The Greenhouse Effect

How one custom-installation firm turned a greenhouse into a multi-purpose media room and lived to tell about it.

When you are designing a home theater, there is literally nothing worse than having a greenhouse-like structure to work with. Glass reflects sound, not to mention that it floods the room with light, which can interfere with a projection system. Frankentek, a New Jersey–based custom-integration firm, didn't let that stop them when they were asked to turn a greenhouse attached to a 20,000-square-foot Old English home in Southern New Jersey into a multipurpose media room. "They actually had a functioning greenhouse that spanned the main house and the indoor swimming pool," says Edward Wickham, CIO of Frankentek. "When we began work on this project, there was dirt instead of a floor!"

No longer using the greenhouse for its existing functions, the homeowners didn't want to waste the beautiful space with its glass exterior and ornate metalwork. The homeowners had a previous relationship with Frankentek, who installed a home-automation system throughout their home, so asking them to convert their defunct greenhouse into a media room was a natural choice. The room, which is a vast 2,500 square feet of glass and dirt, was a daunting challenge, but Frankentek rose to it. "When you build a movie theater, you want it to be completely dark," says Dan Clark, system designer for Frankentek, seen on the cover of AVI this month. "We did the exact opposite. When we started it, it had trees, shrubs, and flowers growing out there. With all the things you can do with treatment these days, we decided to accept the challenge."

After they made structural changes, such as installing the tile (and getting rid of the dirt), installing lighting, and treating the walls, Frankentek's real work began. "What is perhaps most interesting about this space," says Clark, "is that it is two systems in one room with a shared surround system." Because the space is so cavernous, the Frankentek team thought of it as two spaces instead of one. At one end, there is a small media system with a Runco 16:9 CW-61 plasma TV with an intimate seating area. On the other end, there is a Stewart Filmscreen FireHawk 16:9 100-inch motorized screen for a more cinematic experience.

Frankentek saw an opportunity to create a very interesting surround sound system. Instead of the standard five speakers plus a subwoofer, Frankentek used six speakers.The three camouflaged white Sonance in-wall speakers at the end of the room where the plasma resides blend into the wall above the doorway. At the other end of the room, three more Energy speakers are hidden on the rafter in front of the screen. If you're not really looking for them, it's as if they aren't there.

The surround sound system pulls double duty. When the homeowners are watching a movie on the screen, processing and switching make the surround sound system proportionate to the screen. When they are watching a game on the Runco plasma, the surround sound is reconfigured so that the front right, front left, and center speakers (which would be the rear and surround speakers on the screen system) are relative to the plasma. "We didn't want to overwhelm the room with two separate surround systems that the homeowners would never use at the same time," says Wickham. "The homeowners only use one source of sound at a time. Depending on what source you have, the room automatically configures for that particular orientation." When they selected the speakers, the Frankentek engineering team took special care to get rotating models so they would not reflect off the glass, which could have been an acoustical nightmare. A Polk subwoofer handles the low-frequency duties for both video systems.

Another challenge that Frankentek faced in this huge converted space was the video system. First, they had to decide where to put the projection screen—which the homeowners wanted hidden when they weren't using it—in a room with a glass ceiling. "You can't really hide a projection screen in a room made of glass," says Clark. "Knowing that the projection screen is quite large, the homeowners didn't want it down all the time, so we hid it behind one of the beams at the end of the room." When it's time to watch a flick, the motorized screen descends from its hiding place.

The projector was another issue. Not only did it need to be very bright so that the homeowners could watch the projection screen during the day, it needed to have a very long throw. Frankentek chose the very bright, 2,200-lumen Sanyo PLV-70 projector and positioned it at the far end of the room, hidden in an alcove above the doorway near the plasma, and equipped it with a motorized long-throw Sanyo LNST31A zoom lens.

So that daytime viewing on the projection system would be an option, Frankentek treated all of the windows in the room with a tint. "From the outside, the windows on this converted greenhouse almost look like mirrors," says Clark. "The treatment blocks UV rays and softens light coming into the room." The Stewart FireHawk, the industry-standard gray reference screen, is also known for its performance in environments where there is some ambient light. Additionally, the homeowners purchased roll-down shades that help to block out light on particularly sunny days. Now, although the homeowners use the screen mostly at night, they can watch the big hanging screen during the day if they so desire. An AMX wireless touchscreen controls the entire media room.

The room is furnished with very valuable antiques that the homeowners have collected from around the world, including an ancient Chinese chest. A pool table provides even more fun for when the homeowners are entertaining, which they do quite a bit. "These clients hold a lot of political functions," says Wickham. "So, it's important they have a great entertaining space like this. It worked out perfectly."

In fact, it worked out so well that the Custom Electronics Design & Installation Association (CEDIA) gave it the Silver Technical Design Award for Best Media Room in 2006, which is no small feat. Frankentek succeeded in defying home theater norms, eschewing convention for the bigger picture. Now, the big difference is, the homeowners don lounging gear instead of gardening gear when they enter the space.

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