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Idaho Dealer Learns Valuable Lessons from First ‘Giant Job’

Despite the efforts of trade associations, manufacturers and dealers themselves, on-the-job training is still one of the most relied-upon methods for learning the custom installation trade. Call it the "School of Hard Knocks" or "Trial and Error Learning," but it's often the real-world application of project management processes and installation techniques that provides the most effective testbed for custom installation designers and installers.

Despite the efforts of trade associations, manufacturers and dealers themselves, on-the-job training is still one of the most relied-upon methods for learning the custom installation trade. Call it the “School of Hard Knocks” or “Trial and Error Learning,” but it’s often the real-world application of project management processes and installation techniques that provides the most effective testbed for custom installation designers and installers.

Such was the case with Kevin Carey and his staff at Ketchum, Idaho’s Home Media after having worked on their “Chester Project,” which was their first integration job of “substantial” size and scope. Though, Kevin Carey and his crew of a dozen employees have attended to training both in-house and with vendors and trade associations, their client’s 22,000-square-foot home provided lessons that not only inspired Carey to develop better project planning processes, but also encouraged him to assess the capabilities of some of his vendor partners.

The project, which began in March, 1999, and was finished last July, was submitted for CEDIA’s Best Integrated Home ($300,001 to $600,000) award at CEDIA EXPO 2001. Based largely on the lessons Home Media learned on that project, the company continues to grow as and Carey and team no longer fear the “giant jobs” that they now tackle every day.

“There are a couple things we’ve changed, since then, regarding how we handle jobs that of size,” Carey said about the rolling Idaho residence.

Specifically as a result of the Chester Project, Carey said, HomeMedia tries to “break down” projects into manageable chunks, with separate project managers handling each subsystem.

“There’s no way one person can be in charge of the lighting, the heating and cooling, the automation and theater room and have it all come together on move-in day. It’s too much. So now we break those things up,” Carey explained. “One person will be in charge of the theater and its setup. One person is charge of the AMX chunk. One person is in charge of the Lutron chunk. Each of those people performs the estimating and helps pull it all together.

Carey, for his part, then serves as client liason, tracking the project’s progress and serving as the voice of the homeowner to his crew and vice versa.

“Basically I turned myself into the client,” Carey explained. “I’m the one that does the needs analysis with the customer and then with the people here within Home Media.”

For instance, design engineer/project manager, David Gertz, performs his own needs analysis on the theater space posing his questions to Carey, instead of directly to the customer. In turn, Carey provides programming engineer, Derrick Westrum, with basic outlines for the AMX Landmark control and Lutron lighting control systems and then the outline for the wiring layout would be handed to project manager, Champ Church.

“I stay away from the technical side,” Carey said. “I simply say, ‘I want this line on this menu to say this,’ and then I let my managers deal with the specifics. It’s almost like subcontracting to the employees within Home Media. As a result, there’s only one person ‘interfacing’ with the client.”

Carey says that this change in approach has been a “big step” toward giving his company the confidence and ability to go after other big jobs.

The project, which ultimately integrated audio, video, HVAC, a Lutron HomeWorks Interactive and even a huge granite sphere “water sculpture” to four AMX Viewpoint touchpanels, proved to be the ultimate testing ground for structured wiring technology.

“There were some wiring issues,” Carey explained. “The project changed the products we were to use on subsequent jobs.”

Because of what Carey and his team learned from The Chester Project, Carey has jettisoned residential-focused wiring packages and now specs commercial-grade products from companies like Ortronics and Leviton.

“We install products that are used more in the computer networking world, where everything’s rack-mountable and expandable. You get an open Leviton, 48-port panel and then you can put 48 different elements in there. Then if you want to make it bigger, you simply add another panel. We found that most of the residential low-voltage distribution panels just won’t hold enough to handle the larger homes that we target. With Leviton, they do have their smaller enclosures with modules that will handle a smaller house, but then they also have the products that can handle an office building or a campus.” As more and more custom installation firms look to expand into home networking, they face the challenges of low-margin technologies and the fear of ongoing, and costly, service calls. Again, Carey realized early on that there are some things that just aren’t profitable when it comes to home network installation and service.

“That’s another thing that was learned on that job,” Carey added. “We no longer provide tech support. We’ll make sure that the print server works and that you can talk between computers, and we will work with a client’s corporate IT or IS department to make sure their VPNs and videoconferencing work. But we’re not going to teach a client how to use Quickbooks or Outlook; we just make sure it works, and then advise the client to seek tech support elsewhere.”

In the world of “custom,” where the word “No” is rarely uttered to the client, this may seem an idealistic approach to say the least. Carey doesn’t argue that fact.

“It can be a tough thing with your ‘super client,’ but they eventually understand,” he said. “Otherwise we just have to charge them and keep charging them, and frankly it’s not what we’re best at. Once we explain that it’s the best choice for the client, economically, they realize the need to get somebody else that’s going to be their tech-support person.”

One Company’s Beginnings

Kevin Carey founded Home Media in the Autumn of 1996, shortly after having moved to Ketchum, Idaho, from Seattle. He says that he knew was going to form an A/V company; it was just a matter of picking the right city for his wife and two children.

In Seattle, Carey had worked for Mark Humphreys at Custom Design (later, Crow’s Nest Entertainment) and while in college had worked for an alarm company. Shortly after opening his Ketchum business, Carey brought on Ray Christiansen to handle the financial and administrative roles within the company, and Christianson has played a pivotal role with Home Media ever since.

With its 12 full-time and two part-time employees, the company’s growth, according to Carey, as been intentionally “very slow and careful.”

“We don’t really advertise. Instead we cater to builders and architects, treating them as our clients,” Carey explained.

Though he says he would love to have a showroom, Carey realizes that he cannot justify the expense right now. “Some of the stuff we do would be impossible to duplicate in a showroom anyway,” he said. “Instead, we have one of every keypad, one AMX DMS pad working and also little Lutron demos where we can demonstrate backlighting. We also use our past projects to show our work, whenever we can.”

While Ketchum’s Sun Valley resort area is not as well-known as other western towns like Vail, Aspen or Jackson Hole, Carey says his company has experienced noteable growth since its inception.

“We’ve practically doubled every year here except for last year,” he said. “We were flat after last year in gross, but our net actually went up. And this year looks like it’s going to be another controlled-growth year.”

In a market where a house owned by a “caretaker” could turn into a huge project for that caretaker’s client, there’s no such thing as a “minimum job” for Home Media. However, as more competition has entered their market, the company is beginning to “steer” away from more basic “builder-driven” projects, focusing more on integration-oriented, architect-led jobs.

“We are not necessarily walking away from the builders,” Carey explained. “What we are moving away from are the smaller, less-educated jobs. Because we can now do so much more and so much better, why only install a speaker and volume control job when the client wants lighting control, window treatment control, motorized window control, multi-zone heating and cooling control, three kids online at the same time, intercom, and on and on?”

And although on-the-job training has been valuable to Home Media’s learning process, Carey acknowledges the importance of their in-house training program as well as the efforts of CEDIA and their various manufacturer partners. In fact, the company’s “CE Program” is held on seven Wednesday mornings per quarter.

“Training is usually a big portion of our expenses every year. CEDIA has been huge for us,” Carey said. “We sent Derrick to get his certification for Lutron, AMX Landmark and Netlinx. Then David got his THX certification. I’ve been certified for Landmark, Lutron and LiteTouch. We also have several CEDIA-certified multi-level folks on staff.”

Project Origins

The Chester Project began as a referrel from one of Ketchum’s large local builders. One of the main goals of the client homeowners was for their “second home” to have as little wall clutter as possible. That meant integrating systems so that there was only one keypad on any given wall. In addition, Home Media’s clients wanted everything to be “bullet-proof.”

“The exterior lights up the driveway are attached to a runway. All of the boxes had to be metal boxes so that if one stripped, we could re-tap it. All of the rooms have flexible plastic conduit as well as fiber, as well as two-by-two running to them,” Carey said.

The basement of the house contains 250 feet of aircraft-grade aluminum cable trays on the ceiling to support the wiring and conduit network. As part of that structured cabling network Home Media pulled extra coax in anticipation of future RF applications. Those future applications came into play much earlier than expected for the Home Media team.

“When they put the telephone system in, the Lucent Transtalk proprietary cordless phones would not operate because of the chicken wire inside the home’s stucco walls,” Carey explained. “You have these giant RF shields all through the house.”

So by adding RF attennas to the system, Home Media was able to get the phones working and then still has the option of utilizing an 802.11 WiFi network for wireless laptops or a webpads, in the future.

Also within the wireless space, the Chester Project features satellite television control via RF. “What that means is if you’re modulating the satellite receiver, say on Channel 50, then you can go to the room next door and have a separate satellite receiver also modulated on Channel 50 and run its RF signal back down,” Carey explained. “Essentially it allows you to have the same user interface, the same set of instructions, the same remote for 50 satellite receivers.”

It all comes back to the real-world application of project management processes and installation techniques.

“I don’t know how many people are setting up their systems like this, but it’s something we figured out that works really well,” Carey concluded.

Jeremy J. Glowacki is editor of Residential Systems.