In a tract-home development, electronics subcontractors have the luxury of designing in a predictable array of audio systems, home networking gear, and maybe a home theater. They offer cookie-cutter packages, and then home buyers either opt in or out of the upgrades.

In a custom home, where homeowners can indulge every desire, electronics designers have to be ready for anything on the wish list. The smart ones also anticipate what a homeowner may want later on and build in an infrastructure that enables easy upgrades. Then they work closely with the builder and other subs to ensure that everyone's on the same page at each step of construction.

This penthouse project in New Hope, Pa., is an “everything plus the kitchen sink” installation, according to Robert Baumann, director of project management and systems design for HiFi House, an electronics firm with offices in Broomall and Jenkintown, Pa., and Wilmington, Del. At various stages of the project, Baumann coordinated with builder Scannapieco Development Corp. and the electrical contractor to make sure wiring and framing were in place before concrete was laid and walls went up.

“This residence has concrete floors, which can muck things up because once they're in, it's hard to run wires,” Baumann says. The location of TVs used to be fairly predictable, but because the newest models are just 3 inches deep, homeowners now can put them just about anywhere. In the master bedroom, a 37-inch Sharp LCD TV rises from a motorized lift at the end of the bed, so a floor outlet was needed to accommodate both the TV and the lift. “We had to talk to the electrician and the builder to make sure we had enough electrical service there,” he explains, “because you don't want to be sharing the TV circuit with the washing machine or the bathroom outlet your wife uses for the blow-dryer. If you're looking for the purest signal—without interference—you want to run as much as you can on dedicated circuits.”

Baumann also coordinated with the builder to frame a nook for a 15-inch LCD TV in the wall next to the master bath sink. Thanks to the flat TV, he sees the water closet TV trend taking off over the next few years. “Every morning you turn it on to get news, weather, and traffic,” he says. In fact, the company recently added the Seura two-way mirror with integrated television to its preferred product list and would have speced it into this project if the TV had been on the market when plans were drawn up. “When it's off, you see nothing but a mirror,” he says of the Seura product. “When it's on, there's a terrific picture. We're expecting to sell a lot [of them].”

The New Hope project is controlled by a Crestron system that integrates lighting, motorized shades, audio/ video, security, and HVAC, which are operated via wall-and table-mount touchpanels. The system is also Internet-capable, which benefits both the homeowner and the installer. “The homeowner has control over his entire home, whether he's sitting in his home office or checking in from Bangkok,” says Baumann. “He can turn on lights to check things, look at cameras, and turn the alarm off if he needs to let someone in.” HiFi House, meanwhile, benefits from the connection by being able to make programming adjustments to the system without having to make costly service calls. “If Comcast makes a channel change—which it does often—we can change the favorite channel on [the homeowner's] remote control from our office,” he explains.

Internet and whole-house control require Category-5e wiring—and lots of it. Baumann estimates HiFi House threaded close to 25,000 feet of wiring for audio, video, control, and networking throughout the 5,800-square-foot home. “I always do redundant wire,” he says. “You never know when a customer is going to add something after the fact, and you never know when you'll have a bad wire because the Sheetrocker put a nail through a Cat-5 cable.” He says the company made sure every room was speced for TV, computer, cable and satellite TV, and phone. They then ran an additional two-by-two port that included two Cat-5e runs and a pair of RG6 cables.

The customer initially balked at the $10,000 wiring bill, but Baumann says the rainy day runs have already paid off. “He had a room where he said he didn't need a computer or video feed, but he came back to us later and said his daughter was coming to visit and she wanted a TV in her room. So [those feeds] came in handy.” So did the extra Cat-5 run in the bedroom. The wife's study and the master bedroom shared a thermostat in the original plans, but after a cold winter, the homeowners realized they needed separate thermostats to handle two thermally different rooms. “We had an additional Cat-5 wire running to the touchpanel that we could run to the thermostat,” he says.

Any home theater begs for extra wiring because homeowners always have to be prepared for the next big thing—and a core of smaller ones. In this penthouse's home theater, Baumann ran 10 to 15 extra runs of Cat-5 “just in case” and ended up using nearly every one. The husband is a sports fan, so much so that he watches the big football game each week on a 110-inch projection screen and reserves the two smaller Fujitsu 55-inch plasmas for other games. When his wife or grandkids want to join him and view a cooking show or play Xbox, they can plug in wireless headphones—a late add made possible by Cat-5—and tune in their own audio.

The whole-house RG6 network enables every room with a TV to view a DVD without having a player in the room. A 400-disc Sony DVD changer in the main equipment room can be accessed from remote Crestron panels and fed through local TVs. “If you don't have distributed video,” he says, “the only way you have access to 400 discs is if a player is sitting under your TV and you go retrieve a disc.”

According to Baumann, this project was successful because of the weekly meetings that were held to keep the subcontractors informed of each other's progress—a huge benefit when unforeseen issues arose. Because the property was built to commercial standards, it included features not required in residential installations; for instance, loudspeakers had to have back boxes for fire ratings. “The boxes are a lot bigger than the speakers, so if you have an 8-inch hole, it needs a 16-inch pathway because of the side wings that hold it in the ceiling,” Baumann says. “If you didn't know beforehand, you'd have to cut into dry-wall—[something] you never want to have to do. It pays on any project to have all the subs talking so there's open communication.”

project credits
builder: Scannapieco Development Corp., New Hope, Pa.
electronics design and integration firm: HiFi House, Broomall, Pa.
interior designer: Mary Ann Kleschick Interior Design, Philadelphia

Rebecca Day specializes in writing about home electronics. She can be reached at customhomerd@aol.com. A version of this article originally appeared in residential architect's sister publication CUSTOM HOME.