Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a How To Spend It article on the then small but growing trend towards intelligent, automated houses. What was among the world’s most ambitious domestic shrines to technology turned out to be in Liverpool, the project of plumber-turned-developer Roy Stewart.
Stewart’s canvas was a four-bedroom detached suburban house. The precisely controlled heating was maintained “by a modem link”, as I put it (it reads quaintly now), to a distant monitoring centre. There was central vacuuming as well as electric blinds and curtains throughout, a £55,000 multiroom entertainment system, lighting programmed to mimic Stewart and his wife’s day and night usage when they were away, and computer-controlled garden irrigation.
Still to come in technology were broadband internet, WiFi, smartphones, tablets, apps, the internet of things, home webcams, voice control, wearable technology, wireless entertainment, streaming, even flatscreen TVs. Today, 17 years into the 21st century, smart homes with these new elements are becoming increasingly affordable and widespread. The likes of Nest and Hive home-control systems are advertised on buses, and a whole new, relatively inexpensive, easy‑to-install smart-home ecosystem is emerging under Apple’s HomeKit umbrella.
So what, in the connected age, does a wealthy person do to create a smart home that leaves the common-or-garden Nest level of domestic technology far behind?
The answer is to be found 50km east of Liverpool, in the affluent southwest Manchester suburb of Bowdon. With its wide avenues of massive, security-guarded houses, Bowdon bears an odd resemblance to Beverly Hills, albeit minus significant hills or palm trees, but possibly with a number of Beverleys. Oh, and rain. Torrents of it.
It is on one of Bowdon’s best roads, next to the house of David Silva, the Spain and Manchester City midfielder, and three doors from Silva’s former teammate and England goalkeeper Joe Hart, that property multimillionaire David Giovanni has built what several award-giving organisations in the home‑automation field have judged one of the world’s finest smart homes.
When Giovanni built the six‑bedroom, two-gym house four years ago for his young family, he eschewed the local preference for new-build Arts and Crafts style and went for what he calls modern gothic. He’s an aesthetically aware guy, from the carefully chosen furnishings, many of them Italian (he’s from a Neapolitan family, though Manchester-born and brought up in Scotland), to the Audemars Piguetwatches he adores. We joke when I arrive about the gardener working in the rain in a brown coverall, looking like a bronze statue. It is Giovanni who points out how much like an Antony Gormley the man looks.
Giovanni is also a major-league technology fan. He has a degree in business technology and he was an analyst specialising in banking IT before he went into property. So the house has an impressive level of automation, with Crestron systems controlling lighting and heating, blinds and curtains, extensive camera security, 28 entertainment zones (each with a pair of ceiling-mounted Bowers & Wilkins speakers), a cinema and five separate Sky TV systems serving different rooms.
There are tech quirks, too, to accommodate visiting friends and his children, aged six and 10, who, after Giovanni’s recent divorce, live with him for a lot of the time. There’s a drop-down TV by the 12m indoor/outdoor pool for parties. The children’s bedroom curtains automatically open at 10am to stop them from oversleeping in the holidays. And there’s category five data wiring, power and lighting in their treehouse.
Much of this, however, is not uncommon in these parts. What is unusual – probably unique – is what exists in the basement of the Giovanni house. A hidden door off the main hall leads to padded leather walls and dramatically lit stairs that descend, via a tinted-glass pivot door with a huge handmade crushed-metal handle, into what can only be called a man cave – unlike any you may have seen before.
Inside a circular glass enclosure and spotlit on a slowly revolving turntable, Giovanni’s favourite car of the moment, a McLaren 650S, is displayed. The circular ceiling feature above this subterranean automotive trophy cabinet weighs more than a tonne; to conceive and install both it and the turntable required a whole team of interior designers and engineers. The turntable, devised by Turck Banner, an industrial controls company that specialises in high-quality sensing equipment, is equipped with a Crestron 3-series processor that can rotate the car to preset positions or simply spin it 360 degrees the better to show it off.
The McLaren is glistening with rain from an earlier trip out, but it’s a garage compared with the accommodation afforded to Giovanni’s Bentley Bentayga SUV and Aston Martin Vanquish. They do have a grey, padded, faux-leather garage of their own, but when I visit are outside on the gated driveway in the rain, very possibly feeling a little jealous.
In the warm, dry interior, the pampered McLaren can be started from a touch panel and then rotated from its showcase mode to a preset position perfect for roaring into the outside world. Giovanni’s cars are recognised individually by 15 sensors located under the garage floor, so the man cave knows not only which car to welcome, who is driving it and whether to ready the turntable if it’s the McLaren, but also what temperature would be comfortable for the individual entering and what music it would be appropriate to have playing.
Giovanni’s man cave continues at a similar, out-California-ing California pitch. A polished resin floor reflects the polished plaster ceiling and leads past a climate-controlled, leather-floored wine cellar housing 470 bottles of his favourite six wines, then to a fully fitted bar with booth seating where bottles are displayed within subtly backlit panels, and there is a mirror TV and bespoke pool table (€31,800) by French company Billards Toulet (it is, of course, the company’s flagship model). The air in the man cave is pumped in from outside by a domestic version of the Mitsubishi air-conditioning system used in similarly windowless Las Vegas gaming rooms.
There’s also possibly the most glamorous washroom I’ve ever seen, with specialist metallic walls, Nero Marquina-effect flooring, polished plaster ceiling, insanely elegant basin and mirror by Italian Antonio Lupi – and an audio feed of the bar’s entertainment system to avoid Giovanni’s pals having to miss a moment of the football game or film they might be watching there.
Giovanni explains that the original idea for the basement, finished just before last Christmas, was to use the part where cars weren’t parked simply as a room to watch football and play pool. It only evolved into a state-of-the-art man cave when the people behind it, The Design Practice by Uber, based nearby in Cheshire (as well as in Surrey and Hong Kong), came up with a proposal that “totally blew my mind”. And he went with it.
“It was really after my wife and I split up that I thought I’d like it to be a bit of fun in the basement for me and my pals,” he tells me. “And, yes, for women friends too. Quite a few have seen it, and I think they like it. They will say it looks like something out of Batman. Men normally say it’s more like being in Iron Man’s garage.” He laughs when I suggest the man cave may have been part of the reason for the split with his wife. “No, she loves it, actually,” he replies. They are still close and he still manages her investments.
The astonishing McLaren turntable, Giovanni insists, has a practical purpose. “Basically, it was for getting in and out easily. When I come in, it knows I’ve arrived. I press a button and it will reposition the turntable at the best angle for me to drive on to it.” An inveterate fiddler, he now has Liverpool-based Ultamation working on a tweak to the lighting so he can automatically know from the colour at which point of the rotation he is from inside the car, as it can be confusing.
The various installers – Manchester-based Intuitive Homes was also involved in the £500,000 home-automation project – like having Giovanni as a client for more than the obvious reasons. It’s common in such installations for owners barely to use any of the painstakingly designed features. In Los Angeles, Hollywood types who happily sign the cheques and brag about their automation kit often employ a full‑time tech guy to run it for them. Not so Giovanni, who as a techie operates everything himself.
“David is proactive and very engaged,” says Oliver Hall of Ultamation as we tour the house. “He uses everything. I’m not sure there are many clients in the world with an appetite for customisation at this level. He asks almost every week for changes and new ideas.” “But it’s getting better all the time,” adds Giovanni, anxious to stress that he’s not complaining.
“Even if my financial position were three times better, I wouldn’t want the house to be much different or to sell it, even though a valuer has told me the technology would increase the appeal and the price considerably.” Among the value-enhancing awards the Giovanni home has picked up is one from international body Cedia (the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association) for the best custom solution of 2016.
Is there anything they could still tempt Giovanni with, automation-wise, I ask Hall and Intuitive Homes’ Steve Nevison? “It’s hard to think of anything for the basement,” says Nevison. “We suggested electronic wine cataloguing by someone like eSommelier and he liked the idea, but he really only drinks six types of wine, so probably not.”
They are still discussing the possibility of some smart garden irrigation – it doesn’t always rain in Cheshire – as well as a variable-height floor or pool bottom by Hydrofloors, and Bathomatic from London-based Unique Automation, which enables a bath to be filled remotely to the required depth, with added aromas, and the water to be kept hot while you are in it.
We chat in the kitchen after our tour of this incredible man cave. Giovanni was brought up in Irvine, on the west coast of Scotland, by his single mother who worked as a Tesco cashier, and was told at 16 by his deputy headmaster that he would never amount to anything. He went on to get a university distinction – and has put it to use, as is evident from the spectacular home around us.
You do sense, though, that the man cave – especially the rotating, spotlit McLaren – is his indirect riposte to that teacher’s comments 22 years ago.