The differences between these architectural interlopers and the stockbrokers' natural habitat of mock Tudor and neo-Georgian are more than skin deep. Behind their slightly whimsical facades, these houses have been kitted out with some serious technology, and their smart spec includes little luxuries modern science can provide, like a body jet shower and motorised curtains and blinds.
The combination of quirky architecture and high technology was not a deliberate strategy on the housebuilder's part, but the homes' £2m pricetag demanded something out of the ordinary. The design was inspired by the managing director's holiday in France, and has proved such a hit with UK homebuyers that Wates is planning to repeat it. The technology raises an already high specification that includes such quality finishes as limestone flooring and stone stairs with wrought iron balustrade.
Wates trialled some new technology in its Atrium House show home several years ago, but decided not to take those innovations into the broader marketplace at that time. Last year, it returned to the theme of home automation and produced a one-off, high-tech house in Ascot. It has now followed that up with La Chasse, where the houses are fitted out as standard with category 5 cabling, allowing access to cable television and FM radio, telephones and computers in any room. There is also a ducted central vacuuming system, intelligent central heating, mood lighting, multi-room audio, wiring for cinematic surround sound, wiring for motorised curtains and blinds, and a security system. The domestic appliances, which include a De Dietrich cooker, microwave oven and American-style fridge freezer with wine chiller are smart in both looks and functionality, and the rooms have underfloor heating.
Would-be Inspector Gadgets with plenty of spending money can add to this smart infrastructure by buying any one of a number of additional gizmos from Onid, the designer and installer of the homes' smart technology.
What the buyers thought …
Cathryn and Paul Boorman are clearly at home with home technology, as Cathryn initially came across La Chasse on the Wates Homes website. The couple had been living in a 10-year-old Berkeley home nearby that they had bought new and were looking for something a bit more flexible for their extended family.
The La Chasse house first caught their eye for its flexible layout, with formal and informal living space at ground floor, five first-floor bedrooms and bathrooms, a sixth bedroom and 25 ft long games room on the second floor, and separate over-the-garage room. The smart features were an attraction for Paul, who, the couple agree, is the more technologically literate of the two.
"Our old home had an entryphone at the gate and an automatic garage door but that was all," he says. "We had wires running everywhere. Part of the reason for choosing this house was that it was so forward-looking.
Cathryn phoned me when I was away one night and said she couldn’t get the shower to turn off
Paul Boorman, resident
It seemed an obvious thing to do."
The Boormans moved into their home in June with sons Rory and Drew, and have found the space to be as flexible as they had hoped. "It's a house where lots of people can do lots of different things," says Paul. The outside of the house is equally popular. "It is different," says Paul. "I like the turret, the colour of the bricks and the real slate roof. Wates have thought about the materials. They have built it well, the quality is good, and we haven't had any problems apart from the technology."
The couple accept that their eagerness to move into their house before the other homes were occupied has probably increased their exposure to teething problems. "The heating will be programmable, but doesn't work yet," says Paul. "We had a light on the top floor that was mysteriously coming on at night. Cathryn phoned me when I was in Manchester on business one night and said that she couldn't get the shower to turn off."
"We've not read the manual yet," has become a refrain for the couple, who have been faced with a new house packed with a whole array of unfamiliar buttons and switches. "There was a lot to take in over the first few weeks," says Cathryn. "I would've loved a demonstration of the cooker and the microwave. It is fantastic, but I haven't got to grips with it all yet."
Irrespective of the initial difficulties, the couple are delighted with the house and Paul's only real bugbear is that the water system is unpressurised.
The Boormans have added to the basic technology package, often relying on Onid for advice. "I found it quite difficult to judge what we should have," says Cathryn. Onid advised that the informal lounge's large expanse of wall was the perfect place to hang a plasma screen, and the Boormans reckon that that was a good buy. "When the kids came home from school and saw it for the first time, they just watched it all evening – and we had it just in time for the World Cup in June," says Cathryn.
Technology is now very much part of their home life.
the technology was not meant to be gimmicky. Everything was intended to be practical and useful
Neil Dearmer, commercial director, wates Homes
A computer is set up and running in the home's turret office. The automatic skylights in the orangery roof have proved their worth over the summer, opening when the temperature gets three degrees higher than the rest of the house. The lighting system, which can work in pre-set moods and in lighting paths to guide the children to the toilet at night, is also well-liked.
Although the couple are not using all of the technology at their disposal, they appreciate having a futureproofed home. "The functionality is there to expand," says Paul. The couple say they may add motorised curtains in the future, but whatever they do their walls should remain uncluttered by unsightly wires.
The housebuilder responds …
Wates Homes commercial director Neil Dearmer was on holiday when Homes visited the Boormans, and so gave his comments on the La Chasse homes separately.
The La Chasse installation shows how not only the technology itself, but its supply chain has evolved since the company's first tentative trial with the Atrium House, says Dearmer. "On the Atrium House we had to go to a lot of different companies. At Ascot and at La Chasse we've been able to go to one company for the technology."
The housebuilder had a clear idea of what it wanted to provide for buyers at La Chasse. "The technology incorporated into the homes was not meant to be gimmicky," Dearmer says. "Some of the things, like the heating controls, can make the home more energy efficient. The lighting scenes are practical and give the homes something different. Everything was intended to be practical and useful."
On the subject of teething problems, Dearmer says that the homes were commissioned before the family moved in and that the housebuilder will be seeking feedback from buyers later. The pressurised water system Paul Boorman would have liked is usually installed in Wates' homes but it was not technically feasible to fit it on this particular scheme.
The housebuilder designed the homes to accommodate technology such as plasma screens, but at the same time has been careful not to limit the flexibility of the space – one of the key attractions for the Boormans. "The difficulty is that if you do too much you can be deciding for the customer. We thought the large second-floor room could make a good cinema room, but we stopped short of putting it in."
The fact the homeowners are not using the technology to its full potential yet does not worry the housebuilder. "Even though the Boormans are not using the motorised curtain controls now, they won't have to rip the house apart to do things in the future," he says.
Developer/builder Wates Homes Architect David Parker Architects CAD design details Miller Traves Structural engineer Calleva Design Design and installation of smart technology Onid