Jannie and Loanne van Zyl’s house in Plattekloof is awesome.
It is modern, has great views of Cape Town, 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.
When van Zyl built his new home in 2000, the engineer in him took over and he decided to automate the home.
He looked for contractors to do the project, but no one had done a fully integrated automated home at the time.
“So, together with a few engineers that worked for me, we decided to design, develop, and build it ourselves,” said van Zyl.
What van Zyl and his team thought would be a simple project turned into a full-time three-year mission.
How the house was built
To automate the house van Zyl used commercial components to control the sub-systems like lights (C-Bus), air conditioning (Daiken), audio and video (Crestron), and security (CADDX).
To tie it all together they developed their own controllers based on Crestron controllers.
The user interfaces had to be written from scratch and this included GUIs, voice activation, SMS and USSD control, and smartphone (Windows Mobile) and PC control.
“To give an idea of the time we did this, the PC GUIs ran on Microsoft Java, and they still do,” said van Zyl.
The most important component, he said, was the conduit design of the house that would 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,” he said.
The cabling of van Zyl’s house measures into hundreds of kilometres.
There are 500 independent electrical circuits, 40 AV sources and 32 AV destinations, 96 Ethernet points, 40 telephone extensions, and 192 security sensors.
All of these are cabled, and a Wi-Fi network overlays the fixed network for mobility.
The home’s systems are all integrated and share information with each other in real time.
For example, the security sensors provide continuous information about occupancy and movement.
This allow services to be controlled relevant to functions such as time of day, type of occupancy, and the mode the house is in.
Several external systems such as weather stations and power meters also feed the systems with information on which to base decisions.
When the house was built, smartphones and tablets were unheard of, so touchscreens were built into the home at strategic points. 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,” he said.
What is particularly impressive is that today, 17 years later, the electronics still do the same functions – which 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,” said van Zyl.
The coolest feature
Van Zyl said the coolest feature of the house is 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,” he said.
“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.”
He added that the ability to control the entire 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 great,” he said.
Another valuable feature is remote management, which allows them to control the house remotely via SMS or the Internet.
“I can be anywhere in the world and get an SMS or IM notification of an event and then respond via an appropriate channel, be it SMS, smartphone app, or the full GUI.”