Multi-level smart homes

A slightly risky job for the integrator turned into one of the biggest Lutron RA2 Select projects in the world. Amy Wallington looks at how this Icelandic MDU project upgraded into such a success.

Located in Reykjavik, a brand new multiple dwelling unit (MDU) has appeared, offering Icelanders a variety of smart apartments to any technical level, with a stunning view over Old Harbour. Being an MDU, this isn’t just physically on multiple levels, but the selection of smart home technology installed is also available on a package basis, with buyers having the option to upgrade their basic smart apartments to different levels.

One of the biggest benefits of this approach is that it introduces people to smart home technology without being overwhelming and gives them the option to upgrade at any time. Every apartment is built to the base package with an extra three upgradable package options.

While this is an excellent idea from the end user’s perspective, this was a somewhat risky approach for the integrator and building developer. Kjerstin Oh, marketing and design director of the integrator, TSP Smart Spaces, explains: “It was a gamble for us and the developer to do this because there is no historical data to know whether this is going to really take off or not. For us to really make any profit, we did have to rely on getting quite a few upgrades. Although it’s still early days in the upgrade process, we’re pleased to say that it’s north of 50% of people upgrading currently so it’s worked out for everyone.”

Initial phases

The project started in 2017 when TSP Smart Spaces were asked by developers to put together a report on how smart home technology could work in an MDU. Michael Oh, president and founder of TSP Smart Spaces, says: “We sat down with the architects and the developers to understand more about the project and then we put together our report, which was partly specific to them but partly covered industry trends about how we thought smart home technology in an MDU could be really beneficial and how to achieve the best balance.

“In our high-end residential projects, our client doesn’t care so much about the cost as much as the experience they are going to get. The MDU world completely flips that on its head – everything is cost and ROI driven. You need to figure out a way that clients get a premium experience, but the developers want to see a return on their investment. They’re not the ones experiencing the technology, but they are the ones paying the bill, so you have to figure out a way for it to be economical and really provide value. If there’s no return on investment, then there’s no reason for them to pull the trigger on adding smart home technology to every unit.”

The early stages involved a lot of conversation about what should be included in all apartments as a standard base package that would not make the cost of the apartments unaffordable but would be useful to the homeowner.

They also had to consider the smart building world in terms of shared infrastructure throughout the building. However, as Michael points out, a lot of that was not necessary in this case.

“You need to figure out a way that clients get a premium experience, but the developers want to see a return on their investment.”

“The building is split into five floors of residential units. There’s not actually a lot of shared infrastructure, just plumbing, water heaters, and electrical distribution. The developers didn’t see much of a return on investment in terms of smart metering and smart building tech, partly because in Iceland, a lot of the electricity is geothermal, so energy comes from the ground for free essentially.”

The only thing that was essential to invest in was an access control system, as well as the network which runs public Wi-Fi, amenities, etc.

For the individual apartments, classic home technology was the priority in the original brief. Discussions took place about which platform to use that would be compatible with Google, Amazon and Apple ecosystems that residents might already be using. It was important that the platform chosen wouldn’t restrict potential buyers to devices from one vendor.

“No matter how open a platform is, when you’re making these choices, you’re inevitably going down a certain technical path,” Michael highlights. “There’s a balance between consistency and operational ability to manage things, while also giving the client a choice. We had to ensure that whatever we chose would work with Apple HomeKit, Google Home, Alexa, and all of these different ecosystems.”

In the end, it was decided that the base package should include Savant Smart Host for HVAC control and as a foundation for future AV upgrades, Lutron lighting control, and 2N access control.

HomeWorks vs. RA2 Select

Lighting was the biggest part of this project with Lutron lighting control installed in all apartments as standard. “Despite smart homes generally having a lot of AV, we decided that the lighting control was what we were going to lead with here,” says Michael. “It was the thing that made most sense installation wise, and also, even the slightly cheaper keypads look super high-end. There’s a lot of balance of aesthetics and the signals of luxury, which people need to see and feel as they walk through. And what was most important to us was our label of always being smart home ready – and there being real substance behind that claim.”

Within the original brief, TSP Smart Spaces had specified Lutron HomeWorks, but this ended up changing, as he explains: “We had modelled our costs based on Lutron HomeWorks, which is for high-end residential. They have an MDU version of it too which is a scaled down processor which costs less and has fewer capabilities for more of an apartment sized home. But this still ended up being a $10,000 per apartment cost.”

Before build took place, Lutron announced its RA2 Select platform. “When Lutron released the RA2 Select platform, we realised that had the potential to completely change the game in terms of both the installation as well as the cost, because essentially, you don’t have to change the wiring of the electrics. If you have recessed ceiling lights, you just need to insert the inline dimmer module at the beginning of the circuit and then you gain smart control over it. The other great thing is that it’s simple for smart home professionals to do but also for an electrician. From an electrician’s standpoint, they need to understand exactly how it works when they are having to fit it 3,000 times across 71 apartments. It also lowered the cost significantly.”

However, this did pose issues in that the integrator had pitched it to the developer that the technology used needed to be futureproofed. It needed to be basic to start with but have the ability to be upgraded to add high levels of functionality without having to make holes in walls, especially in a new apartment. The challenge here was that the RA2 Select inline dimmer could not be activated by a HomeWorks Processor that would be used for upgrade packages with premium wired keypads.

“Luckily, we came into the project early enough with Lutron that they were able to help us. It’s partly a real credit to their openness to listen to customer feedback, but also, it was a relatively new platform for them, and when they realised this was going to be the biggest RA2 Select project in the world to date, they created a module where the software can be adjusted to redeploy with a HomeWorks QS processor.”

Another benefit of having RA2 Select over HomeWorks is that RA2 Select enables the end user to create and make changes to scenes.

“HomeWorks is its own programming and there is some flexibility for people to create their own scenes, but ultimately, to change things around, you need a HomeWorks qualified programmer to do it,” Michael clarifies. “But RA2 Select is a completely app driven commissioning process. In terms of making changes to scenes, the homeowner can do it just as well as the integrator can because it’s really oriented more towards the electrical contractor market than high-end integrators. For us, that’s a great combination, in the sense that despite integrators wanting to create recurring revenue opportunities, the MDU market in Iceland is not the place to do that. You need something that people can service themselves.”

Upgrade packages

As previously mentioned, this project was a bit of a risk in terms of making a profit and the integrator relied on the buyers upgrading their smart home technology.

“From doing our research, we understood that the upgrades are the key to it,” Michael continues. “But Iceland also has a relatively immature smart home market, in the sense that it’s not as widely understood. The challenge really was how do we convey what is a relatively complex set of technical upgrades to a non-savvy buyer while ensuring we get a high level of uptake.”

Something unusual for an integrator, TSP Smart Spaces created a marketing brochure, modelling it on the car manufacturing world to keep it as simple and easy to understand as possible.

“It had to look luxurious to appeal to that kind of market and it had to portray the levels of customisation,” explains Kjerstin. “We modelled it on the car industry as they do that mass level customisation, high-end marketing really well. It had to feel very personal to the individual but at the same time, appeal to all 71 apartment owners.”

“There’s a balance between consistency and operational ability to manage things, while also giving the client a choice.”

Each package level was designed for different requirements and budgets. Adding to the standard base package of Lutron lighting, Savant HVAC control and 2N access control, the ‘Plus’ package included extra motion sensors for lighting, Savant Pro Universal Remotes, Lutron customised wireless shading for four windows and eight in-ceiling speakers from Bose.

The ‘Premium’ package upgrade focused on a more high-end experience of smart home technology. It allows customers to have backlit keypads with personalised laser engraving and Lutron customised motorised shading for all windows throughout the apartment. It also added a Savant soundbar, more choice of speakers, and 4K video distribution. The package also promises that the network will be built to the highest standards of wired and wireless security.

Finally, there is a ‘Bespoke’ package option which allows the buyer to work with the integrator to create a completely customised smart home with more or less any technology they require.

Michael adds: “The Lutron shades are the most popular upgrade feature. I think part of it is because the control of natural light in Iceland is really important. While motorised shades have been on the market for a long time, most people in Iceland haven’t seen the Lutron models and discovered how silent they are and the level of control, for example.”

The apartment block has also added a model unit to show the different package levels to potential buyers. When they come in to choose their flooring and worktops and other decorations, they can now look at the different smart home options and include that in their preferences.  

Tech Spec

2N Touch Panels

2N Verso Access Control

Amina Edge 7 Invisible Speakers

Bose 591 Virtually Invisible In-Ceiling Speakers

LG W-Series “Wallpaper” TVs

Lutron Sivoia QS Custom Motorised Shades

Lutron QS Triathlon Custom Wireless Shades

Lutron Motion Sensors

Lutron Palladiom Keypads

Lutron Pico Wireless Keypads

Lutron RA2 Select Lighting Control

Savant Artison Soundbars

Savant HVAC Control

Savant Smart Host

Savant Pro Universal Remotes

Sonance VP52R UTL Ceiling Speakers