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Understanding What Architects Need from Tech Integration Firms

A primer for residential systems integrators.

Architect and Integrators
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When it comes to securing new business, there is nothing more valuable than being selected as the go-to low-voltage systems expert by the top architects in your market. Doing so assures a continual flow of new client introductions and a place on the project’s design team early in the project lifecycle, often before even a general contractor is selected. But what does a residential systems integrator need to do to end up in such an enviable position?

At a recent Azione Unlimited conference, following a panel discussion with notable residential architects, the system integrator members of Azione expressed their frustration, if not amazement, by the architects’ lack of awareness about the importance of electronic systems in custom homes. They were further surprised by the architects’ unfamiliarity with the requirements of such systems, and the corresponding costs.

Related: Why the Industry Needs to Align with Architects, Now

On the flip side, the system integrator’s questions and criticisms demonstrated their own lack of familiarity, appreciation, and respect for the architects’ expertise and priorities. This lack of understanding, along with an indifference toward the preservation of design elements in the selection and placement of equipment, and a failure to acknowledge the budgetary pressures integrators often add to a project, can combine to give the integration community a bad reputation.

That said, some system integrators seem to be very successful in their dealings with architects. What are the secrets to their success?

  1. First and foremost, they make understanding and respecting the role of the architect and their care-abouts a priority.
  2. Second, they educate the architect on the things that matter, and avoid techno-speak.
  3. Last, they speak the architect’s language — which is drawings.

Embracing these three areas of awareness and conduct will undoubtedly favorably impact your success with architects. Understanding how to have the right conversations at the right time will open the door to working more successfully with architects and scaling your integration business by being repeatedly called upon by reputable architects.

Before delving into how to best work with architects, it is valuable to understand the psychographic makeup of an architect. Architects are typically introverted engineer types, with a creative side. They are uncomfortable being “sold” to. They are students of architectural styles, building materials, and living environments. Like many skill-based professionals, tradespeople, and artists, most architects lack formal training in business even though they typically play the role of quarterback and call (most of) the plays on their projects. The reality is that most architects run lifestyle businesses and frankly are just trying to get by (like many of you).

Understanding the Role of the Architect
When an architect takes on a project and client, they accept a huge responsibility. Early on, they need to determine the best orientation of the home on the land and the optimal footprint based on site access, contours, views, and zoning restrictions. They need to lay out a floor plan that ensures that the number, placement, and size of the rooms meet the unique needs of the client while also maximizing views and other natural features of the habitat. Aesthetically, the architectural style must fit within the community and feature an attractive curb appeal. Trust me, low-voltage systems are not even in the architect’s purview at this phase of the design process, and rightfully so.

Once architects complete this schematic design phase, they embark on design development, sorting out details associated with the structural elements of the home, site drainage, rooflines, fenestration, ingress and egress, ceiling details, mechanical, plumbing and electrical requirements, and the type and level of interior finishes with a goal of defining enough detail to develop a budget and begin the permitting process. Successfully obtaining a building permit often requires involvement of several key consultants, such as a surveyor, civil engineer, geotechnical engineer, structural engineer, mechanical engineer, electrical engineer, landscape architect, and even an arborist. From a prioritization perspective, electronics still remain low on their list because low-voltage systems don’t need to be specified in order to obtain permits. This point was driven home by the following statement made by one of the architects on the Azione Unlimited panel: “As important as your industry members think they are in the process, architects must first address life/safety issues and a myriad of details required by the building department. Everything else is secondary.”

Ultimately, the architect embarks on construction drawings, which document all construction details, finishes, and materials required for a general contractor to build the home and provide a formal budget. This drawing set incorporates electrical plans, mechanical plans, landscape plans, lighting design, room and cabinet details, interior elevations, and the like. It is at this point that some aspects of what the home technologist offers finally hit the architect’s radar. Specifically, the architect will likely be concerned with lighting, shades, and an entry system. But amenities that are more personal in nature, like audio, video, security, and surveillance, are likely still not a priority unless specifically requested by the client.

What do Architects Need to Know?
System integrators who take the time to understand what an architect needs to know to do their job and provide the necessary education and resources are the ones who are more likely to win the hearts (and business) of architects and be welcomed on to project design teams. So, what do architects need to know about electronic systems for the home?

First of all, they need to know minimum space requirements and appropriate dimensions and placement for home theater rooms, equipment rooms/closets, and shade pockets. Rules of thumb for conduit, power, and cooling/ventilation requirements provide the guidance necessary to accommodate your future system design. If they don’t already know, architects should be educated on how to develop and document a lighting plan that accommodates a lighting control system, and a mechanical plan that supports HVAC zoning.

Finally, architects need to be aware of any equipment that may need structural support (i.e., lifts, ceiling-mounted projector, large TV on an articulating mount). Beyond that, they need budgetary parameters (i.e., from $10/sq. ft. for wiring infrastructure and baseline functionality to $50/sq. ft. for a full complement of systems). This information arms the architect with the tools they need to complete construction drawings, obtain permits, develop a budget, and be prepared for future discussions with their client and a favored system integrator about electronic system specifics. In other words, a system integrator who approaches the process in a manner that is understanding of an architect’s process and is helpful to that process is likely to become a valued and trusted resource rather than viewed as a pushy salesperson.

Related: Someday We’ll Find It: The Design Connection

Speak the Architect’s Language
Everything an architect does is communicated through drawings. Drawings are the architect’s language. Simply put, if your company doesn’t generate drawings as a standard practice, you will struggle to be successful with architects because you’re not speaking their language. Optimally, a drawing set generated by a systems integrator should include a site plan with conduit and power requirements for entry gate communications, cameras, speakers, and the like; a floor plan with device placement details; home theater plan view and elevation details; cabinet details inclusive of equipment placement and ventilation/air flow requirements for any cabinet in which equipment is to be placed; rack elevations inclusive of power and cooling requirements; and, finally, a schematic drawing to be used internally for system assembly and post-installation service needs.

The good news is that delivering on a complete drawing package not only puts you in the good graces of architects, it also substantiates charging for system design and engineering, and elevates the professionalism of your firm, making larger projects more attainable.

In closing, it is important to note that most architects acknowledge that they cannot possibly possess all the knowledge and know-how required to design every aspect of a project. They regularly rely on specialists to educate them and provide adjunct services. Once architectural firms identify their preferred resources, those professionals are used on project after project.

So, if you as a systems integrator can provide valuable education, offer your design services for a nominal fee (with a gentle request to be introduced to the firm’s clients at the appropriate time), deliver quality project documentation, and perhaps even have a showroom where the architect and their clients can be educated on the available technologies, you will succeed with architects in ways you’ve never imagined.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and how you’re finding success with architects. Drop me a line at [email protected] and let’s chat!

Randy Stearns is the CEO of D-Tools. He was the founder and president of Engineered Environments and, through 2014, was CEO of VIA. Randy has been an active volunteer for CEDIA, the industry’s trade association, and served on the CEDIA Board of Directors for eight years, including a term as Chairman.