Technology and the New Home Team
it’s imperative to include technology in early conversations with your clients and to get your trusted tech integrator involved.
BY Bill Hensley
“we become a team and then become team client”
WE ENDED THE “LIVING IN PLACE” ARTICLE IN THE SUMMER ISSUE with this quote from award-winning designer Toni Sabatino, talking about the relationship between the designer, architect, builder and technologist in a design-build project. That article focused on creating comfortable living spaces for our aging parents, but the team concept is important for every design-build project.
In this issue, let’s step back and focus on the technology as it applies to design-build projects, what that means to a key member of the “team” – the technology integrator responsible for the home control and automation – and how one architect is introducing technology even before the integrator meets the client.
from MacGyver to the singularity
So much of what we use and do in the home is enabled by — or driven by —technology, and this technology is getting better and better at communicating across platforms. Back in the day the best home technology pro was at least a little bit “MacGyver,” able to make use of what was at hand to deliver a seamless integration. While the Singularity is still beyond the horizon, the tools in the integrator’s toolbox are more powerful than ever. And because everything is becoming technology the homeowner is aware of more, interested in more, and afraid of less than ever before.
Nuances lie between the generations. Millennials may be more interested in the technology itself and more comfortable navigating a bunch of separate apps on the phone, but that doesn’t mean they always prefer that approach. Aging boomers may shy away from some of the newer tech concepts, but they all have decades of experience mastering the remote control for the TV and cable box. The days of 12:00 flashing on the VCR are deep in our past. It’s imperative that Team Client fully understands the client needs, particularly around technology.
“Technology intersects almost every aspect of a new home and is a critical path element in the project, so it is imperative to include technology in early conversations with the client and to get your trusted technology pro involved early.”
LOCATION AND SPACE
The consideration is more than just where the equipment can be efficiently stored. Are there special cooling or ventilation requirements as well? Answers to this will impact HVAC considerations.
While a recessed projector screen may fit comfortably between ceiling joists, a large screen television mounted on the wall or rising from the floor deserves special planning.
Almost everything related to control connects to the network. With Video over IP becoming more common in residential projects, particularly the larger projects, a well thought out network cable plan can be the difference between success and failure.
Yes, robust Wi-Fi is expected. The structure and materials of the home, plus the intent of the control experience can dictate the best locations for the Wi-Fi access points.
Today’s homes go well beyond the switch or dimmer on the wall. Integrating lighting control into the home control and automation system is essential in creating a fluid and intuitive environment (more on that later).
Just as the modern home leverages window placement to assist temperature control through the seasons, window coverings — particularly motorized shades — are an important element of climate control and go hand-in-hand with the lighting plan.
As thermostats get smarter, they are more capable than ever integrating with the home control system to control the HVAC system.
More than just intrusion alarms, the modern security system includes video cameras, almost always integrated into the control system. Again, pre-planning the category cable run to the desired camera location eliminates re-planning later.
There’s a reason some still refer to the home technology integrator as the “AV team.” Audio/video distribution is an important element in a homeowner’s lifestyle. Depending on the system, some mix of category cable, HDMI cable, or speaker wire will be delivering audio or video and it’s essential that these are planned in advance and installed before the walls are sealed up.
With more entertainment moving outdoors, technology moves with it. Audio most likely means speaker wire, either 8-Ohm or 70volt. Depending on local code, the wire might need to go in to a conduit, which needs installing before outdoor hardscape.
It’s the home technology integrator who “personalizes” the various “smart” technologies in the home, connecting them so they work together and even influence each other for an intuitive experience.
In each of these areas, the technology integrator is more than just a subcontractor, but a key resource ensuring client success.
let there be light
One area where residential technology integrators are delivering additional value is lighting. For the integrator it goes beyond integrating the lighting control system with the home automation system. “We see successful integrators focusing more on lighting than ever before,” says Mike Libman, National Sales Director, Residential Systems at DMF Lighting. “My approach with all integrators is to treat lighting as a solution and manage all the lighting in the home – the controls and fixtures, both indoors and outdoors.”
For the five percent of projects on the high end that have a lighting designer on board—the larger, luxury projects—everything related to lighting is typically specified by that designer. But for a large volume of projects the integrator often controls the lighting fixture specs in addition to lighting control. Some architects will call out fixtures, but many do not, and a reflected ceiling plan with circles indicating position-only is common. In fact, many architects welcome this involvement of the home technology integrator. The integrator has the opportunity to elevate the discussion by including it with other technology considerations, including control systems and motorized shades.
architects embracing technology
One architect who is definitely involving technology early in new home projects is award-winning Co-Founder of Palo Alto, California based M•Designs Architects, Malika Junaid. With clients including executives from Apple, Box, Facebook, Google and Whatsapp, she has designed and led some very large — and equally innovative — home projects.
“We always try to bring the technology partner into the project early,” says Junaid. “But first we are including technology in our discovery discussions with the client, keeping the conversation at a high level initially. This is a subset of the client’s overall desires and goals for the home. We’ll discuss security, audio and video, the theater, and more, while identifying the devices or systems in the home the client would like to control.”
Junaid reports that clients are very receptive to this approach. After the floorplan is presented, the more detailed discussions of the home technology specifics begin. For example, around security the discussion can expand from the client’s general thoughts to specifics such as where they want cameras, what they want to monitor—which can include pets, even horses and chickens—and how the client wants to monitor, such as with push notifications to a smart phone.
“COVID-19 is changing how clients think about their new spaces, indoors and outdoors,” continues Junaid. “Outdoor audio was always important in the homes we’re creating, but now the outdoor spaces add the value of social distancing. Outdoor cinema can feel safer for the kids and their friends. Indoors we’re rethinking everything from the low-tech mud room to the high-tech home office.”
The M•Designs team gives each client a checklist for technology and automation, but Junaid is clear that this is not just for the client to check off what the client has heard about from friends. It’s about identifying what’s truly important and establishing priorities accordingly to personalize the home experience. The checklist also helps the client “know what they don’t know,” such as the space needed for system racks. These are planned in a way that they can easily double as closets if racks are not required. Pre-wiring is another example of something the client is likely not thinking about; the M•Designs team always plans to pre-wire for everything. If budget is a concern, the client and the team can select not to install the technology but will still be ready for a later upgrade when desired.
“We have general technology discussions with the client from the beginning of the project, then introduce the technology consultant to the homeowners right after the floor plan is ready,” says Junaid. “Prior to this we are testing the client’s excitement and their budget expectations. We discuss these with the technology consultant before they meet the client so that they are aware of the general budget guidelines. It’s essential that they don’t scare the client who may be more budget conscious with too many ideas.”
In this process the team focuses on explaining what the various smart devices and systems are that they can use, what each system does and how they can be managed through a single control system. At every step, they get to know the clients a little more and understand any technology apprehensions. Some may not be very tech savvy and uncomfortable navigating screens on a touch panel, but feel more comfortable with voice control, such as through Alexa or Google Assistant.
“One thing we’ve learned, continues Junaid, “is that occasionally we need to remind the technology consultant that the control and automation is not a one-size-fits-all experience. It must fit the personality and needs of the client.”
And Junaid emphasizes the importance of developing a broad network of subcontractors in all areas that touch technology. “The integrator might have a great off-the-shelf solution for a drop-down screen or rise-from-cabinet television.” She says. “But as the architect, we might push the limits with custom solutions for some projects and have already planned the mechanical automation before the technology consultant comes into the project.” An example of this was a recent project in Los Altos Hills, California. The client wanted a large screen television in a room that also had a spectacular view through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Thus, the TV needed to hide when not in use so it would not obstruct the view. M•Designs relied on a subcontractor from Los Angeles to design and install a lift that rises from the floor and then turns to viewing position.
technology should never be frustrating
Ultimately, this is a key deliverable from the home technology professional on Team Client, tying everything together so it works seamlessly. That rise-from-the floor 4K television needs integration through the control system so that as it rises the lights dim, the shades go down, the sound system comes up, and the perfect “moment” is achieved. This is the magic that the client dreamed about, the experience that elevates everything else in the home. When done right, it feels personalized, it feels intuitive. It feels like the home is paying attention.