The Evolution of Home Theaters

by Ashley Lapin Olian

What do you picture when clients say they want a home theater? Are you seeing a dark room with carpeted tiers, theater seating and a huge screen in the front? Spaces like that are still being designed and built, but they are only one part of a much larger story. Notably, it’s a story you can profitably write yourself into, even if you know little beyond surround sound and big screens.

NEW PARADIGMS

General contractor Eric Epifano of Lakeside, CA-based ECEGC Inc. says, “I see very few ‘theater rooms’ on plans these days. Unless a house is more than 5,000 sq. ft., most clients do not want to give up the kind of space a proper home theater takes up.”

Maybe you’re working on projects that large. Despite downsizing, there are still massive homes, and there are still some hardcore enthusiasts who really want a dedicated room. For everyone else, there is the combined living/theater space.

Custom home builder Orren Pickell of Northfield, IL-based Orren Pickell Building Group sees plenty of those. “Today we are designing top-tier home theaters within more multipurpose spaces. The square footage once used specifically for the theater is now being incorporated into areas for everyday living,” he shares. It may have a bar, beer tap or billiard tables – like a man cave on steroids – or be a souped-up Great Room with high-end equipment.

“The options available today allow considerably more flexibility in design,” he adds. Those include new lighting and space requirements for A/V gear, which can now work in brighter, smaller spaces than ever before. “You can create a great home theater experience in practically any space,” Pickell points out.

Entertainment features are also extending into other spaces, he notes. “We are seeing elements of the home theater incorporated into the kitchen, screened porch, basement family room and exercise room.” All of those electronics need to be properly integrated and planned for early on in the process. “The trend is to have everything automated and tied into the homeowner’s mobile device,” the builder comments.

NEW TECHNOLOGIES

Image sharpness and immersive audio are two technology trends helping to make more living spaces home-theater friendly, observes Dave Chic, senior director of industry relations at technology professional association CEDIA. “The current screen the average consumer is looking at probably delivers an image 1080 pixels tall by 1920 pixels wide that’s presenting 256 different shades each of red, blue and green. It’s a fine setup as long as the viewer is sitting at a distance from the panel that’s three times the height of the screen. 4K screens double those numbers, allowing you to scoot closer with no loss in sharpness. At 8K, we’re rapidly approaching an image quality that the eye will perceive as utterly natural.”

The screen may hang above a fireplace on a movable arm. MantelMount’s new MM850 model can be tied into a voice control or home automation system for hands-free operation, and has programmable presets for different viewing angles and heights. This lets a client watch comfortably while cooking or sitting on the couch.

Samsung has created a series of Frame TV, which projects art images – including the buyer’s own photos – when they’re not in use as a television. Other firms, like Séura, create high-quality screens that can hang in bathrooms or outdoors. Furniture lifts and ceiling hinges tuck other screens out of sight when not in use.

Sound counts, too. “Traditional surround sound can’t give an accurate aural picture of, say, a plane passing overhead,” says Chic. “Immersive audio delivers sound from any point within an invisible sphere around the user. Manufacturers have developed reflective sound technology: audio aimed at the ceiling that bounces down to the chair you’re sitting in,” he explains. You may be relieved to know that many of the latest speakers, like Stealth Acoustics’, are hidden behind the walls, so you don’t have to accommodate massive black mesh or metal monsters in your design.

Voice control is another huge and growing area of home theater and automation. There are now offerings like Origin Acoustics’ Valet Amplifier that mounts Amazon Echo Dot units in the ceiling with a built-in speaker so clients don’t clutter their furniture, shelves or countertops with them. Josh.ai is integrating Alexa into home automation systems so that a simple command can be bundled into a series of actions. For example, saying “home theater” to Josh can dim the lights, move the screen down from the fireplace, turn on your favorite show and close the shades, all while you’re relaxing in your easy chair.

FURNITURE AND STORAGE

If that chair is a theater seat, it’s likelier more stylish than the movie-plex mockeries of years past. “We are seeing a shift away from the traditional large leather theater seats to furniture that is more multifunctional, less one dimensional,” Pickell reports.

Storage is also evolving. In multiuse spaces, it can be cabinetry from your regular brands with inserts for media and space for new equipment. Or it can be specialized brands like Salamander Designs that create the modular equivalent of kitchen cabinets for home theater projects. You can specify your client’s entertainment storage the way you would a sink or range wall with the sizes, configurations and accessories you need for the selected equipment and media.

Many designers use their favorite cabinet lines for home theater projects, notes John Troxell, director of design for Wood-Mode Fine Custom Cabinetry. “There is a market out there for this type of project. However, the details of equipment specifications, available acoustical materials and technology requirements are constantly changing. It would be wise to develop a collaborative relationship with someone whose primary business is home entertainment,” he advises. This will help ensure that valuable components have the ventilation, control and cord access they need, and that their placement is optimized in the room.

ROOM FINISHES

“Dedicated theater rooms still feature carpeting and acoustical wall treatments, as the room itself is just as important to the quality of sound as the equipment used,” Pickell shares. If you’re creating a multiuse space, not to worry: “Surround sound processors and receivers have become increasingly adept at being able to adjust to the increasingly complex and open-room designs to still provide crisp, detailed sound playback,” the builder adds.

THE TECHNOLOGY SPECIALIST

“Advances in technology for homes move so fast that what we installed as recently as three or four years ago seems antiquated today,” contractor Epifano notes. When it’s tied into a home’s overall smart-home system, as many audio-video components now are, bringing in a specialist makes sense to help minimize obsolescence and ensure that all of the pieces play well together. 

Kitchen & Bath Industry Show planners agree. CEDIA will again have a pavilion at the Orlando event next year, as they did in 2017. “We will be continuing and broadening this initiative in 2018,” Chic says. “We believe that the more we connect design and build professionals with home technology experts and the solutions that they provide, the more awareness will be established of the residential technology channel and the fact that there are professionals who provide these goods and services.”

David VanWert of West Hollywood, CA-based VanWert Technology Design is one of those professionals, and has been for 19 years. “We work closely with the architect early in the design process. There is also detailed coordination with the general contractor, interior designer and other team members as the design and construction cycle progresses,” he shares. Kitchen and bath designers can be involved, as well, he adds. “It is typically bringing design elements from other areas of the home into the theater, such as millwork or other finishes.”

Timing is key, he notes. When a technologist is not brought in early, mistakes tend to arise. “Detailed room design and construction methods are required to fulfill this need and should be addressed very early, not only from a design coordination standpoint, but especially for budgetary purposes,” VanWert explains.

LAST WORDS

CEDIA’s Chic makes that point, too. “With so many kitchen and bath technology products currently emerging, knowing how to tie them into the whole house scheme and design is of utmost importance – interoperability is critical. Helping [kitchen and bath] professionals recognize that they need to interact with a technology expert as early in the design and build process as possible is a vital message that CEDIA conveys at events like Design and Construction Week.” Stop by their pavilion in Orlando if you want to catch up on the latest design-technology connections. ▪

 

Jamie Gold, CKD, CAPS is an independent designer in San Diego, the author of New Kitchen Ideas That Work and the New Bathroom Idea Book (Taunton Press), and a design journalist, NKBA Chapter Presenter and industry consultant. Her website is jgkitchens.com. She was just named one of KBDN’s top 50 innovators.

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