by Joe Stam

Five years ago I built a house.  Like many who undertake this task, I wanted my home to reflect my interests and personality.  Since I’m an electrical and software engineer, the obvious choice was to geek out and add a few gadgets here and there.

I may have gotten a bit carried away..and 'a few gadgets' turned into a slightly more serious undertaking.

Joe Stam's Inner Geek: My House is Smarter Than Your House


I started out with a whole-house lighting control system.  It required lots of thought and planning as  I wanted every light in the house to be under computer control.  I also needed the reliability of a conventional light switch (can’t have the lights go out with every B.S.O.D.).  I steered away from hobbyist retrofit technology and went with a truly professional lighting control system from Vantage controls.  Vantage lighting systems are frequently used in commercial buildings and luxury homes so I felt comfortable abandoning the traditional wiring and mechanical switches.

Joe Stam's Inner Geek: Vantage Closet

I didn't use a single light switch, and ran every every load straight to a utility room filled with banks of relays and dimmers.  The dimmers and relays responded to a central Vantage controller networked to keypads in every room, with Ethernet or RS232 connections to a variety of other devices.  The result was pretty convenient and even passed the wife test.  Any light can be turned off from anywhere, and when we go to bed a single button ensures all lights in the house are shut off.  I have four young children who refuse to turn off lights, so this sure beats doing the walkthrough every evening.

I didn't stop at lighting.  I needed to have my tunes, so the next item was a full-house integrated audio system.  Having children, I knew that free-standing speakers were a recipe for disaster; in-walls were the only choice.  I added eight zones total using an Elan System 12 audio/video controller and a combination of Elan and Sonance amps.   Turn ‘em all on at once and this house is rockin’.

At this point, my wife coined the nickname “Joe-the-Justifier” for my proficiency in convincing myself all these gadgets were necessary.

Security cameras came next, followed by an alarm system, automated thermostats, power monitoring, and centralized irrigation control.  To cap it all off I added an Elan communication controller with a whole-house intercom and paging system tied into the audio–another nice feature for those with kids.

Inner Geek: Smart House

I installed all the low voltage audio, video, phone, camera, network and security stuff myself. There’s also plenty of conduit for future expansion. I estimate that I pulled four to five miles of cable overall. Yea, I used up all my vacation time that year.

Lastly, I needed a way to control all this coolness. Knowing that professional touch screen controllers cost a bloody fortune, I figured I could get a bit creative with consumer PCs and do much of my own programming. For my user interface system I selected Cinemar’s Main Lobby, a flexible client-server system with a centralized Windows PC based server which communicates with my Vantage lighting controller, Elan A/V controller, sprinklers, security, thermostats, cameras and just about everything else I can imagine. It also controls a central 400 disk DVD changer, provides a full digital audio library system, weather forecasts, and even a few games. Best of all Main Lobby clients run Adobe flash, so I learned a little Flash programming and Action Script to make my personal customizations.

Joe Stam's Inner Geek: My House is Smarter Than Your House

Unfortunately Main Lobby didn’t support communication with the Vantage controller out-of-the-box, but it does now! I wrote my own plug-in interface. Main Lobby also lacked live video feed support for security cameras so I added some flash video client objects.

It’s been over five years now and my house upgrades are still not complete. I guess it’s an ongoing hobby, not a single project (or so says Joe the Justifier). My kids now think normal mechanical toggle light switches are novel, while their friends can’t keep their hands off the keypads and touch screens. My wife just wishes she paid more attention when I started all this. Needless to say, there’s now a pretty extensive review process for any new accessory purchases.

What’s next? I can’t wait for Flash-capable tablets with NVIDIA Tegra to hit the market. The control touch screens make my guests say “Wow”, just wait until they see a Tegra based portable system.