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Consultants in Partnership

Residential Systems Contractors, Architects, Builders, and Interior Designers Learn to Work Together Toward a Common Goal

Shopping for a home today is less an exercise in square footage than something more akin to a visit to an electronics store. The customer is relying on the salesmanthe builder or architectto inform them about the various built-in technical features of the most costly big box purchase most people ever make. And just as the threat of obsolescence triggers buyers remorse as soon as consumers hit the parking lot with their latest purchase, a wariness of a homes technical lifespan haunts those closing on a mortgage. If in the past the worst negotiations took place before closing, now there is a long road of high-tech compromises and adjustments to make after a homes purchase.

Today there are a growing number of technologies which buyers expect to find functioning in new or existing homes. In addition to basic electrical and mechanical systems, tech-savvy buyers also looking for sophisticated lighting control, thermostats, networking ability, cable and/or satellite television distribution, whole-house audio, and potentially a whole lot more. The customer wants more gadgets, but sometimes getting them installed is another matter, as architects and interior designers have a reputation for being at odds with residential systems installers on the battleground of aesthetic virtues.

It is definitely an exercise in cooperation, flexibility and most importantly diplomacy because it often becomes a negotiation, observed David Epstein, president of SEi/Sound Solutions in Los Angeles. But one of the things that I think is amazing, is how interior designers and architects have resigned themselves to the fact that they must have heating and air conditioning vents and returns, electrical outlets, light switches, thermostats, and security panels. But the same architects are still reluctant to accept in-wall speakers, video displays, and controls. Its been improving dramatically over the past 10 years, but we still find theres some resistance. They cant really argue not to put a light switch in, but they can argue not to put speakers in the wall.

Aesthetics arent the only factor in architects reticence to build technology into homes. Light switches and electrical outlets are tried and true technology at this point, whereas touchpanels and in-wall speakers have yet to stand the same test of time. However, this wait and see ethic is fading as more architects and builders are responding to buyers interest and treating technology as a selling point. Today its not so much about amenities like crown molding as it is amenities that have real entertainment value, noted Scott Hinton of H Space Redesign in Salt Lake City, Utah. Hintons background in interior design informs his work as a builder, and his trendy clientele are looking for bragging rights more than anything else. When it comes to things like whole-house audio, its less about the value of the home going up than the sale happening faster, because if someone is choosing between three houses that they really like, chances are the other two wont have whole-house audio or a home theater, and even if theyre all in the same price range, the technological amenities makes them want to buy my house more quickly.

Before a homes perceived or real value can be elevated by the presence of advanced technology, the collaboration between architects, builders, and residential systems installers needs to improve. Resources such as the CEA Tech Home rating system may eventually aid in the understanding between factions, but for now the outreach is occurring primarily on a grassroots level. Residential systems installers are presenting themselves as partners to architects so that when a client asks for certain types of technology, there are resources at the ready. Likewise, architects curiosity about these technologies is causing them to seek more insights from installers.

There is a learning curve that needs to go on in both areas, observed Leslie Nathan, executive director of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the AIA. Architects need a lot education in the sophistication of equipment placement with relation to room design and the various elements of home theater and other electronics. Meanwhile, residential systems designers need to understand the architects point of view as well. They should really be seen as consultants in partnership, similarly to how an architect works with an engineer. There has to become that kind of ongoing relationship where there is an establishment of trust.

Ideally, Nathan pointed out, residential systems designers would become involved in projects earlierin the concept or schematic design phases. That way, if a client designates a home theater room, the home theater designer could help adjust window placement or otherwise make it a more effective room, she said. People really want home theater and theyre getting more sophisticated in their demands. Certainly there may be a lot more people that will have multi-function rooms as opposed to a high-end construction with a single dedicated theater room, but nonetheless, its equally important to do the designing correctly when you have one room serving multi functions as it is to do one dedicated room.

There are several methods to employ to attain the goal of a long-term collaboration between architects and residential systems installers. First is an appeal to architects thirst for knowledge. Even with an AIA requirement for continuing education credits, many architects seek a more thorough understand of changing home technologies. But their focus will always be on the aesthetic end result, rather than the wow factor, so systems installers should appeal to the sense of making technology disappear rather than hawking more gadgets. Lighting control can tame both the costs and the on-wall mayhem of switches required to cover an unruly amount of square footage. HVAC control can help achieve energy conservation status. Unified AV control can eliminate remote control clutter. And never forget the aesthetic thrills provided by a central vacuum system. No more hoses. No more cords. These are the promises that architects like to hear.

Typically the interior designer is really promoting the finished product, the warmth and comfort of a room, observed Scott Jordan, system consultant for Electronics Design Group (EDG) in Piscataway, New Jersey. Its a good idea to let the interior designer know that youre selling electronics that add to how a room can feel, and its not something that has to be seen. But its important to add that in most areas of the home well acquiesce on speaker placement and other aesthetic considerations, but once it comes to the home theater or the performance media room, then we call the shots and they have to work around us.

Once these differences in operating perspective are established, then its a good idea to find some common ground. If youre marketing yourself as a technologist, thats a problem, said Marc Leidig of Ambiance Systems in Clifton Park, New York. A lot of designers and architects dont necessarily want all the technology there because its an encumberance to their design. Additionally, a lot of architects dont want it because they have a much deeper desire to really understand what youre doing. So what were really trying to focus on is being solutions providers. The point is to make it benefits driven rather than technology driven.

It seems the key to maintaining a relationship with an architect is to offer consultation and perspective on how a design can be improved with technology. My goal is to try to get architects and designers to always consider the benefits that could be derived from technology on every project, Leidig said. Then we have the opportunity to educate them on what is available. Some architects have that kind of relationship with us, and some just contact us when a client says one of the buzzwords, and the client is driving the process.

Another way to reach architects is through the topic of conservation. With new energy laws taking effect in states around the country, high-tech homes may play a role in compliance. Especially in California, Nathan said, there are new guidelines that architects need to learn and that the contractors and manufacturers will have to respond to and learn as well.

Embarking on the path toward a working relationship with an architect can begin with any level of introduction, but it seems that a good old fashioned meeting is the best way to go. In response to the AIAs requirements for continuing education, CEDIA and various manufacturers are offering AIA accredited courses which provide systems installers with a good opportunity for a lunch and learn that architects will find difficult to refuse.

These initial introductions can lead to a significant change in business practices, as demonstrated by EDG. We have a dedicated marketing department that works with trade partners that include AIA, ASID, and other similar organizations, said EDGs Jordan. So now were not campaigning for new business to the end user. Instead, we have an architect that has 20 clients. Its easier to go to the trade and develop a relationship where youre going to be referred instead of just constantly trying to get the end-user. Even if an end-user tells one or two friends about your company, theyre not going to give you the return that a trade partner will.

EDG has hosted trade partner dinners and other architect-centric events in order to cultivate a collaborative relationship and provide an educational exchange. But if that level of infrastructure seems intimidating, Jordan also has advice for smaller companies: Trade shows are great for exposure. Thats how we started. A dozen trade shows a year.

The outreach isnt just occurring on the electronic design side. AIA chapters are also seeking counsel from manufacturers and A/V systems experts. Nathan in particular has led the charge in Southern California and beyond. Im hoping to create more opportunities for CEDIA members and residential systems designers by providing a couple of basic rules to architects so that theres a dialogue, she said. If there is not a level of awareness that gets filtered down to the residential architects, how are they going to learn? The process begins with contractors contacting their local AIA chapters, and working together in product knowledge.

Perhaps most important in the ongoing exchange of expertise between architects, interior designers, and residential systems designers is the promotion of the new trade associated with modern homes. We need to share the message that there is a fourth trade, said Utz Baldwin, president of AD Systems in Houston, Texas. As a CEDIA Board Member and CEDIA Chair of Industry Events and Outreach Council, Baldwin has done his fair share of communicating with the design trades, and his message remains constant. The electronic systems contractor is the fourth trade, and any home thats being built today needs an electrician, a mechanical contractor, a plumber, and they need somebody to handle the low-voltage technology.

Baldwin is chairing CEDIAs 2006 Electronic Lifestyles Forum, taking place February 23-25 at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, California. The Electronic Lifestyles Forum was a brainchild of CEDIAs to get these four industry partners together to say what works, what doesnt work, how our processes will blend together, Baldwin said. Well also take a look at the actual technology and how it affects the way we live today and tomorrow.

Advancing the communication between architects, interior designers and residential systems integrators is a process that will hopefully be assisted by the commonalities among the trades, rather than the differences. These are four types of professionals working together on the same project, Baldwin observed. We all have a common goal. We all want a very happy client, we want referrals from that client, we want praise or recognition and we also want the job to be profitable. So its really important that we work together because architects are only going to be asked for more information and consideration for technology. Its not going to slow down by any means.

Kirsten Nelson is editor-at-large of Systems Contractor News.