Ian Peel is director of MCC International Ltd. www.mccint.com
The world's smartest homes can be technological wonders. From swish high-definition home cinemas to curtains that open at the touch of a screen. Ian Peel meets Eoghan McCarron whose company has wired homes from Barbados to Hong Kong and Dublin
Eoghan McCarron is the man behind thewhitehouse, a company that has equipped some of the wealthiest homes in the world. "In many respects my job resembles that of the traditional architect," says McCarron.
Smart technologies are fast becoming the heart of the modern home – encompassing everything from telephones to personal cinemas, from lighting to music. "In a nutshell, I work closely with architects, interior designers, consultants, contractors, and with the owners in the selection, specification and installation of state-of-the-art equipment," he says.
Specialising in home theatre, multi-room audio/video, lighting and home automation, thewhitehouse is seeing some fascinating new technologies. In home theatre, for example, developments in 3-chip DLP (digital light processing) projectors can deliver the kind of large screen picture quality normally only associated with large CRT (cathode ray tube) projectors or 35mm projection, "but without all the reliability issues," says McCarron. "And the emergence of high definition or Blue Ray DVD players is also going to impact the quality available to customers," he says.
In television it's a similar story – picture quality is paramount and developing rapidly. "HDTV has been available in the US for more than a decade and plans in Europe for broadcast of HDTV transmission will transform the quality of picture available from the air," he says. There are a number of channels dedicated to HD sport events and films. As a result the company is adapting to and planning for this infrastructure in all new buildings, working with digital displays (projectors, plasma and LCD screens) that are HD-ready.
The truly exciting work comes when these film and TV systems – and the computer, climate control and telephone systems that thewhitehouse also provides – become networked together. "Most of the audio/video and control systems operate on the common IP (internet protocol) platform and are integrated to the home computer network," says McCarron. "For the user this means much better integration, and diagnostics between devices. With the addition of a special 802.11 network throughout the home, wireless control panels and wireless internet access have become the norm. At the same time, VoIP (voice over the web) telephone systems are set to revolutionise the telecom side – they are standard digital telephones with handsets that operate on the computer network (or wirelessly over the 802.11 network)."
As these new phone networks we are installing are IP-based technology, a homeowner could take a handset overseas to another home, and carry on as normal. With adequate broadband access in both locations, their handset would identify itself in the new location but still in the country of origin.
The hub of thewhitehouse's installations is usually a remote control system from AMX Corporation. They provide a variety of control panel options: wall-mounted, table-mounted, 802.11 wireless and so on. These panels typically control the local audio/visual devices but can also control lighting, heating, air-conditioning, security, and blinds. For example, a user might configure one control panel to perform a residence-wide operation like 'Good Night', which, at the touch of a button, would adjust all lighting and arm the security systems.
Many of the homes that the company has kitted out have included a family room or home theatre, tying into a large screen projection system with DVD and satellite sources and full surround-sound reproduction. "In many cases these spaces are customised extensively with all audio/visual elements integrated into the architecture of the room," he says. Often loudspeakers are in-wall versions for aesthetic reasons but without compromise to performance."
Eoghan McCarron's background is in the music industry. With sound engineering credits to his name with the likes of the Rolling Stones and U2, it comes as no surprise that the music systems his business has installed are top of the range. "Our systems revolve around a server, which will update an artwork and track database each time a new CD is loaded," he explains. "This information is then presented on a control panel to allow for easy selection and even the compilation of party playlists. For multiple home owners, we go one step further with several synchronised music servers. So each home throughout the world provides the same choice. At the other end of the scale, we have designed and implemented a simple interface allowing an iPod to be accessed and controlled from multiple zones in the home."
The deployment of such detailed systems is based on a constant dialogue between thewhitehouse and its client. "Typically, my involvement in a project is in three stages," explains McCarron. "I am asked initially to provide consultancy to a project at the planning stage. I create a brief from the homeowner by defining their expectations and understanding their experiences of this type of technology, both good and bad. Some clients prefer a 'one switch does all' approach whereas others really revel in the complexity and potential our systems can provide. Either way, we develop a truly customised solution, unique to each owner." Once this specification is in place, products must be found that can deliver the required results.
With a bewildering – and mushrooming – industry, the choice is endless. And the more products that come on to market, the more integration and comparability issues there are. This is often the best strength a consultancy such as thewhitehouse can offer – not only the experience of combining different systems but also the independence of not being tied to any one manufacturer.
With a user specification in place, McCarron then produces the drawings and documentation and co-ordinates with the architect, interior designer and any other third party working on the property. "I might also engage other specialists such as acoustic or lighting consultants to offer expert advice in their field," he says. "The net result is a build blueprint that includes all the infrastructure and detailed requirements of the whole scheme prior to construction. From experience, there are proven economies for including these details from the outset, rather than adding them later in the construction phase."
In the third phase, McCarron oversees the installation and commissioning of all the systems either with an appointed local installer or with his own team of engineers and programmers. On completion and handover, he then ensures that the client knows how to operate the systems.
McCarron's work takes him all over the world and 2004 saw him work in Ireland, the UK, Thailand, Hong Kong and Barbados. Each country brings its own unique challenges, ranging from climate to personnel. The latter is a key factor as McCaron will always try and use local contractors. "It is important to involve local contractors as much as possible as it is often they who provide the routine maintenance.
"In Thailand, our brief was to build an acoustically designed audio dubbing studio with a construction company whose on-site managers were twin brothers, known as Big and Ben. The elder brother spoke some English but couldn't build anything and the younger one had some building skills but didn't speak any English. It called for some pretty full-on project management."