What a technology integration specialist can do for custom builders
Custom builders who struggle to get their high-tech homes connected smoothly have an answer: the home technology integration specialist.
At the touch of a button, the right plans can transform a cozy conversation into a fantastic home theater.
Being well-connected takes on a whole new meaning these days as cinema-style home theaters, whole house audio systems, staged lighting programs and remote monitoring capabilities have gone from status symbol luxuries to standard amenities for high-end, tech-loving home buyers.
To keep pace with changing technology, more custom builders are adding a new member to their building team: the home technology integration specialist.
Independently certified home technology integrators are cross-trained in the fundamentals of home construction as well as the technology behind low-voltage wiring; data systems; home entertainment and distribution; telecommunications; lighting; and security. They provide builders with expert guidance on how to wire a home to accommodate a client's current needs and desires and ensure that once those systems are in place, they will adapt to future uses.
When it comes to incorporating home automation features into homes today, "preparedness is the key," says Chicago builder Robert Burk II, co-founder of UrbanStreet Properties. "As with the other components of the home building process, the builder needs to have a general understanding of the systems but understand that they are not experts in the field. They don't have to be as long as they pick the right partner."
"Many builders continue to be intimidated by the custom integrator," says Brian Post, CEO of Evanston, Ill.-based Louis Clark, a luxury residential technology and entertainment consultancy that serves the Chicago metro area. "They are embarrassed that they don't understand how all of the technology that comes together in today's wired homes really works. It is really important that they not be afraid to ask questions."
|Studying the preliminary drawings of a custom home with the builder allows integrator Jason Gotz (standing), owner of Genesis Home Technologies, to identify the best location for low-voltage wiring runs, wall-mounted controls, lighting and audio components. The review also allows him to plan for any necessary structural requirements, including equipment rooms and behind-the-wall support for today's huge flat-panel TVs.|
Integrator as a Member of the Design Team
Ideally, the home integration specialist should be a consulted as an important part of the design team and brought in while the home is still being planned.
"Before each of my projects," says builder Todd Kihm, of Kihm Residential in Evanston, Ill,, whose homes sell in the $1 million to $2 million range, "I go to my tech consultant and ask, 'What has changed since my last one? What do I need to know now?'"
"Establishing a relationship with a technology partner is imperative for luxury home builders," agrees Burk. "They know the market and the proven solutions. Having them on board from the start makes it much easier to coordinate the final appearance of the equipment with the home's lighting plans, ceiling details, HVAC venting and overall look."
Anish Button, marketing director for Genesis Home Technologies, an award-winning home technology integrator located in Beaverton, Ore., agrees. "It is very important for us to get involved as early as possible," Button says. "We need to determine just how far the client really wants to take things in terms of home technology. This can make a big difference from both from a cost and a design perspective."
"Technology is developing and changing so fast today that it is really impossible for builders to keep up without some help," agrees Thad Glavin, managing partner with Louis Clark . "When it comes to high-end projects in particular, the early involvement of a technology consultant can be the single most controlling factor in determining the success of that project from a home automation perspective. Mistakes discovered late in the game cost more to fix and can really upset the client."
Another plus to bringing the tech consultant on board early, says Glavin, is that it allows the team to plan for these costs in their budget.
"We generally provide the wiring infrastructure in the base price of the home and have the technology contractor provide design services and equipment costs to the client directly," says Burk. "These costs can be folded into the mortgage but are borne by the buyer in the form of an 'extra.'"
Technology consultants can be an excellent resource for builders wanting to get or keep up to speed on advances in all areas of home automation and entertainment, according to Button. Genesis Home Technologies sponsors builder-targeted classes on the subject in conjunction with the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland.
Planning ahead for structural, wiring and ventilation requirements is essential when integrating entertainment systems into a client's living space.
"This is an excellent way to share new information with builders," says Button, who also serves as the HBA's chairman of the Education Committee. "We tell them what's new on the market and how they can make money incorporating technology into their projects"
The goal of the classes, which may cover the industry as a whole or focus on a single particular tech feature, says Button, is to provide the builder with an overview without overwhelming them with information that they don't need. "We appreciate that builders are very busy people, and it is not easy for them to give up even an hour of their time. Rather than being overly technical, we just tell them what they need to know. We also encourage them to use us as a reference when they have questions whether or not we are under contract with them for a specific project."
"What builders really need to understand is the purpose of the equipment, the importance of proper cooling, dedicated electric outlets, proper clearance around the equipment and that the pre-wire and installation phase can be a long process," says Glavin. Louis Clark's managers are certified technology integration instructors and work closely with builders on an individual basis.
"The custom builder market can be very fragmented, and we find that it is often easier to work with them one-on-one or through referrals," says Glavin.
The company also holds classes in conjunction with local ASID and AIA chapters.
"Builders have to learn to budget correctly for technology," says Button. "This is really out of whack today. I see builders set budgets anywhere from $1,000 to $60,000. I can safely say that 100 percent of the time $1,000 is not going to be enough."
|Today's touchpad controls simplify the operation of the "wired" home by consolidating functions such as sound, lighting, temperature and security in one location.|
For spec projects, Button advises that builders plan on spending $1 to $2 per square foot for high-quality structured wiring. "In addition to that, they need to add anywhere from $10 to $20 per square foot for AV control, lighting and security."
"We recommend that builders plan to provide the basic proper wiring infrastructure in all of their projects, whether it is a custom or spec-built home," says Post. "With that in place, we can work with the client or future homeowner to do whatever they want with it."
Depending on the size of the home, Post estimates the average cost for pre-wiring alone to be $20,000. This includes zoned audio, multiple locations for TVs, data drops in every room, alarms, smoke detectors, key pads and touch panels exclusive of equipment. "We have builders who spend $60,000 to $80,000 on pre-wire and equipment just to differentiate themselves from other builders in the marketplace. Depending on the size of the house, homeowners can expect to spend 10 percent of their total cost of their home on electronics and control."
Although structured wiring can be installed by an electrical contractor, both integrators strongly discourage taking this route. For their projects, they insist on installing the wiring themselves.
Burk agrees. "Having the technology contractor wire the home provides for consistency of materials and labor and, most importantly, centralizes the responsibility."
"Wiring for home automation really presents some complicated engineering challenges," says Button. "We never sub out the wiring because it is just too easy to mess it up. The benefit that we
Low-voltage wiring runs must be carefully planned, secured and documented to avoid being damaged during the finish stages of construction.
offer is that we are in the field working with technology every day. With our experience, we know that things do not necessarily act the same way in the field as they are designed to work on paper. There is a big difference between pulling line voltage and low voltage, and it requires a whole different set of knowledge and training."
Problems arising from a damaged wire can be much more difficult to troubleshoot than an equipment problem.
Louis Clark creates a "visual diary" of the wiring runs in every project, including detailed diagrams and photos taken before the walls are closed up. "This makes things a lot easier if we need to have access later on for repairs. We know exactly where to look and what to avoid," says Glavin.
Louis Clark also uses a diagnostic computer to identify any problems in the line and how far from the computer they are. "We test everything after installation and then again once the walls are closed up," says Glavin.
"Home technology integrators are experts at disguising things," says Button.
Having multiple controls for lighting, temperature, security and equipment control, sometimes referred to as "wall clutter" on a single wall is a big "no no" in custom homes. Today all of these functions can be combined into a single tabletop touch screen or wall-mounted panel that is much less obtrusive and more convenient for the homeowner to use.
There is a select group of homeowners, say the experts, who want to show off their equipment, and for them it is important to make sure everything that is out in the open looks really high-tech. The majority of clients, however, don't want to see the "brains" that control their home's functions. In most cases, electronic equipment is incorporated into one or more racks discreetly located in a dedicated closet or room. Having everything together simplifies equipment interface, calibration and service. And making it work generally requires a specialist.
Most builders leave the responsibility for post-installation client education and warranty issues to the technology contractor. "Their ability and willingness to do this is a critical factor in why I choose to go with them in the first place," says Burk.
For Louis Clark, basic support after the project is installed is 90 days after the substantial completion document is signed by the client. After that, the client is moved to a support and service plan that is broken down into two categories: AV equipment and IT equipment. The company also manages the standard equipment warranties for the homeowner for the duration of the manufacturer's warranty period.