If you make sure you’re connected

The wiring’s in the wall: Discreet, hi-tech “smart homes” are a Manhattan must-have
By Jennifer White Karp | May 06, 2015 07:00AM

For many New Yorkers today, it’s not enough for a home to have the right location, square footage, finishes and furnishings.

A truly luxurious home also has to be “smart,” meaning the lighting, climate, security and entertainment systems can be operated by computer, phone (and eventually, even your watch). These systems, which emerged years ago in a limited fashion, have now been joined by a torrent of new products, enabled by a breakthrough in technology.

That’s because, until recently, hooking up to the so-called “Internet of Things” was a tricky — and expensive — endeavor. In the past, smart appliances required the installation of specialized wireless hubs. But now cheaper, more efficient chips are available — these can connect almost any product to the Internet via Wi-Fi, or to a mobile phone through Bluetooth.

“Buyers of luxury apartments now expect many of these technologies to be pre-installed by developers before they move in,” said Mark Hernandez, CEO of Cliqk, a New York-based installation company. “These luxury technology ‘must-have’ amenities include motorized shades, automated lighting, in-wall speaker systems and even heating and cooling control via smart thermostats like Nest. We are starting to see these appear as bullet points in broker sell sheets as well.”

But that doesn’t mean buyers considering older homes will miss out on the trend. Installation companies said that with today’s more robust and reliable wireless technologies, smart solutions can be retrofitted in any home — even in the most staid of pre-war co-op buildings — without time-consuming wire installation. For example, a large apartment could be flooded with commercial-grade Wi-Fi to create strong coverage.

Integrated entertainment systems are high on New Yorkers’ wish lists, according to area installation companies. They report that Sonos, a multi-room audio streaming system, and streaming video players like Roku and Apple TV are must-haves.

Streaming is the key word. In the past, sending content to multiple television sets in a home required expensive and complex wiring. Now users enjoy fewer cable boxes and less locally stored media. Hernandez said his clients use Google’s Chromecast device at parties, which allows “everyone with an iPhone or Android phone to queue up music video playlists on YouTube or Vevo to relive your MTV glory days.”

Cliqk recently launched a new website where users can book smart home installation services online at fixed prices ranging from $399 to $3,499.  “We also offer packages targeting specific audiences like a smart nursery, offering a baby monitor, white noise machine and automated lighting,” said Hernandez. “‘Genius Kosher’ is for our Jewish customers and offers automated lighting and shading control that is pre-programmed to go on and off during the Sabbath.”

Jordan Wills, director of marketing for Cloud9 Smarthome, a New York City-based home automation company, said its basic four-room audio solution costs around $5,000 and includes wireless speakers throughout the home. According to him, a typical two-bedroom home with audio, video, lighting and shades runs around $60,000 to $70,000. “Our higher-end jobs can run up to $250,000, which include audiophile-level speakers, mechanized hiding of televisions, panelized lighting and motorized double shades throughout the home,” he said.

“Space is an issue in Manhattan,” Wills said. The company works with developers, making apartments and hotel rooms smart during construction. “The number-one priority with our clients seems to be hiding the technology. What they do see needs to have an aesthetic appeal that’s in line with their vision, and that of the architect and designer.”

The other crucial element is ease-of-use, he said. “Our customers require a system that their in-laws can use when in town.”

The installation costs for a smart home may be relatively expensive, but there are incentives. For example, the makers of Nest thermostat — which programs itself and can be controlled from a phone — say it can help homeowners save up to 20 percent on heating and cooling bills. There’s also the peace-of-mind factor: Commercials for Time Warner’s IntelligentHome, a home monitoring and security system, show vacationers keeping watch over their homes from exotic locations.

But, as with all things tech, the strongest pull is the siren call of the cutting-edge. “I think it’s definitely becoming a status symbol to have some high-tech connectivity in your home,” said Cassie Slane, a technology expert. “Consumers, especially those between the ages of 18 and 49, want homes that can be controlled with a smartphone or tablet and are more interested in buying homes that already have these features installed. When a homeowner whips out their smartphone and can control their home’s lighting, HVAC and entertainment system, it is definitely impressive.”

As Slane points out, smart-home technology is a luxury amenity offered by New York City rental buildings as well. A new service aimed at renters called IOTAS partners with real estate developers to install smart appliance-ready outlets and sensors prior to move in, so “renters get access to smart technology without having to pay upfront costs,” she said.

In the view of Jack Borenstein, president of New York City-based Ultimate Sound & Installations, New Yorkers embrace smart homes differently. “New Yorkers have a greater need for efficiency of time, space and convenience than perhaps any other city except Tokyo,” he said.

Borenstein’s clients ask his company to integrate their entertainment systems, lighting, HVAC, security and motorized shades. In one of the company’s more challenging jobs, a $400,000 project at a residence on Central Park West and 103rd Street, the homeowners wanted a Kaleidescape, a $4,000 cloud-based multi-room movie player, installed.

In addition, they wanted to make the HVAC, security, lighting and audio and visual systems smart. The homeowners also wanted a motorized frame for the TV in the living room, a custom TV behind a mirror in the bathroom, a motorized TV mechanism that drops down from the ceiling in the kitchen and another motorized TV mechanism that retracts from the wall in the library.

Thanks to the retractable components and a simple user interface — which uses handheld remotes and both wireless and wall-mounted touch panels to control the entire residence — these new features do not scream out for attention. In fact, nearly all the technology is hidden from view.

Because keeping all that pricey gear under wraps is just … smart.