heating and air conditioning system can save money on utility bills. With more people working from home and kids doing remote learning, the traditional “seven-day scheduling thermostat” that allows you to enter a fixed schedule to set back the daytime set point of the heating and air conditioning system has become outdated.
Fortunately there are a variety of smart thermostats available from Amazon, Google Nest, Ecobee, Honeywelland more. And, most of these thermostats are unobtrusive enough to not stand out in a home and clash with the home’s décor. And with our new build, we’ll be able to place the thermostat in the Master Bedroom for more convenient control and to keep it out of sight from visitors.
For those looking for a completely hidden thermostat installation Crestron has a solution. Crestron offers a thermostat (DIN-THSTAT) that can be hidden away in a DIN rail cabinet (basically rack mounted). Crestron offers remote temperature (CHV-RTS) and temperature/humidity (CHV-RTHS) sensors that are wired back to the thermostat. The sensors are small and practically flush with the surface of a wall, and can be painted or wall papered, to match the wall. This allows them to almost completely disappear from view.
Hiding speakers in a room can be very challenging. If you want your speakers to be completely invisible, then speakers from Stealth Acoustics offer a unique solution. Stealth Acoustics offers a wide range of speaker choices that are installed into the drywall of a wall and completely hidden from sight. Obviously this is much easier with a new build or renovation while walls are open to run wiring.
We’ll be installing Klipsch indoor and outdoor speakers in our home. Most of the rooms will have them flush ceiling mounted. The outdoor speakers will be mounted under the eaves in the back and aimed out into the backyard. It’ll be a little tough to conceal those but the indoor speakers have white, magnetic grills that should match the ceiling. Another interesting aspect of the Klipsch speakers is the mounting. They don’t require the usual metal mounts that are installed prior to the drywalling. Each speaker comes with a template that shows exactly how large to cut the hole in the drywall. Once you have the wiring connected to the speaker then you simply push the speaker up into the hole and as you tighten the screws, there are clamps that shift to hold the speaker in place. Then you simply pop the magnetic grill on.
Nothing can take over the décor of a room like a large TV. No matter how hard an interior designer works to create the perfect interior, a large TV will become the elephant in the room. Fortunately, there are several approaches that can be taken to overcome this.
TV Lift Cabinet is one company that sells cabinets that include a motorized TV lift. When the TV is off, it is completely hidden inside the cabinet. When the TV is turned on, the motorized lift is activated and it raises the TV from inside the cabinet for viewing. A built-in IR repeater system allows commands from the TV’s remote control to turn the TV on when it is hidden inside the cabinet. The TV is plugged into a current sensing outlet that activates the lift system to raise and lower the TV when it is switched on and off.
TV Lift Cabinet offers a wide range of cabinets in different styles and sizes. You’d think that a cabinet that includes a motorized TV lift would only be available in a modern style. However, TV Lift Cabinet has models that will fit into a variety of styled homes. For those that want a more customized solution, TV Lift Cabinets can build a custom cabinet to your specifications, modify the size of one of their stock cabinets to fit your needs, or custom finish a cabinet to match other cabinetry in a room. In addition, the lift mechanisms can be purchased separately if you want to work with a local cabinetry shop to build a custom cabinet to match your décor.
Reflectel custom builds TV frames that look like mirrors. They offer a wide range of finishing choices for their frames including wood, leather, metal and even a gilded finish. And, unlike many other competing products, Reflectel offers a choice of different glass options. Their View glass is optical quality and offers 70% TV picture transmission and 30% reflectivity. At the other end of the scale, Reflectel offers more economical Look glass with 50% transmission of the TV image and 50% reflectivity.
Another way to hide a TV in a room is to use it to display artwork when it isn’t being used for watching general television content. Samsung’s Frame TV was specifically designed for this purpose. What makes the Frame TV different is the built-in art mode. When art mode is enabled the TV can display art from a large library that includes both modern and classic works. A user can even upload their own pictures to the TV for display. To complete the look, Samsung also offers several different frames that can be mounted to the outside of the Frame TV. Or, companies, such as Frame My TV offer premium frame options to fit the Frame TV.
If you want to turn your existing TV into an art display, or if you prefer a TV brand other than Samsung and want to use it to display art when the TV isn’t in use, then the BillionDollarArtGallery offers this option for almost any smart TV. It is a simple USB stick that can be inserted into a smart TV’s USB port. It provides a two-hour video slide show of 500 individual paintings from some of the most famous aertists in the world — Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas and Winslow Homer, to name a few.
The images are all formatted to a resolution of 3840 x 2160 with a black background. This matches the resolution of most TVs. The background is included so the TV won’t zoom in on the image and distort it from the shape the artist intended. The BillionDollarArtGallery is currently selling for $39.99 on Amazon, making it the least expensive solution for helping to hide a TV in a room.
Finally, if you are handy with woodworking tools, there are easily found instructions on the Internet for creating your own picture frame around your TV. A quick Google search for “diy tv picture frame” will provide you with plenty of information and options. Combining this with the BillionDollarArtGallery provides a very economical solution for hiding a TV.
There are a lot of other ways to conceal or camouflage your technology. Wireless APs can be hidden in walls in spaces where coverage is required but aesthetics dictate that the technology be invisible. APs in less sensitive places like hallways, patios or garages can be camouflaged by painting them or applying a skin. Another thing I’ll be planning into our home are smurf tubes to conceal cabling. It’s a bit of a pet peeve with me when I see people investing a lot of money into their technology, especially entertainment systems, and don’t go the last mile and conceal the wiring. Especially when you can fish the cabling down the inside of the wall. But sometimes you can’t so something as simple as loom can at least tidy up the cabling.
This is an exciting phase for Debbie and I as we plan placement of electrical and technology to support our long-term plans for our home. If it were only up to me I probably wouldn’t be as particular about making the technology less conspicuous. But as this is also an interior design dream of a lifetime for Debbie, I don’t have any problem collaborating with her on the whole package, especially as I have some professional experience to lean on. We meet regularly to discuss technology, finishes, workflow throughout the house, landscaping and more as we don’t want to leave anything unplanned.
Obviously there are a million different ways make your smart home technology invisible. We’d love to hear about how you’ve done it in the comments, DMs or emails. I don’t pretend to have all the answers so your solutions or suggestions just may make it into our home. Until next week …
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