A couple of minutes walk from a busy bustling Oxford Street, in London’s West End, is an oasis of calm. I visited the Cornflake Smart App-artment on a sunny day in July and its relaxing ambiance was a welcomed break from the heat and the crowds.
Beneath its unassuming glass facade lies a contemporary mock-home. Opened just over a year ago Cornflake have been delighted with the response to their show apartment, labelling it as an unmitigated success.
They show an average 2 to 3 visitors per day around the property. Around half of those people are home owners while the other half are architects, builders and other contractors keen to get a feel of how smart home tech can work in their projects.
The apartment is complete with living areas like a kitchen, games room, den and cinema. Tim Greenbank, CF’s Control Systems Engineer showed us around the rooms which each feature professionally designed lighting scenes, using the latest LED fittings and even some good old incandescents too. CF’s experience couples the best LED drivers to their most compatible dimmers in what can be a confusing maze of options.
As we moved through the basement rooms it struck me how flawlessly everything worked . As someone that’s been surrounded by home automation for almost 20 years now it’s rare to see such a complex system controlled so simply – in this case by an iPad. Tim told us their customers almost exclusively spec iOS for control but they also offer Android apps where the customer request it.
The majority of CF’s installations are Crestron, although they also install Control4. They make extensive use of Lutron lighting systems too and their choices come after years in the industry finding out what works, what’s reliable and what provides the best feature set.
In a very James Bond moment, Tim’s tap on the iPad caused the semi-circular wall in the games room to swing round and reveal the projector screen and games console (see the video below). In an example of Cornflake’s innovation the large heavy wall is moved using the motor from a horse exercising machine!
The huge cinema room next door is an impressive space complete with anamorphic projector and with the speakers hidden behind the screen. A quick action movie demo had us wondering what we’d do when we had to go back and try and live with our own pale imitation.
The CF home can be hired for private gatherings and I could see how a boys night in here would go down very well. The cinema is just about to undergo a total refit upgrading to an even more powerful MacIntosh system which will undoubtedly make it even more impressive.
CF’s roots are in the world of 2 channel Hi-Fi. While most of their existing customers have added new multi-channel AV systems in their homes many of them also look to retain an audiophile aspect to their installation. The living space beside the kitchen features an £11,000 MacIntosh valve system and electrostatic speakers. A TV rises out of a hidden panel below and the projector screen drops down from above. A special lighting system similar to Philips Ambilight extends the colours out from the screen around the room to add to the immersive experience.
The dedicated vinyl-powered listening room upstairs goes even further, employing walls of un-equal length as well as custom calculated sound baffles on the rear wall and textile dampers hanging on the sides walls.
Although mainly a domestic installer, CF also offers a service for commercial customers and the property includes an example Boardroom system.
Finally a new room is being constructed to display blind and curtain control options. This has become an important part of custom installs and the Crestron units are by far their preferred option as they have the quietest motors and can sync with each other for some fancy rolling. Somfy is another option CF fit and blinds can be tied to the HVAC systems so, for example, they can close automatically on a sunny day if the temperature is getting too high.
Cornflake’s philosophy is about technology and design working together to create the best user experience possible. So while it’s definitely not about ‘the boxes’ we’re all home automation enthusiasts here and we love hearing about the tech.
Cornflake’s Operations Manager, John Fitzpatrick, showed us the business end of the installation as he explained that CF have moved from what was a Hi-Fi business to very much an IT company today. The control room houses four full height racks, beautifully built and meticulously wired with not a cable out of place. These units were full of the tech we’d each want in our own home, if money were no object.
As you’d expect, CF build these works of art in their workshop before shipping them to the owners home. In extreme conditions (if access is via a tight stair case for example) the odd rack is still built on site.
CF specify their racks have their own air conditioning system. John recounts cases where they’ve taken over existing installations and regularly find heat is the main factor in un-reliability, often seeing systems from competitors working for 6 months until summer hots up, temperatures rise and things start to fall over.
CF work in the rarefied atmosphere at the height of the market and their customers expect nothing less than 100% reliability. In a business where a Cornflake Concierge might have to fly to Geneva to spend 30 minutes fixing something, the company goes to great lengths to ensure the systems are as bullet-proof as possible.
Most components in the racks can be rebooted remotely and even if it’s a really awkward retro-fit cable that needs to be run, CF will go the extra mile to gain the reliability of a hardwired Ethernet network point. CF only use Cisco switches and setup various VLANs to separate out functions like video routing and VoIP.
In central London the guys can regularly see 40 or more 2.4GHz Wi-Fi access points pop up at a clients house. They exclusively use Ruckus hardware and move as much as possible onto 5GHz. The only other wireless technology they’ll install is the Zigbee element of Control4 and even powerline network adaptors don’t make the grade as they have proved too unreliable in the past.
It’s testament to all we love about Sonos that their music system is employed here in this high-end setup. All CF fitted Sonos zones use hard wired Ethernet and have their SonosNet wireless disabled with a software hack so they don’t interfere with anything on the network. With up to 30% of Sonos sales now reported to be in the custom install market it’s still a frustration that these sorts of hacks have to be employed (come on Sonos).
As you’d expect, CF use hardwired IP control for the vast majority of their systems. Sky is one of the final few boxes that still require stick-on IR emitters, despite having IP control available via their own mobile app. John hopes to see an API made available to custom installers in the future and he predicts a move to video on demand only boxes with local hard drive storage becoming a thing of the past. Perhaps the next generation of Sky box will bring us some of these features, as well as 4K support.
The rack houses the ubiquitous Kaleidescape server and uses the Kaleidescape online video store to provide movies around the home.
Another interesting unit in the rack, and a new one to us, was the Autonomic media server that comes with a multitude of drivers including AMX, Control4, Crestron and Savant. Unlike Sonos, the Autonomic unit allows up to four different accounts for each streaming music service so if your family each have their own Napster / Spotify etc account then this could be the answer you’ve been looking for.
With around 25 staff, Cornflake are a large and respected name in this world and its clear to see why. They currently have 45 live projects in the works, ranging from around £6,000 to over £500,000
CF have made a significant investment bringing the smart apartment to life and I’ve seen no better advert for the smart home than this. A place where everything has been thought out, designed and built using the culmination of many years hard-won experience and expertise.
If my numbers ever come up and I’m in the position to be spec’ing a bespoke smart home on this level then I’d want passionate, professional people like I found at Cornflake to handle it.