A Constant State of Change
Aug 1, 2000 12:00 PM, Rosanne Soifer
For the A-V systems integrator, what technically qualifies as a residentialinstallation is constantly under revision, as are its technological needs.
According to Webster's New World Dictionary, the word "home" may be definedas the place where one lives, the place where one was born or raised, ahousehold and its affairs, or the natural environment of a plant or animal.Webster's notwithstanding, the home is under constant redefinition. It wasnot that long ago, for instance, that having a home office meant shoving afew pieces of furniture out of the way to make room for a desk, filingcabinet and an extra phone jack. As more Americans, due to a variety ofsocioeconomic factors and demographic shifts, began to work at home on morethan just a casual basis and start home-based businesses, the concept of ahome office evolved into one of a dedicated workspace that strove toreproduce at least the technological environment of the commercial office.
Further, as big and not-so-big businesses began to outsource many of theirfunctions to independent consultants and give certain types of employeesthe option of telecommuting, the definition of the home must be redefinedto include the word "work." In what could be seen as a paralleldevelopment, many forms of public entertainment - movies, concerts andlectures - are now reconfigured for home enjoyment in the forms of video,home theater and Internet chat rooms. As such, the lines between work, homeand entertainment are getting blurrier, and the high-tech era has createdan unprecedented demand for technology-ready live and work environments.Savvy builders and developers are meeting these needs by incorporatingbusiness amenities into residential environments - in other words, byjumping into the telecommunications business. According to a recent NewYork Times article, people moving into new developments or plannedcommunities consider not having structured wiring or high-speed access tobe a deal breaker. New homes, lofts, condos and even rental apartments thatare technology ready will use this as a sales pitch. To get a line, so tospeak, on how this may affect your business, I spoke with builders,architects, A-V contractors and electronic design engineers.
Defining your client, according to New York City-based designer andcontractor Ted Rothstein, will determine when and how you get in on thejob. Rothstein's company, TR Technologies, has designed systems for clubs,studios and residences. He said, "Whoever your client is - the architect orthe end user - will determine your role. What sometimes occurs is that theresident hires the architect who, in turn, hires you. The architect is yourclient, but the resident is whom you must please. Even if you're billingthe architect, the resident is really paying you. This is a critical areaand a potential conflict - great sound vs. great architecture. Manyarchitects don't really know what they're doing regarding sound. Forexample, they tend to want to position loudspeakers out of sight foraesthetic reasons."
Jeff Hoover, president of Audio Advisors in West Palm Beach, said, "There'sa big difference when you get a referral from an architect at the beginningof a job or if you get in on the builder level. Architects generally don'thave a clue, for instance, about home theater. Here you have the chance toeducate them and to steer them towards items like correct windowtreatments. With builders, most technology, including lighting, has alreadybeen done by the time they call you, and if you have to redo anything, theclient winds up paying for it twice."
Some architects, however, are aware of technology's impact and try to takepreventive steps. New York City-based architect Mike Stallone said,"Acoustics and sound are integral to any building. You don't always havethe situation where the client wants the technology on the drawings - hemight not even be aware of it - but the architect should be and contact theprofessionals."
Orrin Charm's California-based company, Infinysis, specializes inelectronic architecture for residences. His clients are the builders, notthe inhabitants. He said, "I've worked with two different classes ofinstallations - telecommuters who need `desk connections' for phones andcomputers and home theaters, where loudspeakers and other wiring can bebuilt into the wall. Home-theater owners generally have a fair amount ofdisposable income, which is good for anyone involved with soundproofing,speakers and wiring."
Technology-ready residences have forged profitable alliances with suchcommunications conglomerates as Bell Atlantic, IBM and Lucent. For buildersand developers, aside from consumer demands, a crucial reason to getinvolved with the technology from the beginning is ongoing profits. Thebuilders get a cut each month from the stream of revenue that passesthrough the Internet, cable and phone lines after the project is completed.This opportunity exists because developers own the land that carries thewiring from the homes to the outside world. This is especially trueregarding outlying suburbs and planned communities.
Not only are new upscale homes offering technology, but also rentalproperties. Roseland Properties owns Portofino, a planned community inJersey City on the Hudson River waterfront with sound and service built inby Bell Atlantic. Said Vice President Jamie Block, "What we advertise asthe RoseLink Networked Apartment makes rentals more attractive." Rothstein,however, said that in New York City, the biggest upcoming space market isin lofts, which is where he gets involved at the blueprint stage.
Other planned communities, such as Harbor Isles, FL, Sienna Plantation,Missouri City, TX, and Centennial outside Indianapolis, currently offer adetailed advanced telecommunications infrastructure, including Cat5cabling. Sienna also offers a combination of fiber optics and structuredin-home wiring services through a single source provider. When thetechnology services are bundled in this manner, many developments stressthat homeowners might have to pay only one fee for usage, such as through ahomeowners association, at a cost less than what they might pay toindividual carriers.
Other installations, such as home theater, tend to be personalized towardthe individual resident and are not necessarily as workable on a massbasis. Said New York City theater and sound designer Gary Harris, "Ifyou're doing home theater, and the client has otheraudio/video/communications work in the offing as well, find out what thisentails before you start in order to cut down on the amount of wiring. Ifthis other work involves you, try to do it all at the same time. Hometheaters in apartment and condo environments often pose a unique set ofcriteria to be met. First of all, because of the proximity to otherapartments, the room must be insulated and draped. A lot also depends onthe age of the construction; post-war is generally poorer than pre-warunless it was designed by a high-end architect."
Rothstein added, "A home theater in a smaller apartment or condo settingmay need additional acoustic treatment and isolation."
Working with existing architecture and design challenges varies accordingto the venue. For a home theater installation, it may involve dealing withpre-existing invisible loudspeakers. Said Harris, "If the client doesn'twant the installation to look like a sound lab, take him to a soundshowroom and let him see how visible loudspeakers can become part of theoverall decorating scheme."
Occasionally, the limitations are too great when the residence is alreadyoccupied, and moving the inhabitants becomes impossible. Hoover said, "Itis expensive to retrofit wiring and do the minimum amount of damage at thesame time. Retrofitting becomes a tradeoff between what the client wantsand what they actually need to make the project work."
Charm added, "When you're dealing with a fait accompli - typically aretrofit situation - again, it's want vs. need . Wireless network satellitevideo is becoming a more workable option because the cost comes down."
Negotiable and non-negotiable factors
Obviously, almost anything can be negotiated, and what it usually comesdown to is a lot of compromising from everyone, especially if it involvesfinal appearance. Said Charm, "You may have to point some clients in thedirection of concessions regarding cosmetics if the budget is fixed."
Similarly, Harris said, "In home theaters, for example, many clients wantmoving type walls, decorative lighting and draperies. That's all negotiablebecause it really happens after the fact, after your major work iscompleted."
Said Mitchell Klein, president/CEO of Media Systems, Boston, "Brand namesare negotiable. We try to be an advocate for the client's needs and look atbrands and products as tools, not the end result. We don't push one brandover the other."
Non-negotiables tend to involve harder concepts, such as quality andsafety. Rothstein said, "The minimum standard of A-V quality isnon-negotiable, even if the budget is squeezed low by the client. When thathappens, you'll need to reduce the amount of room coverage proportionately."
Safety is another area that must not be compromised, not only for theclient's sake, but also for the installer's because he may wind up beingliable (depending on when you come in on a project and who your directclient is) should anyone get hurt. Harris said, "You must ascertain thatthe space can electronically and structurally support what you're doing,and sometimes, I've even recommended that the client install some kind ofintegrated security system to protect his investment."
Sometimes, even final cosmetics wind up as a non-negotiable, said Hoover."I need to determine if the client wants the system and all the technologyhidden or if they want all of it to be seen, especially if it's a bigstatus symbol."
Permits and licenses
The only consistency that I found on almost any facet of the topic of hometechnology was that it is inconsistent. In some municipalities, A-V workseemed to edge onto construction and electrical domains, thereby requiringpermits. In other instances, that was not the case.
Klein offered some basic definitions. "First, a permit is a document thatgives you the right to do the work. It must be posted at the site. InBoston, at least, you need it for anything done in the residence by anyoneother than the residence's owner, even for low-voltage wiring. Mostinstallers don't know that. Driving a car offers a good analogy. A permitis like a car registration. Having a license, like a driver's license, iswhat gives you the ability to take out a permit."
Sometimes permits are a state issue, but the local municipalities are oftenasked to interpret it - usually in their favor - because permits are aneasy source of revenue for the municipality. Hoover said, "Nearlyeverything in Florida - building, low-voltage wiring, etc. - has to bepermitted. In Palm Beach, a lot of homes are landmarked, and you can onlyalter up to 50% of the structure, so sometimes the home's history has to beresearched as well."
When you are the primary contractor on a project - in other words, if yourinvolvement doesn't come via a builder or an architect - you may need toresearch the status of the residence, particularly if it is old, and yourwork involves a good deal of remodeling, reconfiguring and retrofitting ofthe original structure.
"If," said Harris, "you're in the position to hire an electrician, heshould get the permits. You, however, must know the building code. Foranything major on New York City, you need a demolition permit for doingsomething like changing the shape of the room, which is common in hometheater. Remember, a building code is an evolving, living thing, andchanges in it are sometimes based on the amounts of accidents that occur.I've found the best solution, with the client's approval, is to hire anarchitect and work as a team."
Charm said, "Knowledge of permits is critical. For example, you may notneed a permit for low-voltage wiring, but if you go into walls, you do.Usually, if the builder is the client, he gets the permits."
Rothstein finds that permits are almost never a concern when he terminatesa project at an apartment or condo venue because they are generally handledby the architect or the electrician.
In the end, be forewarned, and resolve the permitting administrivia rightwhen you come on board so that you do not find yourself at the end of acostly pass-the-buck situation.