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Home Smart Home

Electronic controllers are creating high-tech houses that do everything but tuck you in at night (though they will turn off the lights)
Daren Fonda
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, Jan/Feb 00

Most mornings, Jerry Rich follows a routine his house knows well. As the sun rises over the cornfields on his Illinois estate, the 60-year-old executive and computer systems engineer heads for a workout in his huge exercise room. Dubbed "The Lagoon" for its indoor pool, Jacuzzi and miniature waterfalls, the room prepares for his arrival. It knows he likes the room a temperate 68 degrees and has preheated itself accordingly. Its electronic brain has been programmed to tune the TV to CNBC, his choice for stock quotes. The high hats in the ceiling illuminate to 75 percent, as Rich prefers a subdued dawn scene. The pool's temperature rises to 70 degrees and the waterfalls start cascading. The Lagoon, in effect, knows that Rich likes watching the falls while he exercises, but will shut them down when he leaves.  

Programmable rooms aren't uncommon in Rich's house. If any dwelling resembles what the French architect Le Corbusier called a "machine for living in," it is this two-story rambler. Situated on a 3,000-acre estate outside Chicago, it serves as both a private residence and showcase for TronArch, its electronic management system. At 53,000 square feet, the home is the size of a small hotel: big enough for an exotic car museum, full-size carousel and 15-seat home theater. TronArch governs everything from the house's climate and alarm system to its TVs, stereo systems, appliances and more than 400 lights. Linking it all together is a web of high-grade cables, electrical wires and sensors embedded in the windows, walls and floors.  

Wall-mounted touch screens allow occupants to program rooms to their liking: lights can be timed, temperatures set, music or movies selected--all at their fingertips.   "This isn't 'The Jetsons,' " says Keith Rich, Jerry's son and president and chief executive officer of I.S.R., the company that designed TronArch for the Pavilion, as the house is known. "But it's the smartest home control system you'll find today."   What it does, he says, is make a home "think" for its residents.

A "bedtime" routine, for instance, might include closing the blinds, setting the alarm, heating a bath and switching the TV channel to the news. In a guest room, tapping the touch screen's "snack" icon will light a path to the kitchen late at night. A "romance" button might close the draperies, dim the lights and pipe Bolèro through speakers in the walls. Pressing the "dog-walk" icon could deactivate a backdoor alarm and shine a path to the kennel. Tapping the "away" icon locks the house down like a fortress.  

"With TronArch," says Keith Rich, "you never have to worry about whether it's dark out, it's cold, or ask questions like: Did I close the garage door? Did I close the gates? The system is like your home psychologist." Whatever your house's "problems," TronArch is designed to solve them, he says. With light and temperature sensors strategically placed around the home's perimeter and tied into its computer network, the house automatically adjusts for seasonal changes.

And when residents do want to change the settings, they can do so, even from a distance, via a telephone and PC. (The system's Pentium-based computers run on the Internet protocol, allowing residents to dial into the house's management system.) Vacationing homeowners might call to disarm the security system for a maintenance worker, for example, or they could time classical music to turn on for their arrival.  

The younger Rich hesitates to put a price tag on all this convenience. The system, he explains, is customized for every house, with I.S.R.'s engineers typically spending weeks learning clients' living habits before configuring the software to match their routines. That said, on a $10 million to $30 million house, installing TronArch could add between $350,000 to $4 million to construction costs, depending on the project.

"Only a few thousand homes in the country warrant our service," says Rich. Indeed, as an industrial-grade system--installed in buildings such as Chicago's Union Square Station--TronArch is ideally suited for homes larger than 10,000 square feet. With sensors embedded in electrical appliances, windows and floors, a TronArch-equipped house can literally communicate with itself--a major advantage in a large home, where feedback gives assurance that the lights at the other end of the house have actually shut down when commanded.  

TronArch has been called the Rolls-Royce of home control systems. But adding brain power to your house needn't cost a fortune. In the past few years, the home automation industry has developed a number of products that, for less than $5,000, can transform even the lowest-tech houses into semblances of computerized Xanadus. More than 50 automation systems are available, ranging from $100 software that can turn your computer into a nerve center for the entire house to $20,000-plus models such as the Home Boss, which coordinates systems from lawn sprinklers to climate controls.  

Americans spent an estimated $727 million on central home controllers in the past two years, according to Parks Associates, a Dallas research firm. And more than 300,000 new homes were fitted with electronic butlers in that time. So far, less than 1 percent of U.S. homes have been fully automated, says Parks. But the figure is expected to double by 2005, and with prices falling and the technology advancing, the industry is betting that home automation will be part of standard architectural planning within a few decades.  

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