A look inside South Africa's most awesome automated house

rpm

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Jannie and Loanne van Zyl’s house in Plattekloof is downright awesome. It is modern, has great views of Table Mountain and the Cape Town harbor, and has ample space for everything you need.

Its standout feature, however, is that it is one of the most automated homes in the world.

Here is an interview with Jannie about his automated home.

Outside.jpg
 

rpm

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Can you provide details about your automated house?

Around 2000, Loanne and I decided to build a new home and – being an engineer – I decided to automate the complete home. Initially I looked for contractors to do the project but it quickly transpired that no-one has ever done a fully integrated automated home even if some contractors could do specific sub-systems.

So, together with a few engineers that worked for me at the time, we decided to design, develop and build it ourselves. What we initially thought would be a simple project turned into a full-time, 3-year project!

We used commercially available components to control the actual sub-systems like lights (C-Bus), air conditioning (Daiken), audio/video (Crestron), security (CADDX), etc. but the centralized controllers to tie it all together we developed ourselves based on Crestron controllers. The user interfaces had to be written from scratch and this included GUIs, voice activation, SMS and USSD control, smartphone (Windows Mobile!), and PC control. To give an idea of the time we did this, the PC GUIs ran on Microsoft Java! (they still do!).

But the most important component was to do the conduit design of the house that would eventually carry the various services. You only have one chance to get it right and we developed and implemented a fully distributed conduit plant. Over 80Km of conduits went into the structure and the final conduits that enter the control room from each floor are 110mm in diameter! When we pulled all the cables these were completely used with no spare capacity.

The cabling itself much measure into hundreds of kilometers though we never calculated it. But there are 500 independent electrical circuits, 40 AV sources and 32 AV destinations, 96 Ethernet points, 40 telephone extensions and 192 security sensors, for example. All these are cabled. A Wi-Fi network overlays the fixed network for mobility.

These are all integrated and they share information with each other in real time. For example the security sensors provide continuous information about occupancy and movement to allow services to be controlled relevant to functions such as time of day, type of occupancy and the mode the house is in. A number of external systems such as weather stations and power meters feed the systems with information on which to base decisions.

When we built the system, smartphones and tablets were unheard of so touch screens were built into the home at strategic points around the house. These also double up as TVs. In subsequent years we added more user interface systems and now most of the family will use their tablets or phones to control the various functions.

Home-Control-Interface.jpg
 
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rpm

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Why did you decide to build it, and what is special about it (especially at the time)

My business at the time was to build integrated control systems for large corporate networks so this was really an extension of that. Can only make a home ‘smart’ by using commercially available control systems and adding an intelligence layer on top of that? And it had to be completely robust and reliable with no maintenance or constant fiddling to keep it going. One of the design criteria was that a 2-year and an 80-year old could intuitively use it.

We most definitely achieved it and the house and the system often features internationally as one of the most automated homes in the world.

The fact that today, 17 years later, the exact same electronics still do the same functions shows how reliable and future proof the system turned out to be. We’ve refreshed the GUIs but that is all. And every single system used in the house is still the go-to product for similar projects today.

Control Units in 2000.jpg
 
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rpm

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Can you give some of the coolest features about the house?

The ‘coolest’ feature is probably that the occupants don’t know they live in an automated home. It just works. Things just happen at the right time and in the right circumstances. The kids grew up never knowing that one should switch a light or TV on or off for example. Lights automatically go on or off and at the required level depending on where you move and how dark it is.

For Loanne and myself the ability to control the whole house at the touch of a button is very handy. Switch all the lights on or off, open the front door remotely for a visitor or checking up on the kids when we’re away is really handy. Putting the house into ‘party’ mode with one button seems to be an oft-used feature!

Remote management is very handy for me as I travel nearly every week. I can be anywhere in the world and get an SMS or IM notification of an event (the door bell rang or a door was left open) and then respond via an appropriate channel, be it SMS, smartphone app or the full GUI.

Probably one of the ‘coolest’ features is that you will not see a single bit of the cable or electronics that make this all work!

theatre-1.jpg
 
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rpm

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What are you the proudest about when looking back at the project?

How well it worked out. After 17 years in production it all still works perfectly with no failures. All the technology is still relevant and used today for similar projects around the globe. There is no maintenance required and the family don’t even know about the systems.

But probably the most critical thing was that we got the design right the first time.

You only have one chance to design one of these systems and you live for the rest of your life with any design flaws. We probably were lucky but I believe the old saying “luck favors the prepared” came to our rescue as we spent at least 2 years designing and testing the systems before we stated building.

System-Design.jpg
 
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beans100

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Is this an old thread necro??? I thought I saw Windows XP and some old Nokia's??
 

rpm

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Is this an old thread necro??? I thought I saw Windows XP and some old Nokia's??
This is discussed in the feedback from Jannie - the tech is old, but it still works as expected. This is what makes the project so impressive.
 

xrapidx

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Remember seeing his house waaay back on Top Billing or something.
 

Apogee

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Well done, Jannie!

That is how an Engineer worthy of the name should approach things.
 

R13...

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Cool but that level of customization would be a nightmare for a new if he ever sells up.
 

Arthur

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Brilliant!

And best of all, the tech is totally invisible and unobtrusive. A silent slave, obedient and reliable.
 

ToxicBunny

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Love this new approach to this sort of thing rpm it’s awesome...

And jannies house is epic
 
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