The Plug-and-Play Luxury Home

by The Wall Streeet Journal

Stylish on the outside, state of the art on the inside. Developers are adding pricey new futuristic features to woo the Jetson set.

When it is completed in early 2018, Muse, a 49-story luxury-condo development in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., will have an automated parking system with push-button robotics to park the car for you. Every master suite will come with biometric safes that open with a fingerprint scan. Kitchens will have glass partitions that turn opaque with the press of a button to close off the space from the living room. Prices range from $3.4 million to $8 million, with penthouses reaching $18 million.

In San Francisco, NEMA, a high-end rental building across from Twitter’s headquarters has its own app that notifies residents when they have visitors and deliveries, and valet parking is summoned via text messaging. A business center includes a touch screen for interactive presentations and video. A 1,750-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bath unit on a high floor rents for about $8,950 a month. Across the U.S., a handful of developers and homeowners are bypassing high tech and going high-high tech, with futuristic features that go far beyond iPad-controlled window shades.

"The ultrahigh-net-worth people didn't embrace smartphones as quickly as the younger generation did. But now they're very comfortable with those devices and they want to be able to turn on the spa when they are landing their private plane," says Eric Thies, founding partner of VIA, a national home-technology installation company.

Though many products come with steep price tags and require elaborate professional installation, home-automation systems and other high-tech features have become increasingly valuable as the demographic of buyers for high-end homes becomes younger, says Christophe Choo, a Beverly Hills, Calif.-based real-estate agent. When it comes time to sell, however, homeowners with complex whole-house systems may not recoup their investment if their home isn't in the highest price bracket. "I wouldn't put a $100,000 Crestron [home automation] system on a $1 million house," says Mr. Choo.

Greg Malin, a San Francisco-based developer, will soon list a fully renovated 4,700-square-foot spec home in the city's Pacific Heights neighborhood for $13 million. In addition to energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, the home will have a biometric entry system activated with a fingerprint. It is also programmable for housekeepers, dog walkers, guests or others who need temporary access to the home, he explains.

In addition to the security system, the home's video, lighting and climate systems are controlled with an iPad. The kitchen, which is open to the living room and overlooks the backyard, has a 46-inch Internet-enabled touch screen to display recipes, family photos or closed-circuit camera feeds from the home's security system. Less visible: a system of conduit tubing throughout the house that allows for easy future upgrades of wired or wireless Internet.

Mr. Malin says that in focus groups he conducted before building the house, he learned that technology can be a big selling point—if it isn't taken too far. "I think [technology] is something that's desired, but in a way that doesn't impose itself," says Mr. Malin, 47. "You've got to pick and choose wisely," added his wife, Charlot, 45, who handled the home's interior design.

Stephen Palazzolo, head of design management for Candy & Candy, the London-based property design and development management company, says clients range from those who want to be basically "off the grid" in very low-tech homes to those requesting futuristic upgrades.

The company developed an "intelligent mirror" that can take a picture of you in what you are wearing so it can be seen at different angles. It can also flash pictures of you in previous outfits so you can see them virtually. "It's something that fashion houses do in Paris and Milan," says Mr. Palazzolo. "So much of the high-end stuff that we're able to incorporate in homes really comes from the commercial world."

After relocating from Los Angeles to the suburbs of San Francisco, Lucienne Hoffman, a single mother of two, had a Control 4 home-automation system installed in her home. The system is accessible from a smartphone or tablet, and has controls for lighting, climate, music and garage doors. Learning to use it required about a half-hour training session with her installer, Sean Toland of Engineered Lifestyles. Though her 12-year-old "knows the system better than all of us," she admits, "it's great to wake up in the morning, reach over to my phone and turn on my heat."

Ms. Hoffman, a 52-year-old former Hollywood makeup artist, adds: "If I want to know if the gardener showed up, I can check and see." Demand for cutting-edge home-theater options also has grown.

Jeffrey Freedman, 45, an entertainment-industry executive in Los Angeles, recently spent several hundred thousand dollars building and outfitting his fully automated Cape Cod-style home with a 172-inch projection-screen theater room that plays first-run movies on demand. To use the Prima Cinema system, which first became available in 2012, the movie studios require a background check (for antipiracy purposes) and fingerprint recognition for access. The system costs about $35,000, and each film is about $500. Mr. Freedman says the system is far superior to that of DVDs or other on-demand movies partly because Prima's digital files are uncompressed, which results in better sound and picture quality. To build his Art Deco stadium-style, 20-seat theater, he worked with an acoustic designer who created a system of hidden speakers and a separate heating and air-conditioning system for sound isolation. "I have an AMC-like experience in my home," says Mr. Freedman.

IMAXand 3-D theaters have also come home. Though only in a handful of residences, the Canadian company that installs the theaters in commercial cinemas has begun offering them for private home theaters starting at around $3 million. The company noticed that wealthy individuals were buying out entire IMAX theaters for private showings, and recent technological innovations allowed engineers to create a home version. "It's like television on steroids," says Larry O'Reilly, president of world-wide sales.

Manufacturers like LG Electronics have released numerous high-tech home appliances in recent years. The latest are refrigerators, ovens and washing machines with "Smart ThinQ," or the ability to text or talk with a smartphone. The idea is you'd be able to text your fridge and ask if you were out of milk before stopping at the store on your way home.

"Texting has become the prevalent way that consumers talk with one another," says David VanderWaal, LG's director of marketing. In the fall, the Seoul-based company introduced a feature that allows appliances to communicate with each other, sending, say, a recipe from a refrigerator to an oven. "We will have a Jetsons-like life," says Mr. VanderWaal. "I think the real question is just, 'How soon?" Tech upgrades are even coming to the bathroom. Kohler, the Wisconsin bathroom fixture company, recently introduced a VibrAcoustic bathtub that syncs with a smartphone to play music, vibrate and rotate various colored lights in time with the beat. Cynthia Bachmann, vice president of fixtures engineering for Kohler, says the tub is part of a strategy to get consumers to once again take baths, after decades of shower dominance.

For the most tricked-out bathrooms, Kohler makes a toilet that plays music from a smartphone with a night-light setting that retails for about $6,000. The latest version is Bluetooth-enabled, has heated seats and a laser light that users step in front of to open the lid and activate ambient room lighting for late-night bathroom trips.

Some architects are using technology to rethink how homes are built to begin with. Ksenia and Scot Erwin purchased a new home in Los Angeles a year and a half ago for $2.1 million. The couple purchased a fully automated Proto Home, construction designed around a central core of plumbing, wiring, heating and cooling. "My husband and I both like cutting-edge things and technology," says Ms. Erwin, a 28-year-old stay-at-home mother of two boys. The idea is that the both the home's layout and technological platforms are easily adaptable to future technology updates or lifestyle changes. Plumbing and wiring can stay in place as the home's walls move to change the layout. Exterior engineered-wood panels can be replaced if the family decides to update the style of the home.

"It's about rethinking the house from the beginning," says Frank Vafaee, the architect, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based Proto Homes.

Partially constructed in a factory downtown, the 4,100-square-foot home took just five months to build and cost about $210 a square foot, about half what a similar house would cost to build with other methods. "It used to be that a house was meant to be permanent and wouldn't change," says Mr. Vafaee. "We think flexibility is the key component in a modern society."