In 2003, in an exclusive neighborhood outside of Portland, Ore., a homeowner was working with MCM Architects PC, and the general contracting firm of Reimers and Jolivette Inc., to build a 21st-century home with the look of an early 1800s residence.

The owners had already chosen an electrical contractor when they attended a social event hosted by a friend. Also at that affair was Karl Jensen, president of West Side Electric Co. Inc., Portland. Jensen was seated next to one of the owners and learned about the house and what kinds of systems the owners were considering for installation in the course of normal conversation.

“I had no reason to believe that anything would come of that conversation, but a year later, Reimers and Jolivette called and asked for a bid,” he said.

By the time West Side Electric got that call, most of the house’s design had been completed, so the company had architectural drawings and knowledge of the homeowners’ requirements upon which to base its bid.

“Soon afterwards, based on the company’s expertise in all the systems involved, its reputation for quality workmanship, its design-build capabilities, a marginal price difference, and its previous working relationship with the general contractor on a number of commercial building remodeling projects, we were awarded the contract for what has become one of the smartest homes ever built in the Northwest,” Jensen said.

Although West Side Electric had architectural drawings for the house, the company had to design the electrical and smart control systems.

“We met with the client to confirm what they wanted and how they expected to use the home,” said Jim Black, manager of audiovisual and systems integration.

Based on this information, the design team advised the homeowners concerning new technologies currently available and what advances were expected in the future, as well as providing them with a detailed room-by-room proposal outlining equipment and how it could be used to the homeowners’ maximum advantage. The homeowners accepted West Side Electric’s ideas and what started out as a $75,000 job for a minimal number of control systems grew into one worth more than $1 million, including the traditional electrical systems—all this in a home that is worth $10 million.

This is not the first smart home that West Side Electric has had involvement in. The company is known, according to Jensen, for its expertise in wiring the largest, most sophisticated houses in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington state.

“We have worked on 18 new houses in the last five years alone that are between 7,000 and 13,000 square feet,” he said.

In addition, the company will begin work on a 12,000-square-foot house in the spring of 2006, and a 20,000-square-foot home in the fall. Although there is a limited number of people with the means to build homes this large, the residential industry has seen an increase in houses in the 5,000- to 6,000-square-foot range. However, these don’t usually contain the number and sophistication of the systems being installed in the grander, higher-end homes.

With one project manager and installer for the traditional electrical systems and one project manager and installer for the low-voltage systems, work on the house was completed on April 1, 2006.

The main 800-amp electrical service comes into the house from a utility transformer located nearby on the property. West Side electricians are responsible for running the power from the transformer to a current transformer metering device. From there, the power is brought into the house’s main panel and then distributed to eight individual subpanels for power and lighting in the pool house, power for the pool equipment, power and lighting in the boathouse, power for the eight air conditioning units, and lighting and power for appliances and equipment inside the house.

West Side Electric also installed the emergency power system, which entailed the installation of a backup generator for critical systems such as security, major appliances, and to operate lighting and major automation systems in case of a utility outage.

“The generator is meant to be the redundant backup power system in addition to battery backup power for the house’s integrated components,” said Mike Pettit, estimator and project manager.

The house’s lighting system consists of a combination of line- and low-voltage recessed fixtures, decorative fixtures, directed lighting for artwork, custom antiqued and distressed finishes, and outside and landscape lighting.

It is the completely integrated controls portion of the installation, however, that makes the house smart. Controlled and integrated through a Crestron system are the lighting; heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC); audio/video; pool functions; intercom; shades; and extras, such as motorized artwork that shields television sets when not in use. Crestron Electronics Inc., Rockleigh, N.J., manufactures these types of advanced control and automation systems, integrating audio/video, computer, IP and environmental.

“The Crestron system is really the brains of the operation,” Black said. “The technology oversees all of the systems’ operations throughout the house and monitors their use to ensure the highest efficiencies, convenience and to prevent problems before they occur.”

Touchscreens in every room allow the homeowners to access and control lighting in any room in the house, set individual scenes and dim or increase light levels per preset programs.

“All lights are wired to and terminated at the Crestron center,” Black said.

The same touchscreens also allow the owner to control nine HVAC zones and monitor temperatures, change settings, and turn on or off heating and cooling fans. All entertainment components in the house, such as the nine plasma televisions, stereos, DVD and CD players, XM satellite radio and Internet, are also controlled from any room through the touchscreen. And, the owners can control the pool’s retractable cover, spa temperature and jet settings, lighting and cleaning functions from the house from any touchscreen.

Finally, West Side Electric integrated the home’s security system and VESDA fire alarm systems into the Crestron brain. All of the smoke detectors, sirens, motion sensors, and door and window contacts are controlled at the touchscreens and are integrated with the lighting system. All of these can also be remotely monitored through electronic devices, such as phones, laptops or PDAs.

Only the wireless phone and computer network systems are not wired into the Crestron system, said Black. Service for both phone and cable are delivered by the providers to the house’s mechanical room; West Side electricians then ran the service to the appropriate distribution rack in the audio/video control room. Wireless phones and computers then pick up the signal for homeowner use.

The audio/video control room has three equipment racks for the phone, cable, satellite radio and television systems; the DVD and CD management system from Kaleidescape Inc., Mountain View, Calif.; and all of the audio/video switching and distribution systems.

“In total, 15 equipment racks are situated and hidden throughout the house to control all of the various systems,” said Black.

Conquering challenges

“The hardest challenge for us was trying to figure out how we were going to get wires to the various locations throughout the house,” said Pettit.

The main issues were the house’s exterior 22-inch thick walls and coordinating with the different trades that would be affected by the installations. These issues were addressed by working with the general contractor, architect, interior designers, and, at times, the structural engineer. Numerous on-site meetings were held to discuss any changes that might have to be made.

“It was a coordination challenge just to wire the exterior lighting and outlets,” he said.

Due to the design of the floor structures, the company has had to use both new construction and retrofit installation methods during the course of the project.

“We were unable to install rough-in housing for the lighting because of the floor structures and had to install remodel housings after wall finishes were completed,” Black said.

The company has painted, stained and plastered finishes throughout the house to accommodate the installation. The company has also had to extensively coordinate with the trades responsible for finishing the trims for each room to ensure that the older look that the homeowners desired is being accomplished, while ensuring that all systems still fall within the guidelines of the National Electrical Code (NEC).

Recommending and designing a control system that could handle the client’s needs was a challenge met by the company’s choice of the Crestron system.

“The system is unique in that it controls most of the homes’ needs,” Black said.

This is one of the largest, smartest homes in Oregon, according to West Side Electric. It is a complicated, sophisticated system that will control every aspect of virtually every system in the house, from within the home or remotely.

Only time will tell if such specialized applications and technologies will become mainstream in residential construction.     EC

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 or darbremer@comcast.net.