The automated home: How technology is influencing how homes are built, sold and occupied

Teresa Ristow

— With a simple touch of a button labeled “coffee” in Steve Muntean’s home in The Sanctuary, a series of dim lights illuminate only his route from the master bedroom to the kitchen counter, where a spotlighted coffee maker is ready to use.

Lights elsewhere in the house remain off during the early morning hours, until Muntean or his wife are ready to begin a new “scene”— a collection of customized settings for their home’s lighting, programmed for various activities day or night.

The Lutron lighting system in Muntean’s home is one example of a growing home automation industry surging in popularity across the country, including in Steamboat Springs.

Centralized control systems or smartphone and tablet applications now have the ability to control nearly anything with an on/off switch and numerous other home features, from sound, video, security and heat to decorative waterfalls and fireplaces. Systems can monitor whether windows and doors are open, closed or locked, pair music and lights and monitor safety features like smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

While extensive control rooms, hidden inside closets, utility areas or basements, provide the brains of these systems, controlling their features happens on small touchscreen panels, tablets or smartphones from any room inside the home or outside of it, even from several thousand miles away.

Programmed systems can also control home features based on time of day, fixed homeowner schedules or by the sunrise and sunset, automatically, without even the touch of a button.

“We automate it, so they don’t have to touch a thing,” said Thomas McKenzie, a home automation technology expert who in March began his own company, Cloud 9 Integrated Systems.

While the possibilities inside each home are endless, the same reasons drive homeowners to install the technology — convenience, security, comfort, and of course, enjoyment.

McKenzie and other Steamboat technology professionals are tapping into an industry that’s now influencing how homes are built, sold and occupied, and some believe it’s only a matter of time before forms of home automation make their way into every residence in the country.

The evolution

Like all technology on the market today, home automation systems have come a long way from the first installations decades ago.

“The products being released were very expensive and very fragile back then,” said McKenzie, who joined the home automation field in 2006 after working as a lighting engineer in London in his 20s.

“You used to need to be a multi-millionaire,” said Jennifer Edelstein, a systems engineer and partner at Cloud 9. “It’s amazing the advances in technology in the last 10 years.”

McKenzie and Edelstein met six years ago while working at Paragon Technology Group, a home automation company that merged with five similar companies in 2013 to form VIA home.

McKenzie was a sales manager who helped grow the company’s industry connections and client base, while Edelstein worked to program and manage the hardware in homes.

Together, they watched the once elite market for centralized home technology explode in popularity.

Builders of high-end homes must now seriously consider integrating lighting, heating and audio-visual controls into a centralized system in order to ensure its appeal to the luxury homeowner, said McKenzie, who communicates with developers and contractors to continue expanding the use of technology in the local market.

The systems eliminate banks of light switches and dials, make bulky electronic cable and stereo boxes seemingly disappear and give homeowners an added feeling of authority over the thousands of square feet they call home.

The recovering economy is reviving new home construction and activating the real estate market again, both drivers that led McKenzie and Edelstein to leave behind VIA to launch Cloud 9 this March.

The experts

Cloud 9 is poised to join two other Steamboat companies responsible for installing, reconstructing and servicing the majority of home automation systems in town, Imagine Technology Services and VIA.

The experts within each company can install and program a home system and then remotely monitor its performance and fix any issues that arise.

“It’s important that we deliver systems that work,” said Kelly Seibel, owner of Imagine Technology and a 14-year veteran of the industry. “We take a lot of pride in that.”

Seibel said the most important quality of home technology systems is their reliability and functionality for homeowners, something he often addresses by revamping or replacing systems that are aging, were poorly installed or are no longer functioning property.

“You can integrate it into a home and hide it, but to have it perform and be functional is what matters,” said Seibel, who previously ran another home technology company in North Carolina called Final Finish Design Group before moving to Steamboat and opening Imagine Technologies around 2010. “It needs to be simple. It needs to be reliable. And it needs to have a quality to it.”

Seibel said he works with homeowners to first define a budget and then outline what is possible and reasonable within that parameter.

Seibel and McKenzie will soon be joined by another competitor, Curtis LeMaster, who is in the early stages of opening a branch of his Florida-based home automation company, Control Designer, here in Steamboat.

LeMaster said that as prices of home automation components drop, popularity is rising, factors he hopes will allow him to squeeze into the local market for professional installations of both home and commercial systems.

The equipment

Prospective homeowners and home builders who can afford to boost the total cost of a home by 5 to 10 percent are rewarded with enviable home automation systems capable of controlling hundreds of home components from one device.

While Seibel said he doesn’t turn down the customer seeking a simple $2,000 installation of a few select components, typical whole-home automation runs from $50,000 to $250,000, depending on features and equipment the client desires.

Costs can climb past $1 million if high-end audio-visual products are part of the package.

McKenzie and Edelstein are fluent in installing both major brands of home automation systems, Savant and Crestron, while Seibel prefers to use either a Savant system or the increasingly popular freestanding components controlled by separate user-friendly apps.

At a $55,000 technology remodel Seibel’s team was working on at a home in Fox Estates in the south valley last week, a central rack of electronics hidden in a cupboard inside the home theater room was controlled by an RTI remote, while Nest thermostats, Sonos audio equipment and Lutron lighting were each controlled by separate applications on the home’s detachable, wall-mounted iPad.

While the numerous components might sound complicated to navigate, Seibel said he works by the ideology that anyone can learn to use the apps to control the home’s features.

“My whole thing is that grandma can do it,” Seibel said.

Both Imagine and Cloud 9 are fond of lighting components by Lutron, a Pennsylvania-based lighting corporation that produces more than 15,000 light products available for home integration systems.

While high-powered, whole-home systems may be desirable for those who own million-dollar homes, simpler options are becoming more accessible for those with a considerably smaller budget.

For a fraction of the cost of systems Seibel and McKenzie typically install and program, consumers can now purchase automated door locks, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, lightbulbs, motion sensors and thermostats in packages from home improvement retailers like Home Depot.

Simple home automation packages can cost just a few hundred dollars and allow consumers to run products made by multiple brands on one app from the convenience of their phone or tablet.

“I can name 20 companies trying to get a piece of the home automation industry,” said LeMaster, who predicts the industry will explode within a few years.

“In the next five years, ridiculous money is going to be thrown into control systems — everyone is going to have one,” he said. “I foresee it to be in every house.”

The owners

When looking to purchase a new luxury home in Steamboat, prospective buyers are placing an added worth on homes where technology plays a leading role, according to real estate broker Darrin Fryer, of Steamboat Sotheby’s International.

“It’s very high up on their checklist now,” said Fryer, who works alongside McKenzie and local developers to make sure that when possible, new homes are outfitted with the technology that today’s consumers are seeking.

Fryer said that high-end homes on the market that are lacking technology systems are missing an opportunity to appeal to a growing population of buyers seeking the systems, including second-homeowners considering purchasing their first residence outside a homeowner’s association or otherwise managed complex.

The remotely monitored systems allows a homeowner to check in on their house from another state, turn on their home’s heat when they’re hours from a seasonal visit or ensure that their pipes will never freeze.

“Having all this monitoring is piece of mind,” Fryer said.

For full-time resident Paul Boulanger, planning for a new integrated technology system in his 9,400-square-foot Strawberry Park home began three years ago, when contractors with Fox Construction were pouring the foundation.

Boulanger and his wife had previously retrofitted their turn-of-the-century Georgia home with a Crestron system they said never seemed to function properly.

Building a new home for the first time, Boulanger seized the opportunity to design his residence around the technology — pre-wiring the system during the first phases of construction more than two years ago.

“You have to invest some time,” said Boulanger, who worked with Seibel and his team at Imagine Technology to thoroughly explore what technology he wanted in his home and how he hoped it would function. “What was important to me is that it was something that could grow with us and evolve with us.”

Sitting in his expansive great room, Boulanger confidently navigates a Savant app on his iPad to demonstrate how, through a radio frequency connection and wireless Internet, he is able to maneuver his kitchen window shades up and down, turn on surround sound, or dim and brighten banks of lights throughout the house.

“It’s not a small house. And I have to think, do I want to do laps?” Boulanger asked. “This gives you visibility of all systems in a snapshot.”

Boulanger said he could be at Carl’s downtown and quickly glance at his iPhone to see whether he’s left a window open or the heat or lights on by mistake.

Having moved into the new home only weeks ago, Boulanger is still working with Seibel to fine-tune lighting scenes for different at-home activities, but he said the system is proving functional and useful to accommodate his busy life.

“That’s what I love about technology,” Seibel said. “It’s simplifying lives.”

To reach Teresa Ristow, call 970-871-4206, email or follow her on Twitter @TeresaRistow

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