February 2015

Custom Residential:

It takes in-house expertise to make a home

Specialized knowledge is required to adapt advanced technologies usually found in commercial buildings for home use.

With Smith + Andersen's clients requesting everything from snow melting to indoor gymnasiums and pools, it's critical that mechanical and electrical considerations respect interior/exterior design features while providing a quiet and comfortable home environment.

Q&A with Smith + Andersen team members

(From left to right)
Frank Toews Senior Associate - Mechanical Cameron Leitch Project Manager - Mechanical • David Mewdell Principal - Electrical • Joe  Calabria Associate - Electrical Rafael Correa Manager - Lighting

Why would an owner or architect choose engineered solutions instead of hiring a design-build contractor?

Frank: We have seen some residential contractors apply the same principles used in designing "spec” or subdivision homes to the custom market. In these cases, systems may be chosen for price over performance, and the expertise required to properly design and coordinate projects of this scale and complexity might not be there. More specifically, the owner's expectations in terms of things like room-to-room temperature control or noise reduction may not be met. Or a compromise could occur in architectural features to accommodate a lack of pre-construction planning.

Some custom homes may not have budgets that support fully-engineered systems, but would greatly benefit from engineering input all the same. Are there more affordable design options available?

Cameron: Absolutely. We tailor our service delivery to provide maximum value while meeting each client's specific needs. Projects with limited design budgets can benefit from concept development with sketch plans and installation requirements. That means a competitively-priced “design build” solution, with a client-approved set of criteria and a schematic design that resolves the “global” concerns with the architect.

What about electrical systems – would they benefit from the same approach?

David: People are often surprised when we tell them that today’s custom homes have levels of complexity that match some commercial projects when it comes to electrical needs: custom lighting, integrated audio-visual equipment, household-wide Internet and home automation systems, pools and water features, emergency power supplies – the list goes on. By engineering the design of these systems from a functional perspective, the contractors can work more efficiently during construction knowing there won't be any last-minute surprises.

Joe: Custom residential electrical systems often feature a more complex commercial application than ordinary residential. When you stop to consider the kind of components that would necessitate a 400 A or 800 A (or larger) electrical service for a residence on a street where most homes are 200 A, or the expertise involved in the optimal sizing of an emergency generator, the benefits of having an engineered solution becomes very apparent.

You mentioned lighting. Why would that need to be engineered?

Rafael: When it comes to designing lighting systems, custom residential projects require a combination of technical skill and creativity. Each lighting design has to match the client's lifestyle. For instance, subtle warm lighting with low contrast can create a “calm” environment, whereas vivid colours with high contrast are used to induce emotional responses. Environmental considerations can also lead to interesting solutions such as the creative use of shadows and finding other areas in the home where we should not have light. Overall, the lighting solutions can be tailored to enhance the interior or exterior, focus on furniture, highlight artwork, and to generally complement the architecture.

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