According to the National Multi House in Council (NMHC) in Washington, D.C., one in five Americans are living in an apartment, providing custom installation firms with a significant base of potential clients. When you take into consideration the fact that many apartment dwellers, condo owners and lofters require a residential infrastructure that allows them to operate elaborate entertainment and control systems in addition to fully-functional home offices, it would seem that there is plenty of work for everybody.
“Because of the strong housing market and because the MDU [multi-dwelling unit) market has remained strong, I think differentiation is probably one of the key challenges facing any developer,” said Kurt Scherf, vice president of research at Parks Associates in Dallas, Texas (www.parksassociates.com). “A lot of these units look exactly the same. Developers and builders are looking for real partnerships with technology players and service providers to provide some sort of unique service to their residents. For MDU construction that is aiming at young, upscale professionals, differentiation is probably key.”
Developers that offer almost hotel-like services are appealing to the busy people Scherf describes. “A few forward-thinking developers, owners and managers have taken the initiative to offer technology services from their end,” Scherf said. “Some have actually become their own service providers in offering digital video or phone and data services to their residences. That is more the exception than the rule at this point, but to me, that really has been a stunning change in the industry.”
While it’s still customary for most young professionals to eventually graduate into home ownership, the more career-minded of this demographic may opt out of this added responsibility. And, as commutes grow lengthier, living in a trendy downtown loft is more appealing to some.
“In many cities, you are seeing loft development take place within downtown. Managers and developers in those locations have the advantage of location because commutes are not getting shorter,” Scherf said.
The shift to MDU doesn’t just involve the upwardly mobile careerists. Empty nesters, too, are starting to move out of their homes and into multi-unit complexes.
“Ten years ago, folks rented when they couldn’t afford houses, and that is starting to shift to folks that are sick and tired of houses and want to let somebody else take care of the swimming pool, the roof and the air conditioning units,” observed Jay McLellan, president of HAI, a New Orleans, Louisiana-based manufacturer of integrated automation and security products (www.homeauto.com). “As we get older, folks are deciding that they don’t want the responsibility and they are starting to rent again.”
Apartments are no longer viewed as a low-cost alternative for those who aren’t in the position to buy a home. “The image of an apartment is shifting from a bachelor pad to an area where you can retire in peace and comfort and travel, and go and do things that you want to do without having to worry about maintaining a house,” McLellan said. David Hanchette, vice president of marketing at OnQ Technologies (www.onqtech.com), a Middletown, Pennsylvania-based developer of wiring packages, points to student housing as a growing segment of the MDU market. “Student housing–both the private side and the institutional side–is booming,” he said. “A lot more people are going to school. People are staying in school longer, and the requirements for that demographic of the population is absolute in terms of their need and demand for bandwidth. You can’t have a student housing construction project out there today that doesn’t bring telephone capabilities, video and high-speed data into every unit and, furthermore, not just by the unit but also by the bedrooms within the unit.”
MDU residents are not that different from single-family homeowners, notes Keith Smith, home cabling national sales manager at The Siemon Company in Suffolk, Virginia (www.homecabling.com), but the construction process differs greatly. “There is a specific difference between the construction issues of a single-family home versus that of an MDU facility,” he said. “That is, the building must be pre-wired enough to satisfy an array of different occupants over time. That takes a lot of thought and planning. The single-family home tends to maintain ownership for a longer period of time. The amount of pre-cabling and integration of electronics can be more strongly driven by the owner of his personal home. This is generally more so than the developer/owner of an MDU, who is often driven to save costs more than improve the market value of a well-cabled MDU unit.”
To accommodate the technological needs of residents young and old, the installation of structured wiring has become an accepted–if not standard–solution. “It seems to me that everyone is putting in proper structured wiring in MDUs so that residents can use proper telephone support for high-speed modems, cable and computer networks, DSL, etc. Some buildings even contain built-in community Intranets that offer high-speed access. They’re making sure that they are supporting the wiring needs of this future connected generation, whether they are old or young.”
The more savvy building owners will typically deploy some type of structured wiring network on their property that will work with either the cable company or DBS-type of delivery system, or it will work with cable modems, DSL or Ethernet, said Richard Holtz, president of InfiniSys Inc., an electronic infrastructure and wiring design company headquartered in Daytona Beach, Florida (www.electronicarchitect.com).
“It doesn’t really care who the service provider is, or what the service is; it recognizes the fact that things will change over time, but the one thing that is not going to change is the demand for more technology-based amenities on the part of the resident,” Holtz explained.
Experts generally agree that it won’t be long before multiple telephone lines, shared, high-speed Internet connections and audio/video-on-demand become the standard, rather than the exception, for most MDU residents.
“We are going to see a major convergence of communication, networking and entertainment solutions,” Hanchette said. “If you’ve got an Ethernet backbone in place today, not only can you download that solution, but you can deliver that entertainment product to wherever you want, however you want, whenever you want. This concept of immediate gratification and the need for flexibility of that delivery, I think those pieces are going to converge with the communication, entertainment and networking solutions that fall into place.”
Carolyn Heinze ([email protected]) works from her office in Vancouver, Canada.