Overcoming MDU Restrictions to Turn Modest Condo Into Luxury High-Tech Home

Home of the Year Gold Winner for Before & After. Ordinary condo turns to twice-the-size luxury vacation home, made possible by distributed A/V, Savant whole-house control and teamwork by the integration firm, builder and interior designer.


What started out as a fairly ordinary condominium unit has morphed into a twice-the-size luxury vacation home for a pair of professionals who knew that the secret to easy, carefree getaways would require the addition of a solid, distributed audio/video setup and a professionally configured automation system to boot.

They also knew that to get the job done right, they’d need to hire a home systems integration firm as the renovation of the condo was taking place — a project that would involve knocking down walls to connect two adjoining units to form a more spacious 2,800-square-foot residence. It also would require a company that would respect their sense of style and cater to their need for simplicity in this extreme transformation.

Rules of Expansion

As the home systems integration team at Anaheim Hills, Calif.- based Surreal Systems discovered, these requests, while completely reasonable, would prove far more difficult to implement than expected, and would test their skills as integrators of home technology.

Explains Surreal Systems founder and president, Matt Bernath, “The units were part of an older multi-dwelling unit (MDU) building, which had a lot of character and building restrictions. One of the biggest challenges was satisfying our client’s desires for a nicely integrated home while heeding the restrictions of the building and being respectful of the neighbors.”

For example, per building codes and structural limitations, speakers were unable to be recessed into the ceilings. Also, all low-voltage and electrical wiring that was added had to be in metal fire-rated conduit, and junction boxes had to be protected with firestop material.

Speaker Mounting Solutions

Because this renovated condo sits underneath units above it, sound from speakers planted in the ceiling would have been a nuisance to neighbors.

So Surreal Systems installed 16 Sonance speakers into the walls and cabinets instead. However, only the wall in the guest room was finished in standard drywall; the rest were covered with custom paneling, delicate wallpaper, custom millwork, and natural stone.

Photos: MDU Condo Goes Luxury High-Tech

As is common for most MDUs, the wall studs in this updated condo were made of steel — much less forgiving than wood when fishing speaker cabling, as well as a complete new wiring infrastructure for data, voice, and video distribution.

“Technology was completely non-existent in these units prior to our work,” Bernath says, who also added a super-strong, commercial-grade Ruckus wireless networking system to combat the steel studs and signal interference from neighboring units.

Decorator-Friendly Technology

By working carefully with the carpenter and interior designer, the installation crew at Surreal Systems was able to recess the speakers into the paneling in just the right positions to ensure that music would evenly blanket each and every area of the condo with no dead spots. In the guest room they took advantage of the dry-wall by installing a pair of invisible speakers from Sonance.

“They wanted their home to be a showpiece, so this meant hiding or disguising all evidence of technology,” Bernath says.

The rest of the loudspeakers were faux painted to blend in with the wall surface, and in the great room a soundbar was custom-designed by Leon Speakers to match the width and style of a 65-inch Samsung TV.

Tablet-Based Control

To add to the high-tech allure, the TV in the great room was placed on a motorized mount that allows the homeowners to swivel it on command from a handheld remote or a mobile app on one of several iPads. The same iPad app and handheld remote — both from Savant — that operates the movable TV mount can be used to operate a variety of other components and systems, per software programmed by Surreal Systems and carried through by a Savant home automation processor.

Using the Savant control platform, music and video from two Apple TV units, three cable boxes, a Sony Blu-Ray Disc player, and a Fusion Research media server can be dispatched to speakers in eight stereo listening zones and/or two surround-sound setups, and to any and all of four Samsung high-def TVs.

Although there is a multitude of entertainment choices, Surreal Systems made sure that the app and remote streamlined what could have been a complicated selection process. Music is at the homeowners’ fingertips as they can tap a button on a smartphone or the tablet mounted to the wall at each entry as they step into the house.

It’s just as quick and easy, says Bernath, to control the Lutron HomeWorks lighting system, Lutron motorized window shades, ADT alarm system, and Axis surveillance cameras. These Savant-controlled electronic amenities represent the final step in a massive home makeover. They precluded the need for a bevy of individual control devices mounted to the walls, and are fully functional and are simple to set up through the Savant app.

Today the homeowners use the app to adjust the brightness of the lights, move the shades, arm and disarm the security system, and view live video from the surveillance camera.

It’s a much simpler process than interacting with individual controls located in different places, yet the system is still a work in progress, Bernath says. “The homeowners are experimenting with the controls to determine exactly how they’d like these systems to be synchronized and to adjust based on conditions like the time of day, whether they are home or away, and other variables.”

Once these preferences are identified, Surreal Systems will program the appropriate settings into the Savant processor. The initial transformation from an unintelligent, small condo into a smart, spacious home seems to have sparked the homeowners’ interest in implementing other high-tech features that will make their renovated dwelling all the more magnificent.

Systems & Equipment

  • Home Control: Savant
  • Lighting Control: Lutron
  • Whole House Audio/Video: Savant
  • Speakers: Leon Speakers, Sonance
  • TVs: Samsung
  • Home Networking: Cisco, Netgear, Ruckus
  • Systems Design & Installation: Surreal Systems, Anaheim Hills, Calif., surrealsystems.com
  • Builder: Rosten Construction, Costa Mesa, Calif.

Next: See More Home of the Year Gold Winners

About the Author

Lisa Montgomery:

Lisa Montgomery has been a member of the CE Pro and Electronic House editorial teams for nearly 20 years; most of that time as the Editor of Electronic House. With a knack for explaining complex high-tech topics in terms that average consumers can understand, her style of writing resonates with people who are interested in adding electronic systems to their homes, but are unsure of the steps involved and the solutions available. From basic lighting control systems to full-blown automation systems, Lisa understands the home electronics market well, and is able to point consumers in the right direction on their quest for a smarter, more convenient, efficient and enjoyable home.

Over the years, she has developed close relationships with key manufacturers and seasoned custom electronics professionals, giving her a keen sense of what home technologies are hot now and what is on the horizon. She shares this wisdom regularly through feature stories, product roundups, case studies technology spotlights and comprehensive guides and books.