For seven years, a Boston couple lived happily on two stories of a charming brownstone building in Beacon Hill. But when they started having children, they knew it was time for a change: Find a bigger place or expand their current one. As luck would have it, they were able to do the latter—buying out their neighbors, and then, expanding laterally by buying the building next to theirs. Now, the family of four has plenty of space. The challenge is that their house is divided into several levels (a basement, four stories of living space, and a rooftop deck). And after seeing how automation improved life for a friend, these owners decided to smarten up their home as part of a major renovation.Hard to tell from the elegant exterior, but behind these Bostonian bricks are five floors of high-tech enhancement.
The owners tapped Jason Record, owner of Rexx Home Systems, Inc., from Cumberland, Maine, for the install. “It’s a pretty unique project, two brownstones combined,” Jason notes. “It’s something a lot of people dream of doing, but few get beyond the dream phase.” Jason and his team spent time conferring with the couple to make sure they were all on the same page.
“The husband wanted a lot of things integrated in the home: lighting, security, surveillance cameras. Plus, he wanted a system that could pull that all together, so Control4 was a good fit.”
While the husband was gung-ho for gizmos, the wife, a designer, was focused on making sure that none of the high-tech interrupted the clean and airy aesthetic of the house. “We had to make the technology fit with a beautiful house, so that the technology isn’t a scab in the house,” says Jason.
“Jason was great,” the wife notes. “He worked with my husband for the technical parts and behind the scenes, then transitioned to work with me to make it all look beautiful and be seamless with the design.” Two years later, the renovation was complete, and the automation was, too. The result was a sprawling and impressive residence featuring automated elements on every floor.
Included in the system are 14 audio zones (including three surround sound), 10 video zones, lighting, security cameras, motorized shades for the skylights, and more than a few special features that make entertaining in this house a real treat.
A favorite feature of the automation system is the ability to control the entire house—all five floors—from one location. They can hit the "All Off" button when leaving the house or going to sleep, avoiding the legwork of traveling throughout the house and turning every light off manually. “Vertical living in Boston can make turning all these lights off painful,” Jason notes. But even the "All Off" can be customized. This family has their system set to ensure that the one touch scene does not include the sconce lights in both of the girls’ bedrooms, which act as nightlights.
Other features make life more convenient. The husband works from home and often has meetings in a conference room in the basement. “We have a button that says ‘Meeting’; I hit that, and it lights up the entire downstairs space,” the owner explains. The conference room table, by the way, sports its own smarts with a G-Link auxiliary input so that anyone visiting can play audio or video from their laptop or mobile device anywhere in the house. Meanwhile, when the owner is working in his home office and the doorbell rings, the owner can grab his portable touch screen, see who’s at the front door, and unlock the door with the touch of a button.
The system’s security features are also pretty snazzy. Smart locks on several of the doors automatically relock when the doors are closed. The cleaning staff has their own entry code and the homeowners receive an alert when certain codes are used to enter the house. IP cameras offer 360-degree, wide-angle views of the front entry and other areas of the house. When someone presses the doorbell at the front door, an announcement agent fires off a chime throughout the house, including the rooftop deck. However, if nobody is on the rooftop deck, the chime won’t play up there, so the neighbors aren’t disturbed. Smart! LEFT: Kitchen lights and audio are easily adjustable to fit the mood of the moment. RIGHT: There is no room for wires and clunky tech in this clean, airy décor. Instead, automation is accessed via in-wall Control4 touch screens and sleek keypads.
All of these automated additions improve the private lives of the family, but the system really shines when it comes to entertaining. Custom-lighting settings make it super-simple to set a mood in an instant, depending on the situation: watching a movie, having a few folks over, or having a full-on party. Plus, certain rooms sport their own smart-home specialties. Take the living room, for example: At first glance, it looks like a beautiful, electronics free sitting space. At the touch of a button, however, this formal space becomes the place for watching your favorite film or TV show: A motorized shade shields an overhead skylight, the lights dim, and the mirror on the wall comes to life as a television screen.
The owners also love how easy it is to play music anywhere in the house. They had Rexx Home Systems include dedicated buttons on the keypad marked with a musical note in every room. Hit that button once, and the kids’ music starts up. Hit it twice, and the parents’ favorite playlists come to life. It’s an instant party, and it couldn’t be easier to use. “I don’t have a lot of time to go through a lot of procedures,” notes the wife. “But if I can reach out and touch one button and have music on, it’s wonderful.”
But the crown jewel of this project, the pièce de résistance, without a doubt, is the rooftop deck. It’s a large, sprawling space covering the top of both buildings that is surprisingly private—no neighbors’ windows face it directly. From the start, the owners knew they wanted to do something special up here. What they did was create the ultimate entertainment rooftop deck.
Inspired by the drive-in movie theaters he frequented as a kid, the owner decided to go all out with an outdoor entertainment system. Rexx Home Systems installed three overlapping audio zones including a 5.2 surround sound system, and over 19 speakers and several subwoofers, all cleverly hidden within planter boxes or buried and disguised in the garden. The rooftop TV and its weatherproof enclosure weigh nearly 1,000 pounds and required a crane to install. The four-season enclosure can heat or cool the electronics as needed through the temperature extremes of Boston’s summers and winters. The zones are smart enough to know that if you’re watching a video in the theater zone, and the audio will defer to the movie, but if you’re having a party, the music will play throughout the rooftop. Or, opt to have music in one area, plus the television and its related audio in another area, and even a separate music source playing near the hot tub (of course, there’s a rooftop hot tub!). And for the truly personalized party touch, the owners can provide party guests with a temporary entry code that allows guests to let themselves in at the front door so there’s no disruptive doorbell interrupting the atmosphere of the gathering —very nice!
“I don’t know of a better roof deck for entertaining,” Jason says, and, after watching Game of Thrones on his rooftop with thundering accompanying audio, the owner absolutely agrees. But even with the countless streaming services and video source options available to play on the rooftop (or anywhere in the house, for that matter), the homeowner has to admit that, in reality, the stunning system is too often used to play episodes of Dinosaur Train.
So, smart home technology helped turn this daunting two-brownstone challenge into one fluid, complete, whole living environment. Despite the extent and vast scope of the system, the owners’ favorite feature is, not surprisingly, the system’s straightup simplicity. “I grew up with four remotes in my parent’s house,” the husband laughs. The wife loves that she can pull out her mobile phone and change the volume of the music or turn a light off as she’s chasing her kids throughout the house. “My mom can use it, our babysitters can use it,” she notes. “The system is surprisingly easy. We love it.”BELOW: A retractable skylight is just one element that converts the formal living room into a comfy mini-movie theater.FOR MORE SMART HOME STORIES IN BOSTON CLICK HERE