Installing modern technology in older homes


The national heritage register is an important system that ensures the longevity of Australia’s most historic buildings. Dimi Kyriakou talks to the industry about working in this delicate field of retrofit installations, and finds out how to bring an old home into the 21st century.

According to the Australian government, the national heritage register is not designed to ‘freeze a place in time’. Rather, the thousands of protected buildings in Australia can be adapted, used and maintained, within reason.

As it becomes more desirable for owners to transform their very own piece of history into a modern masterpiece, some custom installers are starting to form a solid reputation for their work in this niche market.

For Clipsal Point One accredited installer Ian Corless and his company Zentec, balancing the past, present and future has proven to be one of the greatest challenges of his career.

Working with heritage listed properties and buildings that date back to the 1800s is nothing new to Ian. In 2008, he completed a project on a state registered former bank in Castlemaine, Victoria (see Connected Home Australia, Nov/Dec 2008).

He explains that installers have to follow a few ground rules when working in heritage listed buildings, and that these restrictions can sometimes turn the simplest installation into a major headache.

The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts states that all proposed uses of heritage places must be tested against the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) to ensure that the use does not have a significant impact on heritage values.

Further, each level of government in Australia has its own heritage list with different levels of protection. To avoid overlap and duplication, each government individually protects places that are assessed to be of significance.

While new technologies are allowed in a listed building, the historical significance of the place must always remain intact. The government recognises that new developments may enhance heritage values, but projects must be carefully planned and assessed individually.

On top of this, installers also have to find a balance between their client’s wish to integrate a state-of-the-art system, and the need for it to adhere to the design constraints of a period home.

“One of the biggest limitations of working with older buildings is maintaining the aesthetic appeal, and secondly, of almost equal priority, is the functionality side,” Ian says.

“You have to install products in a way that will function effectively and meet expectations visually.”

Checking off the aesthetics box on a project brief is difficult, as an installer must try to find equipment that looks good, functions well and seamlessly complements the appropriate era of the building.

Avrak Australia general manager Helen Prideaux has a strong background in AV installations and interior design. She says their traditional business of furniture restoration and interior design, combined with their modern business of rotating AV racks, makes things easier when it comes to choosing products for an older building.

“It also depends on the particular client. You need to consider what the heritage listed property is going to function as, seeing commercial and private interiors have vastly different requirements. Generally, every client desires the finished installation to work efficiently and look aesthetically wonderful even on the smallest budget.

“The installation should be of the highest standard possible within the constraints of the client’s budget and have the highest regard for the heritage aspects of the building. Depending on council restrictions, some clients allow for a combination of modern design with an older structure. Personally, I believe modern technology and heritage interiors can coincide perfectly together and is essential for future high technology integration.”

Avrak Australia’s product line, Avrak, Avtrak and Avstand can also play a role in the installation of AV equipment into these heritage properties.

“We can custom design and manufacture to suit the particular needs of the client and suggest ways around the cabling issues, while being empathetic to the unique qualities of the building,” Helen says.

“We have been dealing with the matter of solid plaster walls for years now within the commercial industry, which can be translated to domestic interiors easily. With so many alternative cable ducts available there will always be a solution to this problem. Cleverly designed and integrated solutions can be found by using a professional designer and installer who will source the correct product for the space and its use.”

The challenge to balance aesthetic appeal with functionality is evident in Zentec’s latest project, which involves installing a major AV system into a home built in 1875.

“It has all the practical issues of implementing modern technology into a stately home, and we are very conscious of the visual aspects as well,” Ian says.

It is currently home to a couple who have no interest in whizz-bang technologies, like lighting control and remote access to air conditioning.

The stark contrast of installing modern technology into a building that is over 135 years old also brings about problems, as most heritage listed buildings are made of stubborn materials such as brick and stone.

“What they really enjoy is classical music and quality radio. So there are 12 zones of distributed audio going in and HD Foxtel is to be made available on all four televisions. This means we need HDMI distribution and a matrix box so the hand-held remotes at each television all look the same, work the same and serve their needs simply.

“It’s ironic because the clients aren’t technology-orientated at all, but we are putting in quite complicated products to achieve a simple end.”

The decision to convert an older building into a connected home often comes with a fairly handsome price tag, but working with a limited budget isn’t usually something that Ian has to worry about.

“Today’s world of construction is quite expensive and heritage listed properties tend to be renovated by people who can afford the construction phase and have sufficient funds to deal with the technology side as well.

“In my experience, the stipulated budget can usually satisfy the client’s demands so they don’t have to choose an inferior product to do the job.”

Working with phased-out materials such as stone, brick and solid plaster walls forces installers to go about their work differently, as the building procedure for a standard modern plaster home can not be applied to a state registered building.

Fortunately for his latest project, major construction works in the kitchen/living area have given Zentec plenty of space to mount the equipment, but this isn’t always the case in retrofit installations.

“In Castlemaine, we had to install a free-standing cabinet that wasn’t attached to the walls to house all of the AV and control gear.

“Bulk cabling ramps are also a challenge, because at some point there will be a large bunch of wires that serve all of the technology needs. And the issue isn’t finding a place to park all of the equipment; it’s actually finding a cavity or thoroughfare for the wire to get there.

“Often in an old building, we need to have a cavity created through two floors so we can get the bunches of wires through.”

The stark contrast of installing modern technology into a building that is over 135 years old also brings about problems, as most heritage listed buildings are made of stubborn materials such as brick and stone.

“It’s definitely an issue for getting new cabling in. If we’re lucky and certain rooms are going to be patched and painted anyway, then we do a wall chase and install new conduit and wires,” Ian says.

“High ceilings and hard surface walls also make speaker placement difficult. We try to choose the best quality speakers and amplification equipment to achieve quality audio at low volume, as the hard surfaces promote echoing in smaller rooms.

“In some circumstances, we use a handheld remote rather than screw any technology to the wall. But that presents another issue, as thick, bluestone walls will nullify the radio frequency signals being sent around the property. In this case, you need antennas in discreet locations that will provide reception for the remotes to work.

Working with older building materials may force an installer to choose between using wired or wireless technologies in their installations. According to Ian, the decision all comes down to choosing the technology that will work best and stay within the client’s demands regarding aesthetic appearance.

“Wireless is always your back-up option, rather that your first of port of call. It tends to be more problematic in heritage listed buildings because of the stone issue and signal reception,” Ian says.

“We tend to look at wireless as a singular application over a short distance, rather than a whole solution and a means to have everything communicate. If wireless isn’t an option because the home owners don’t want it or it doesn’t work, we need to run the wires through solid plaster walls or stone.

“Fortunately the project in Castlemaine was a significant renovation and we used a diamond-tip saw blade to slice into the existing brick and stone walls. We created a cavity in the surface of the wall, put a conduit down and then it was patched, plastered and painted later. It was quite labour intensive, but really the only option.”

Given that thousands of dollars are easily spent on the latest technologies in such a project, the installation of a reliable security system is also something to consider.

Ness Security Products national integrated solutions manager Greg Kingsley says the tough restrictions regarding physical changes to the outside of a heritage listed building are difficult to overcome if a client asks to integrate a high-tech security system.

“The first thing an installer needs to do is make themselves aware of the rules and regulations. This takes away a lot of the grey area and then they can design a system based on the particular building.

“Our dealers have come across a lot of challenges when working in that sort of environment, for example they can put some cameras outside as long they don’t damage or change the façade of the building. Sometimes the problem can just be running a cable from point A to point B.”

Greg agrees with Ian on the wired vs. wireless debate, as the company has supplied both wired and wireless electronic security equipment to projects on heritage listed buildings.

“It’s really horses for courses. Obviously there’s nothing better than hard wired, but in some situations where nothing else can work, you’ve got to look at wireless,” he says.

“With the technology improvements in wireless, it is better than what it was four or five years ago. Quite often, we will sell a lot of wireless gear such as outside detectors and even wireless IP cameras.”

Interestingly, Zentec’s latest project requires audio to be installed outside, rather than a dedicated security system. The clients have also asked to maintain the building’s historical value as much as possible.

“The first priority was that it can’t be seen. So we’ve ended up with speakers on posts in the garden and among the foliage. There are also some speakers going in the upstairs deck area, but they can’t be seen externally.

“Looking at the building, you won’t see any modern technology whatsoever.”

Ian says working with older buildings and dealing with heritage listing restrictions can lead to several issues during retrofit installations, but often the end result exceeds expectations.

“I find it exciting to have a challenge. When it’s too hard for anyone else, we start from there.”

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