Making Buildings Smarter: How One Solution Provider Connected A Luxury Apartment In Boston

When you step into the luxury apartment nestled in Back Bay, there are only hints that the fully furnished unit is also completely connected.

As soon you enter the front door, the lights in the mudroom slowly switch on. Jazz starts to play softly in the central hallway. The shades in the living room lower halfway for privacy.

This automated experience stems from behind-the-scenes work of Boston-based solution provider TSP, which specializes in connected high-end luxury homes, including the one in Back Bay.

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The home automation market is expected to grow quickly over the next few years. Consumers are expected to spend up to $40 billion on home automation in 2020, up from $24 billion spent in 2016, according to market research firm Strategy Analytics.

And TSP hopes to profit from that growing market, said Michael Oh, founder and chief technology officer of TSP.

"The key behind this project was that the customers wanted everything to be as seamless as possible and for things to work intuitively," he said. "The great things about working with residential is that they get to know their house in the same way as they get to know the technology."

As Oh walks through the entrance of the apartment, he points out where the heart of the connected devices lies, in the form of a keypad from smart home company Lutron placed on the wall that allows the homeowners to customize lighting, entertainment and climate options.

There are 18 of these keypads spread around the 4,000-square-foot apartment, in addition to seven Android-based touch panels built by smart home company Savant that allow the homeowners to directly control individual smart devices through an app – like lift the shades and adjust the temperature.

But homeowners may not want to touch or even think about a device when they walk into the home, said Oh – and that's why on the ceiling above the keypad is a small white Lutron occupancy sensor.

There are seven of these sensors in total around the fully furnished home – including in the bathrooms and hallway – which sense when homeowners walk into each room and automatically adjusts the controls to their preferred settings.

"So if you don't have a free hand and you have a bunch of bags, coming in, you don't have to worry about turning on the lights," said Oh.

After turning right in the hallway, Oh shows off the large office space in the corner of the apartment. The room looks like a regular office – with a desk in the middle and family photo albums scattered across it – but in addition to an iMac there is also a large TV across the room and an Amazon Alexa on the counter.

"Alexa, turn on Office iMac," orders Oh. The TV flicks on to show the iMac's synced screen so that Oh can use the desktop on the table and look at the screen. Alexa also operates smoothly to turn on Fire TV, play "Black Mirror" Season 1, and show a preview of the new "Star Wars" movie.

Beyond lights, TSP worked to connect an array of other endpoints to the central network – including connected surveillance cameras that give a 180-degree view of each room, shades that can be programmed to close one hour after sunset, and speakers that can play streaming services like Spotify.

Temperature is another critical control, and there are no thermostats in the home's walls. Instead, the house has tiny temperature sensors and the rest is customized and programmed in the app, said Oh.

That technology on the back end – including Cisco Systems switches, HVAC equipment, and a power controller to allow users to reboot the system – is behind the walls and in back closets of the apartment.

The security technology protecting these products – and the connected endpoints throughout the house – are also hidden in this closet.

"It's essentially like an enterprise-scale network… we use VLAN to make sure the home AV devices cannot be accessed by guests," said Oh. " So we are using a lot of the same elements that you see in a business network and then on top of that we added a control for AV and lighting and that adds a residential experience to it."

TSP acts a as a solution provider that offers support for businesses using Apple products, as well as setting up and implementing secure networks. TSP first got into home automation a few years ago when its clients on the commercial side began asking the company to support their personal home IoT networks.

"The reality of home automation is that it's a bunch of computers and sensors working together," said Bacem Moussa, CEO of TSP. "There is audio-visual and lighting aspects, but at the heart of it, it's a bunch of computers that need to be secure and reliable. When you press a button to turn on lights, you want them to turn on."

But the process of setting up, designing and implementing home automation controls is entirely different from the traditional sales cycle of technology devices and products.

Oh said that TSP needs to focus on the architecture, design of a system, and selection of various components.

The company's first step in an automation project is to start with the homeowners – asking them what they want to achieve and what kind of controls they want.

Because the customers wanted the smart controls already built into their home when they moved in, TSP needed to work with their apartment designers and contractors – meaning that the project has been in the works for a couple of years.

"We were involved in the very beginning in discussions with architects. The last six months have been the intense work. The challenge is to get everything designed very early in the process … in this one area there's things that we have to have, like the smoke alarms and sprinklers, so we need to build around those," said Oh.

The project's timeline was tricky because there are many moving factors from an architectural side of building the apartment – and, said Oh, it's not just about working with the customers – it's about also working with vendors and subcontractors.

For instance, TSP had to work around design issues to install certain wiring for the connected devices, including working with the designer to specify a certain amount of space in the cabinetry to fit in a media box connecting to a smart TV or installing the temperature sensors into the countertop before the designer came in and put marble around it.

"One difficulty is that customers want everything completely hidden," said Oh. "This isn't something where you can move a sensor because it works better there, all that has to be thought through from the very beginning. One of the keys – especially for a project of this scale – is that you need to be able to deal with hundreds of devices at once, and they all need to work."

Beyond designing and implementing home automation solutions, TSP also sees opportunity in offering services for customers. The company offers three-year contracts to customers in helping them set up and maintain IoT services, and every three to five years, the whole stack needs to be updated, said Oh.

In the future, Moussa said that there is "absolutely" a big opportunity for the channel to not only implement, but add services around home automation.

"I think there's tremendous growth, and a lot of space for people to have an impact. We believe there's a potential for growth on the service side of things," he said. "You can implement this technology, but how do you service them?"