Under the Sun and Stars: Alfresco Living Opens More Opportunities
Jamie Durie knows what’s happening. A former Australian exotic dancer, he has parlayed his landscaping experience and previous hosting on PBS’s long-running Victory Garden to bedazzle in one of HGTV’s newest big hits â€” Outdoor Rooms. According to a recent U.S. Housing Survey, homeowners across the nation spent more than $40 billion improving outdoor living areas. So it’s a path that electronic home systems contractors can also walk, from inside homes to the great out-of-doors.
Results of another industry survey shows that upscale homeowners are prime customers for all things backyard. Among upscale households, 35 percent already have a finished outdoor room. Of those, nearly half report that they update their outdoor spaces seasonally. Among those who do not yet have an outdoor room, 34 percent plan to design and furnish one in the next 12 months.
While luxury homeowners are a natural fit, regardless of age, sex, or geographic region of residence, American homeowners are designing outdoor living areas that mirror their unique personalities and lifestyles, according to a nationwide survey by Laneventure, the North Carolina-based manufacturer of outdoor furnishings.
Six in ten respondents stated it is important to extend the living space and personality of their home to the outdoors. In addition, when customizing their outdoor areas, homeowners say that creating a "comfortable" space is the most important (69 percent) characteristic. Homeowners also perceive functionality (65 percent) and upkeep/maintenance (62 percent) to be essential for outdoor areas.
There are others working the outdoors from other directions â€” landscaping, pool design, home remodelers â€” who have been toiling under the sun, often for more years than home systems dealers. But home systems contractors may have a more recent leg up, thanks to whole house audio and the video theater experience moving outside, home area networks and Internet-driven streaming audio and video as well as the mixing with outdoor office setups.
Then there are more traditional security needs as more expensive goodies reside under the sun and stars. Outside security video guards the investments as well as the home’s perimeter. Security lighting easily turns into decorative and lifestyle lighting. Electronic pool alarms, aimed at life safety, have for years been in the electronic home systems toolbox. Then there is a diversity of weather-resistant controllers to manage home automation systems from the comfort of a deck chair.
No doubt, homeowners are expanding the use of their outside spaces. At the same time, the growth of interior square footage of homes, including luxury ones, has peaked as well as the potential increased resale value of kitchen, bathroom and home theater improvements.
The economic recession and a renewed interest by homeowners in lowering utility costs are resulting in an increasingly growing demand for smaller-sized homes.
Property upgrades, however, are extremely popular with households trying to maximize their usable space with finished attics and basements, a range of outdoor living enhancements and blended indoor/outdoor features.
Those are the two key findings of the latest in a quarterly series of surveys conducted among a panel of its members by the American Institute of Architects.
So it is not surprising that adding an outdoor room can extend usable square footage and raise the resale value of home by as much as 30 percent, according to real estate agents and remodelers surveyed for this smartHOME online article.
No matter the homeowner, the trick is to balance products with the specific lifestyle wishes of a client.
There are diverse needs for technologies by homeowners who have expanded into outdoor rooms. It’s a matter of meeting specifics that can range all over the place, according to Nell Mathews with Atronic Alarms, one of the largest security integrators, with its base in Kansas City.
“Often there are specialized reasons for outdoor requirements,” Matthews pointed out. For example, a homeowner with expensive outdoor art statues now has beam sensors that protect the assets but can be turned off during out-of-doors events. “Pool alarms are a given,” she adds.
Increasing numbers of pool owners now add pool alarms to the layers of protection that can help prevent a deadly accident, at times encouraged by local ordinances or gated community rules. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has studied performance of three types of pool alarm systems: floating alarms that detect waves on the surface, underwater alarms that detect waves under the surface, and a wristband alarm to be worn by the child and sound when exposed to water. Results of such studies tends to show that underwater alarms were most reliable.
“And there is more use of video surveillance around the perimeter of homes,” in gardens, driveways, patios, outdoor kitchens and decks, according to Mathews. Such technology can prove useful to provide security and auditing of the comings and goings of landscapers and home contractors, for example.
Energy management also plays an outdoor role, contended Mathews.
Outside lighting is both decorate and can provide a level of security. “The home looks lived in,” she added. “Heat sensors in the sidewalks can melt ice and snow,” providing a safer environment.
With America’s focus on its pets, the Atronic Alarms executive also suggests that technology can also apply to the outdoor areas with doghouses and secured pet doors into and out of the home.
Atronic Alarms provides custom-designed security systems, fire systems, home automation systems, camera systems, access control systems, and a local monitoring service to homes and businesses in the Kansas City metro area. “We started out focused on high-end residential but many of our clients kept asking about help with their businesses and we have expanded in that area, too,” said Mathews.
There are other important trends impacting outdoor rooms.
One is the outdoor kitchen, which can come complete with water, electrical, and gas hook-ups. One twist: gas and wood-burning pizza ovens. Many outdoor kitchens go beyond built-in barbeques. An outdoor fire pit or fireplace can add a focal point, too. Big screen televisions now often complement the outdoor kitchens and fireplaces.
Designs can go wild. One winner of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) 2010 Contractor of the Year award, Bluestream Builders of Oakland Park, Fla., created a backyard oasis for two retirees who wanted to expand their entertaining space. The project emphasized the elements of fire, water and earth, using the property’s curvaceous swimming pool as the focal point.
The Bluestream team built a pavilion kitchen near the pool for easy access to food and drinks while the homeowners and guests lounge in the Florida sun. In an effort to extend the season for outdoor living as long as possible, a gas fireplace and wood-burning pizza oven became the “hot spot” within the pavilion. The plan incorporated audio-visual elements, a big-screen television and custom sound system, from the start so that the homeowners didn’t have to worry about adding them later. As a safety feature, heavy-duty screening was installed to protect the pavilion from the strong hurricane winds the Florida home sometimes faces.
NARI considers such trends to be on the upswing. Others agree. A recovery in home improvement spending will soon be underway, according to a summer 2010 Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activity (LIRA) by the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. Remodeling spending is expected to increase on an annual basis by the end of the year, and LIRA points to growth accelerating to the double digit range in the first quarter 2011.
"Absent a reversal of recent economic progress, there should be a healthy upturn in home improvement activity by year-end and into next year," said Eric Belsky, managing director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies. Homeowner optimism is bolstering more investing in the home again, and especially outside. The recovery in home improvement activity appears to be moving beyond simple replacement projects and energy retrofits to broader remodels and upgrades.
Specific to the design and application of electronic home systems, as compared to in-home, the outdoors â€” obviously â€” presents challenges.
Take video entertainment centers, as one example. Such newer outdoor LCD and LED high definition units are specially treated to be weather resistant but not weather proof in the long term. According to one source, MirageVision, LED backlight technology is the latest in LCD flat panel HDTVs. It burns cooler, is brighter, has much higher contrast, uses less power and has a better life span than the traditional florescent backlight bulbs.
No matter the TV source, most units resist downward rain and snow. In addition, outdoor video, even though equipped with enhanced picture quality and an increased contrast and brightness for outdoor sunlight, will still have a better picture in a shaded area or when not installed in full direct sunlight. So location is as important as the technology.
Among outdoor TV sources are SunBriteTV, Runco, and Pantel. There are others, with some specialty firms taking name-brand indoor units and weatherizing them.
When it comes to out-of-doors audio, quality of sound, speaker type and location are important. Some devices, designed to look like rocks, can blend into the landscape while others are in-wall or wall, post, tree and ground mounted.
Earthquake Sound’s chief engineer, Joseph Sahyoun, sees importance in high quality audio speaker packages that include left and right speakers as well as subwoofers. “Today, people are more attuned to the quality of the sound,” he pointed out. Some units are “powered” by the music itself. There are wired and wireless designs. The Hayward, Calif., firm makes audio systems and, for use outside, it recently added rock speakers: Granite-52 is a pair of rock speakers that serve as left and right speakers while Granite-10D is a matching granite finish subwoofer which features a dual 4-ohm voice coil.
In addition to Earthquake Sound, other sources of outdoor audio include Terra Speakers, Velodyne, and AmbiSonic Systems, to name a few.
Looking at the whole house picture, Sahyoun said the key to the future, indoors and out, is “who controls the platform.” Pieces of the total home system must be “open” to working with others and through the universal platform. Still, “everything one day will be IP addressable. My bottom line: homeowners will have more controls, more use of wireless and more IP,” the sound expert says.
Specific to bringing handheld remote controls out-of-doors, electronic home systems contractors sometime put repeaters out in the yard and hide them in weather resistant boxes throughout the landscaping, to reach a solid wireless “roaming” range. There are weather resistant handhelds from a variety of sources, some universal while others are proprietary to their own processors or platforms. Yet, it is often best to look for easy-to-read, high-contrast LCD handhelds that can display custom buttons, graphics, and text, even in bright sunlight.
Speaking of weather, there are specialty systems now available â€” what some call personalized weather stations â€” that can integrate with other whole home systems. For example, WeatherHawk, Logan. Utah, is Intranet and Internet ready and has a range of plug-and-play drivers for some home automation control systems. WeatherHawk senses wind speed and direction, outdoor air temperature, relative humidity, solar radiation, barometric pressure, and rainfall. Such real-time weather data can directly feed to both a home computer/server and a home automation system.
Mixing the out-of-doors with on-the-water presents an additional electronic systems business opportunity, although such assignments may prove better positioned for businesses that specialize in marine work, on pleasure and working boats, yachts and ships.
Todd Tally of Atlantic Marine Electronics, New Gretna, N.J., points out that lifestyle and business needs drive the use of systems on fishing boats, pleasure craft and yachts. “This includes not only navigation and communication equipment, but also entertainment systems throughout” the on-the-water facilities. Many have high-end audio and big screen televisions on board. “There also are systems with safety and security in mind for more and better situational awareness,” adds Tally.
“We are seeing more use of video cameras on board as well as use of thermal imaging, night vision and infrared camera systems,” he observes. In some cases, Tally employs technology from Flir Systems of Wilsonville, Ore. Thermal cameras let mariners see other vessels, floating debris, man overboard, and channel markers in total darkness. Thermal imagers keep mariners moving and working all night while keeping vessel and crew safe.
In addition, companies such as Paradox Marine, a Canada-based company with a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., office, provide remote vessel monitoring, boat alarms as well as yacht alarms and monitoring systems and tracking devices.