Austin apartments offer some unusual high-tech amenities

There are two twists in this otherwise ordinary home automation story. Twist 1: As Kevin Teague leaves for work, he locks the door behind him and presses the LOCK button on his wireless keychain to arm his security system. Programmed lights automatically turn off and his CD player goes quiet; Teague’s smart thermostat adjusts the air conditioning and water heater temperatures so he doesn’t have to pay top dollar for energy usage when he’s not at home. Sounds like a day in the life of the average owner of an automated home.

Except that Teague is a renter. His domicile is the McNeil House TechSys Apartments, where Teague pays $1,045 per month for his 1 ,012-square-foot pad in Austin’s Texas Hill Country.

McNeil House is the brainchild of Tami Siewruk , who calls herselve “ a developer with a new vision for apartment living.” Her vision includes not only integrated security and energy management, but also enhanced whole-house wiring that hasn’t yet become standard even in high-end custom homes. And that’s twist number 2. McNeil House offers perhaps the most advanced cyber-age amenities available in multifamily properties, creating a huge demand for showings in the apartment-soaked Austin area.

About 25 prospects per week visit McNeil House. The prospective renters ranging from professionals who travel often to recent college grads who appreciate the Hill Country surroundings-want to see for themselves how such affordable spaces can offer Internet access from any room and cable TV throughout the apartment. By checking the appropriate boxes on the lease agreement, they can have SpeakerCraft surround sound speakers installed in the living room and bedrooms ($65-$105 per room), and individual volume controls in the other rooms for no charge.

McNeil House options are so attractive that residents are signing leases for apartments sight unseen; all of the apartments were leased before construction was completed.

“It’s really been phenomenal,” says Siewruk. “Apartments in the Austin area are using giveaways to lure residents, while I’ve had to set up visits by appointment only to keep the showings under control.”

Inside TechSys
Inside every apartment is a McNeil House TechSys Apartment-branded distribution panel, which is a custom version of the AMP OnQ structured wiring distribution panel. The panel connects and distributes telephone, cable TV, power and data to multimedia outlets in every room. Located in a bedroom closet, the panel enables maintenance personnel to configure telecommunications, video, Internet, music, energy management and other electronic services to residents’ specific needs.

RRH Associates designed the distribution panel and the technological infrastructure of the TechSys complex. The company has of late built a profitable business around the multifamily housing industry. “We have found ways to leverage the technology infrastructure to create profitable relationships between multifamily property owners and service providers in this newly deregulated environment,” says RRH Associates president Richard Holtz.

While many systems used in the McNeil house are off-the-shelf products from the likes of AMP and X-10 Pro, others, such as the AMP OnQ Apartment Distribution System, MOD TAP RCS/Siemon Building Distribution System and ABB/OSAKI/XCI Energy Management System, have been modified by RRH Associates to meet the specific needs of this residential development. For instance, the Caddx Nx-8 security system installed in each apartment has an extra dose of ROM because, as Holtz puts it, “In these apartments the Caddx panel serves as the whole-house controller, not just the security system.” Even basic off-the-shelf products, like Caddx keypads, XCI thermostats and AMP wallplates, have been modified. They’re all specially labeled and branded with the trademarked TechSys Apartments label.

The distribution panel, featuring whole-home surge protection, holds hubs for the apartments’ generous cabling network-an RRH Associates-customized concoction of dual enhanced four-pair Cat 5 UTP from Mohawk, dual RG-6 quad-shielded cables from Commscope and speaker wire from Apature Products. Although an underground fiber optic network (installed, like the rest of the community’s underground cables, by Cable Ventures, San Antonio) runs throughout the TechSys community, the apartments are not yet wired with fiber. “Instead, we opted for empty conduit for now until clear standards are developed for fiber,” explains Holtz.

The AMP panel’s telecom module can accommodate up to eight separate telephone and/or data lines. T1 service is available for about $75 per month and, according to Holtz, “The take rate has been phenomenal-about 50 percent.” An energy module links the apartment’s XCI RS-485communicating thermostat to the automation system. It also wires to a relay that allows energy -efficient operation of the apartment’s water heater. In addition, the energy module connects to a centralized Building Communications panel (shared by each apartment in a single building), enabling property managers to remotely control energy usage in unoccupied units. This central panel, packed with RF cable modules from MOD TAP RCS and data/telecom modules from Siemon, distributes telecom (including T1 lines) and entertainment services to each apartment’s AMP panel.

For automated lighting control, the powerline was chosen over low-voltage wiring. According RRH Associates’ Orrin Charm, “X-I 0 has the perfect compromise between features and cost for this size home.” The Caddx security panel is pre-set to trigger X-10 lighting events, but advanced control systems are offered as options. Residents can select from customized Smartlinc Touchlinc controllers, X-10 Pro Mini-Timers and/or IBM Home Director automation software.

At the breaker box, an X-10 Pro PZZ01 powerline filter/coupler enhances the reliability of in-unit X-10 signals and ensures that the signals don’t “leak” into neighboring apartments. Back at the apartments, multiport outlets for A/V, data (10Base T-ready) and voice grace every room, including the kitchen, where, as tenant Joe Tannehill points out, he could easily download recipes to his laptop while preparing dinner, if he were so inclined. But, he’s more apt to order airline tickets and pay bills using his T1 access, like the other technology-minded individuals drawn to Austin by work in high-tech fields. Tannehill plans to be among the first online shoppers to use the McNeil House shopping service when it comes online. The resident-only Website also processes resident service requests and provides 10 community chat rooms. Access to PointCast Internet information is available through a dedicated onsite server.

Turbocharged Caddx
Security was an essential feature for Tannehill. “I wasn’t in familiar surroundings and wanted a secure apartment,” he says. In Kevin Teague’s case, because work takes him out of town on extended trips, he wanted the extra protection of an able security system when he is away.

Like any other Caddx NX-8 security panel, the system installed in each TechSys apartment monitors and responds to contacts and motion sensors hardwired to it. But the Caddx panels in these high-tech rentals go a step further, serving as the hub of a virtual RF network. Residents can use their keychain remotes to activate up to four events or scenes, all of which are processed through the specially equipped RF-receptive Caddx panel. “In essence, we’ve created an RF network over the entire site,” explains Holtz.

The gated entry to McNeil House is controlled by the same wireless keychain remote that residents use to arm and disarm their security systems and activate their garage door openers.
“I was prepared to have to carry a much bigger controller, like I did in previous apartments, so I was relieved to see the size of the smaller device, which is much easier to carry,” says Teague.

Also riding on the Caddx-based RF network is a specially designed transmitter, located at the McNeil House mail center, which notifies each resident’s security system control panel when the mail has arrived, triggering a light on the keypad to turn on.

Austin-based ESCOM installed and programmed the security system and other low-voltage products in the complex.

Entertaining Options
McNeil House residents can entertain themselves in the community’s clubhouse, but if they’d rather stay in, they can rock to whole-house audio. Each apartment is prewired for a home theater, with a custom-designed multimedia outlet in the living room that contains speaker connections for the surround sound rear speakers and all of the bedroom speakers, as well as cable TV, telephone and Internet connections. Optional in-wall or in-ceiling speakers are located in the living room and bedrooms, interconnected with Apature speaker cable. Audioplex impedance-matching volume controls for home theater and music distribution overcome the perennial apartment-dweller nuisance of the noisy neighbor. “I can play music at a moderate level and make adjustments as I move from room to room,” Tannehill says. “No one is blaring music from their living rooms so they can hear it in their bedroom, which is great for everyone.” Austin-based integration firm Everyone did the in-unit A/V installations.

Following the success of McNeil house, Siewruk  already has another 600-unit community under construction in Dallas, working again with RRH Associates. “I’ll never build again without technology,” says Siewruk. And why would she? With 30 unfinished units at McNeil House already leased, and applicants clamoring to sign on without even seeing a floorplan, Siewruk seems to have hit on the key to the developer’s dream of virtually no vacancy.