Design and Technology Living in Harmony

Skinner Architects and London Audio blend high-end design with home technology including audio/video and fancy wine cellar.

authors  | September 14, 2009

On the surface, this might seem like just another custom home with a lot of fancy technology. Ordinary it is not; packed with a high level of custom technology, it sure is. Most of the technology is hidden, as is the case with many custom homes. The owners of this home in London, Ontario, Canada, however, wanted one element to really stand out.

The wine cellar is not in the basement or tucked in a back room. It’s the centerpiece of the home, positioned prominently in the main living space. It’s a glass-enclosed showpiece on display for everyone to enjoy.

Of course, the environment inside the wine cellar needs to be controlled, but its interaction with the environment on the other side of the glass also was considered. In addition, the mechanical equipment needed to be hidden.

Design of the wine cellar was conceptual initially, says Brad Skinner, president, Skinner & Skinner Architects Inc., London, Ontario. “We knew where it would be, and that it would be glass, and how it would interact with the other spaces. I think the TV (over the fireplace) and the wine cellar feed off each other in the space. They are two main interior pieces of functioning technology that play off each other at different parts of the day.”

A specialist was brought in to build the cellar with help from the builder, Aleck Harasym, president and owner, Harasym Homes Inc., London, Ontario. “They brought expertise in building something like this. The mechanical system was expensive just for the wine cellar itself, not to mention the rest of the house. As the builder, I had to take a close look at the structure and reinforce the area for the weight created by all the bottles,” he says.

On the opposite end of the main living area, a flat-screen TV is both prominently displayed and at other times cleverly hidden above the fireplace thanks to a custom motorized panel. As complicated as the wine cellar is, the TV posed the greatest challenge to Rick Ho, owner, London Audio Ltd., London, Ontario. At least six sets of drawings were completed for it, he says, and ultimately a deeper structure was required than originally planned. “The tolerances vertically were zilch. The moving panel would only go up so far because it hit the roofline.

“The entire front panel of that wall retracts and we needed clearances up there. We also needed space to route the ventilation below,” Ho says. “And it had to be deeper to accommodate the ventilation and TV. A concrete floor and footings were used to support the weight of the fireplace.”

Skinner wanted something simple, clean and serene. “It was our intention that things like the TV be hidden when not in use, and would blossom when they were being used. It’s nice to be in a space and not have a blank TV staring at you. And it’s nice to not even know the TV is there.”

TVs in another room also presented challenges. The master bathroom features his and hers TVs behind the mirror. This proved to be a daunting task, Ho says. Finding sheets of glass bigger than 9 ft. in length that are optical grade and a two-way mirror was not easy. “When that’s the principal mirror in the home and you’re hiding a TV behind it, it’s a whole other story,” he says. “We got samples from glass manufacturers; we’d hold them up and they would pass the test. Then when we got the 9-ft. piece with all the idiosyncracies in the finish, they weren’t suitable. And as it turned out, the vendor who solved the problem was only 30 minutes away.”

Design/Build Solutions

Significant architectural elements such as a display-grade wine cellar, a TV hidden behind a movable panel and two TVs hidden behind a 9-ft. tall mirror don’t come together overnight. These elements must be discussed in the planning stage, Skinner says. “I went over all of it in the early stages with the client and the entire team,” he adds.

Weekly team meetings kept everyone informed and on track with the progress of the entire project, says Myra Tuer, designer, Detailing & Design by Myra, London, Ontario. “Each member of the team brought their areas of expertise, and all decisions and guidance were put on the table before being passed by Brad and myself with final approval coming from the clients,” she says.

As the technology integrator, Ho enjoyed the high level of creative latitude provided by the client. “Then we’d get direction from Brad in terms of structural and aesthetic needs, and we had the freedom to do what was necessary to meet those two needs. From that standpoint, there were no compromises we had to make. The clients had a general idea of what they wanted, and our directive was to make it happen.”

All four major players on the project had worked with the clients in the past. Harasym was brought into planning early on to determine any possible issues or red flags he might have in terms of construction. “There’s always the reality of having to build a design, and they wanted input on how to construct this one. For example, they wanted to do in-floor radiant everywhere, so I suggested a steel joist and concrete floor system because it’s a better mass for radiant heat. Having to address all the technology in the home slowed down the rough-in stage, but we planned for it so it wasn’t an issue.”

This home involved the most technology Skinner had ever worked with. Technology affects design as one of many layers that affects any house, he says. “The beauty of this house is if you shut everything off and don’t have any technology on, it’s still a beautiful place,” he says.

Technology is in every nook and cranny of the home. Some technology is need-driven; other technology is want-driven. And with no internal walls in the house, there was limited space for wall switches, so keypads were tucked onto the end of cabinets and door jambs. “You will not find a manual toggle or dimmer switch in the home. We used a centralized dimming system which in places can be controlled from a single-gang keypad,” Ho says.

Playing with Voids

A major factor in the home’s design was the infill nature of the lot and its lack of a view, Skinner says. Big houses exist on each side of, and behind the home. This home’s design had to be sculpted to engage with the outside in an intimate way to bring in light because there wasn’t something spectacular to look at a mile away. This set up certain design elements like the covered porch and an opening-glass wall, he adds.

“Not having a view doesn’t free you up from a design perspective,” Skinner says. “You’ve got a situation where you don’t want to look out to the front because it’s only the street out there. But you want to bring light in and have a sense of openness. So I played with alternating solid piers and voids. The piers are 4 ft. wide and the voids are 8 ft. The openings are intimate, more about framing a smaller view. The feelings became an integral part of defining space in the house. In the great room the ceiling coffers up, and huge skylights slice down to give you a fantastic view to the sky. If you don’t have a mountain view, you must open up the home somewhere to bring the sun in.

Dream Clients

As an accomplished technology integration firm, it’s interesting to note that only a handful of London Audio’s projects involve working directly with an architect. “Historically, the million-plus homes were out-of-the-can builder-run design/build projects. We’d work with an architect maybe two or three times out of 80 in a year. The owners in this case had a good idea of what they wanted and brought us in from day one,” Ho says.

These were dream clients in terms of their desire for unique concepts for their lifestyles, and their willingness to spend money to get what they wanted, Harasym says. Nothing in this home other than some A/V equipment and computer systems is off the shelf. “In certain ways, everything was designed almost from scratch. Yes, the concrete roof tile came from Wisconsin. But when you talk about the millwork and the wine cellar, for example, those things were created from scratch.”

From an interior planning perspective, the clients were open to a “less is more” approach and were willing to leave any furnishings or accessories from their past in the past, Tuer notes. Whatever furniture piece Tuer couldn’t find, she was able to design it and have the cabinet company build it. “This approach allowed for hidden touches that aided in the storage of items that were needed for function but not to be seen for aesthetics, i.e., the headboard of the master bed and the desk in the library.”

“Overall, this home was a dream and so were the clients,” Tuer says. “It required a very clear vision, a stayed course so not to lose the vision, and a team approach to respect the independent aspects that could and would bring this home to life.”

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