Building an Open-Source House

by Doc Searls

We're building our last house. I hope.

By sometime in January or February of next year, we will have lived in seven different places, two on the Peninsula in the Bay Area and five in Santa Barbara. Our last is the first house we've built from the ground up. All the others were remodels or rentals we occupied while we were buying or remodeling our next home.

The purpose has been strategic. Buying, improving and reselling has been a way to improve our current abode, as well as a way to make money in a market that has only gone up.

This next place, however, should be our last. Enough moving, already.

It is, as you might expect, our Dream Home.

My fantasy here has been, from the start, to make it as Linux-y as possible. That is, open in architecture and welcoming to modifications and additions--especially in the technology department.

For me that's the following:

  • Computers and networking

  • Audio and video

  • Wireless, including RF from satellite TV and radio, terrestrial TV and radio and shortwave

  • Other stuff, such as a weather station on the roof

For my wife, it's simpler. She wants to see:

  • No exposed wires or cables

  • No antennas where anybody can see them

  • No speakers that stick out or call attention to themselves

Here are some limiting factors:

  • The whole roof is copper, so antennas for satellite radio as well as TV and FM all have to be outside. If we want to get anything.

  • Some antennas have to be outside in any case, because the house has line-of-sight to exactly zero TV and FM stations, in spite of sitting 500 feet up a hillside overlooking Santa Barbara and the Pacific Ocean.

  • The interior makes widespread use of rock on walls, especially in places where the Good Audio should go: living room, den, family room. Meaning there are no places to put speakers into the walls. Ceilings, yes; walls, no.

Here is what I've planned so far. Can you tell I'm looking for some last-minute advice here? That's right, I am. If you're game, read on.

  • We have a central patch panel where hubs and routers will go, in addition to connecting Cat5e and RG6 Quad Shield Coax, which fans out to locations in each room. In some cases, multiple runs of both Cat5e and Coax run to key locations, such as my office and the two places where we're likely to put wide video screens and surround sound.

  • My RF sources include FM, TV, satellite TV and satellite radio (probably Sirius). Satellite TV and radio will be picked up from a dish site hidden amidst shrubbery about 15 feet from the patch panel on the bottom floor, the back of which is subterranean, as the house is on a slope. Terrestrial TV and FM will come from directional antennas spun by a rotator at the far end of the garage, about 60 feet from the patch panel. The antennas will hide nicely in the canopy of a large live oak that droops over the garage. I don't know what kind of rotator I'll use yet but probably will start with a Radio Shack unit I already have, which needs three conductors. Better rotators require as many as six conductors. I'll need cable that will accommodate whatever I upgrade to.

  • A ventilated utility room will be our (Linux, of course) server room. I will also have computers in my wife's office, my office and probably elsewhere. I'll also want multiple Wi-Fi access points. The Cat5e running everywhere will help with that.

  • Right now Internet access is through two Cox Cable accounts: one for households, 3Mb down, 300Kb up, ports 80 and 25 blocked, for $49/month; and one for business, 1.5Mb down, 300Kb up, no ports blocked, five IP addresses, for $109/month. I will add a Verizon account; it's reportedly faster than Cox but has other unknown compromises, which I'll discover after I get them on the phone--not an easy thing--and get a test connection installed

  • In preparation for the Ultimate Dream of a fiber connection, we're installing blue "smurf" tubing from the utility entry point to the patch panel, and from there to my office, the den and the family room. We're also talking about putting together a neighborhood fiber network and connecting to...something, when it's ready.

I don't plan to put in a whole-house audio system. All of the ones I've seen are proprietary silos, including Linux-powered ones, such as the (quite nice) Sonus. Most of them also defy understanding by myself, much less by my non-technical wife. Instead, I prefer what I've been using at every house so far, which is a Ramsey FM-100 FM transmitter at the sound source (where satellite TV and radio come in), which distributes to local receivers in rooms where we want sound. The receivers are tuned to our household FM channel, currently 104.1, which we chose for absence of interference with or by real FM stations. The Ramsey sounds quite good, and my wife knows how to operate all the receivers, each of which were bought at garage sales or in thrift stores.

Old receivers, especially ones with dials, have much better FM tuners than new ones, by the way. That's because manufacturers no longer care about FM, and apparently all use the same lame FM (and AM) receiver chipsets.

Although we will install surround sound in the two video locations, the plan is to put front (left, right, center) speakers on the flat panel screen. The bass boost speaker will go in a wall somewhere and the rear speakers in the ceiling.

I'll be set up for shortwave only in my office and plan to run RG-59 coax out to the spot where I think I can hide more coax running up to a line antenna hidden in an oak tree. I'll also run wiring from my office up to a weather station on the roof. Wireless is out of the question there, thanks to the copper roof.

By the way, proprietary silos abound in home building. For example, we looked at and rejected lighting systems that would have given us far more control, and fewer controls, for every room and "lighting environment". All of them run on Windows-based central hardware or required Windows-only programming by professionals on which we would be no less dependent than we'd be on the manufacturers. And they were all expensive as well.

Unfortunately, satellite radio is siloed too. The two satellite services--Sirius and XM--are incompatible, each requiring its own proprietary hardware and service agreements, with separate agreements and fees for each additional receiver. Each even requires its own proprietary wiring. Terrestrial radio is still relatively open (until it goes digital, but that's a whole 'nuther rant), but it's providing a shrinking wedge of our radio consumption pie. Right now, it's down to NPR stations and little else. Still, we need that antenna. None of the NPR stations are nearby. The closest two are low-wattage repeater stations, and we're in a "terrain shadow" from their signals. Same goes for high-definition TV, which reportedly looks better on terrestrial signals than on satellite or cable. Alas, our best signals for TV come from San Diego, 140 miles away across the Pacific Ocean. But we've tested reception, and most of the time it's pretty good.

As for sound sources from files, we have a large CD collection, most of which we've ripped into MP3 files or file duplicates of the originals. We need some strategy for playing those, other than a little portable MP3 player we load up at a computer. I haven't figured that one out yet. One limiting factor is small cabinet space and limited ventilation capacity where the central sound and video gear will live. There are a lot of proprietary systems here, too. If you know of one that runs Linux and isn't a silo in some other way, let me know. I haven't found one yet.

So that's the plan.

We're in the short rows here. The walls are still open. No sheet rock is up yet. We can make some changes, but not too many.

If any of ya'll want to provide some advice, I'm wide open.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal, for which he writes the Linux for Suits column. He also presides over Doc Searls' IT Garage, which is published by SSC, the publisher of Linux Journal.

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