During my time as property editor of Country Life-and perhaps, in particular, as editor of our thrice-yearly international supplement-I’ve seen a lot of high-spec but atmospherically challenged new houses. Media rooms with embedded surround sound, banks of leather sofas and wall-to-wall television screens leave me cold, as do panels of light switches that resemble the flight deck of
a two-seater helicopter.
I know of one house where, at the touch of a button, the security blinds throughout the ground floor started to raise, accompanied by (in Dolby Stereo) the James Bond theme tune. But a particular low point came in the form of the penthouse of a restored Belle Epoque hotel on the French Riviera, where taps in the bathrooms and kitchens cast varying shades of red and blue light into the water flow to demonstrate the temperature.
One assumes that the developers believed the senses of their potential buyers had been dulled by the accumulation of their gazillions ‘There’s no question technology can be used to great effect, but I meet many house buyers for whom it’s totally bewildering,’ explains Nick Warner of buying agents Prime Purchase (01608 810662). ‘The concept of having to find the remote control in order to turn down the volume or dim the lighting, instead of turning a knob or flicking a switch, might be enough to deter them from buying the house.’
Jonathan Dinnewell of Small-wood Architects (020-7376 5744) has designed super-high-tech houses in London where the front garden descends into a car park, subwoofers (speakers) are buried in the garden, iPads float in the Jacuzzi and the lighting system is so complicated that the butler has to be trained in the art of turning on the lights. ‘This usually happens when the man is obsessed by technology,’ he concedes.
However, before you become too cynical, warns Guy Meacock, also of Prime Purchase (020-7881 2392), it’s not simply a question of toy-loving boys filling their houses with pointless gadgetry. There are much more sensible reasons to sit up and take an interest in recent development in home technology. ‘Much of what we’re beginning to see today, which could well be commonplace in 10 years’ time, is technology associated with energy saving and security. Energy costs will continue to rise, so innovations such as all-off single light switches by the front and back doors will become increasingly standard.’
One person who needed no encouragement to embrace home technology in his country house in Wiltshire is Angus Gibson, formerly of Gibson Music, but now director at house builder Symm (020-7411 9011). ‘There’s no doubt about it, technology enhances the home,’ he enthuses. But it’s not gadgetry and gimmickery that you should be focusing on, he argues-it’s broadband internet. ‘This is where the most exciting innovations have been,’ he explains.
So, if you have a reliableconnection and are about to embark on a major refurbishment of your country house, these are the things that Mr Gibson advises you to consider installing now, in order to make the most of the future.
Take a bite of Apple
The rise of Apple products has changed the way home technology works. Before the advent of the iPad and iPhone and their associated apps, the prospect of having a complicated operating system put many people off embracing gadgetry. But Apple products are so intuitive that older people have absolutely no problem using them.
‘Through the iPad, owners can download the necessary apps that have been developed to run these programmes and can control everything in the house with a touch screen,’ says Mr Gibson. ‘It will hop onto your home network and talk to the various programmes. Without a home network, however, it’s of limited use.’
The home network, which is almost like an intranet for the house, is the most important thing for a house that’s going to embrace technology. ‘Without this, you can’t do anything,’ explains Mr Gibson. ‘The home network communicates between digital devices deployed in the home. Perhaps the most import-ant function is sharing of internet access, and this should involve several levels: one for dedicated internet access, and another for streaming movies direct to a hard drive or SmartTV, for example.’
In larger country houses, where you’re likely to require more equipment to set up home technology properly, you’ll need a ‘home-automation control’-the big name in the field is Crestron. Put simply, these are programmable computer systems that will control all the various gadgets in the home.
Cabling and routers ‘In big, old country houses, I’d be very wary of relying on WiFi to connect the entire house to the internet. It’s so unpredict-able,’ cautions Mr Gibson. ‘With an old building, you can’t beat a wired connection-cabling is, therefore, key. You’ll also need to spend money on decent
routers, as the ones that come with your broadband package aren’t designed to last.
Spend money on these and they’ll pay you back in dividends.’ You might also need several routers placed strategically around the house because thick walls will interrupt the connection. Be careful, however, as they’re heat sensitive, so avoid putting them in direct sunlight.
For country-house owners who live in an area of poor mobile-phone reception, it’s worth noting that some providers will allow your phone to link to your home internet connection for proper coverage.
Music, television and radio
Today, top-quality equipment is quite reasonably priced, says Mr Gibson. ‘It can cost just £25,000 to kit out a house with everything it needs. Five years ago, this would have cost £100,000 and involved splicing together operating systems from different manufacturers.’ One of the services that Symm provides is transferring clients’ music to a hard drive, which is then accessible from an iPad.
In the hi-fi terms, the latest must-have is a B&W Zeppelin Air, which is basically a very cool-looking ghetto-blaster. If you have AirPlay built into your phone, when you’re in range of a Zeppelin Air, instead of having to dock the phone/iPod into the machine, it will pick up your music wirelessly from across the room.
Next on the list is a SmartTV. The name refers to the integration of the internet into modern television sets and set-top boxes. This means that, as well as watching traditional broadcast television, you can access films on demand and catch-up services such as BBC iPlayer, as well as games and social-networking sites, and listen to all the various internet radio stations available today. Just as it’s worth having one room with a proper amplifier and speakers for music, it’s also worth turning another, smaller one into a really comfortable television room with good acoustics, where the family can get together in comfort.
Traditional architects might bridle at the thought of upgrading the lighting in a country house to what’s known as a ‘smart system’, but new building regulations for power consumption are very much in force now, and installing a cutting-edge system such as Lutron will mean you can not only have clever lighting, but will also vastly reduce your electricity consumption. ‘Lutron is basic-ally a highly sophisticated dimmer switch, which is also intelligent-in order to achieve the energy-saving targets for new houses, a system such as this is essential. They can use two watts of power in lamps whereas old-school bulbs use 60.’
But this is about much more than mood lighting, including, for instance, security. The system will memorise your lighting patterns for two weeks, so that if you’re away, it’ll set the lights to come on and off. If a burglar trips the alarm switch, the lights can be set to become stroboscopic. And, if a smoke alarm is set off, all the lights in the house will come on, ensuring that no one remains asleep in bed.
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