By Scott Gibson. Custom electronics designer Charles Apostolos is making his first house call of the day, a 160-mile round-trip from his office in Woburn, Mass., to Keene, N.H., to see a potential client. The place isn't hard to spot--it's a neat, two-story Colonial with two Mercedes parked outside--and Apostolos plunges into a tour as soon as he arrives.
Almost immediately, he smells trouble. A basement room earmarked for a home theater has an awkward alcove at one end that will complicate screen and speaker installation, and renovation planning is too far along to move the theater.
Apostolos can make the space work, but he will have to make some design compromises, and the job will cost the client more than expected. "It's a lot more work than he anticipated," Apostolos says on the two-hour drive back to Massachusetts. None of this extra work would be necessary had the client thought to bring Apostolos and the builder together sooner. Now, they'll be playing catch-up.
It's hardly an unusual problem for Audio Visions, the firm that Apostolos and partner Kostas Reissis started as a part-time venture in 1994. The systems they install include big-screen DVD home theaters, whole-house HVAC and lighting controls, computer networks, security cameras, and extensive audio and video networks. "We're tying everything together with computers," he says. "You can control different things in your home: garage doors, lights, fireplaces, TVs, alarm systems, cameras, whirlpools. You name it. Anything you like can be tied in."
Audio Visions works the high end of the housing market. Clients with multi-million dollar mansions spend as much as $450,000 on electronics. While few people can afford that kind of luxury, Apostolos sees the technology trickling into the mass building market. For instance, many home buyers now want a multi-room audio network or a local computer network. Installing these systems requires specialized skills that most electrical subcontractors don't have. (Audio Visions' 15 employees include an AutoCAD engineer, a wiring specialist, and a team of installers.)
Learn the lingo
Most jobs start with visits like the one Apostolos made to New Hampshire. Once a client accepts the proposal, the company creates a design. His installers run wire while the home's walls and floors are open. Later, when all other trades have finished work, they install equipment; such as racks of audio and video equipment, wall-mounted touch pads, wide-screen projectors, speakers, and special wall outlets for computer networking.
Builders who don't understand the language of these new technologies will be left behind. To work effectively with the homeowner and the electronics sub, the builder needs at least a working knowledge of what goes into the home's electronic circulatory systems. "The builder really needs good contact and communications with a company like ours," Apostolos says. "They don't have to know everything that we do, but in time [these systems are] going to be as common as central vacs."
Apostolos concedes that some builders resent working with electronics specialists, viewing them as meddlesome or picky, and worrying that their demands will make it more difficult to meet construction deadlines. "To me it's not true," he says. "We'll essentially manage the project with the builder." He adds that builders who can't provide homeowners with the technology they want will be out of business within a decade or two. "Clients are educated and know what they want. If the builder isn't able to support [those wants], he's not in the loop."
There are two cardinal sins builders routinely commit, says Apostolos. Both will cost the homeowner and builder money and aggravation.
One of them is not inviting the electronics specialist into a project early enough. The other is not telling the specialist about change orders.
To avoid the first, the builder has to call the electronics specialist in at the design stage. "The plans will be thought out more carefully," he says. "There won't be windows in the media rooms." Not doing so may force the builder to make changes during construction or pressure the clients to settle for less than what they had expected. Either way, the result will be ruffled feathers or frayed nerves.
Case in point: Apostolos' tour of the New Hampshire house. Long before Apostolos showed up, the client had hired a builder and developed a renovation plan. As Apostolos tours the house, he notes that the room set aside for the home theater is less than ideal. Although another room looks much better on paper, it is already tagged for another use. Minor changes in the foundation plans may solve the problem, but the client is reluctant to ask the builder. "It's too late," he says.
The second sin--the builder who makes on-the-fly changes without consulting the electronics sub--can be equally disruptive. For example, alterations to a wall or ceiling may seem trivial to a builder trying to solve a structural problem or find a place to route wiring and mechanicals. But those changes may rob the electronics specialist of a wire chase or degrade the home's acoustics.
On an after-hours visit to another project, Apostolos gropes in a dark basement for the fuse panel and turns on lights so he can check the progress. There are no surprises until he gets to the home theater, whose wall dimensions and locations are vital to system performance. In one corner, where speakers are planned, Apostolos spots an unexpected heating duct. It pops out through a wall, climbs the wall, and disappears into the ceiling. "You want to kill yourself," he says of unexpected changes like these. "I want to kill the builder, too. But, you have to come up with something." He shrugs and smiles. Something will work out.
But again, making it work will cost time and money. To prevent such problems, Apostolos suggests builders view electronics not as a pain but as a potential profit center. Clients seem to show far more appreciation for their electronics network than they ever would for ho-hum building components like plumbing, roofing, and concrete. So by hiring the right subcontractors, builders would please clients and collect additional management fees at the same time.
Builders would be smart to install structured wiring and in-wall wiring conduits even when homeowners aren't immediately interested in a sophisticated electronics system. A house that has been pre-wired can be brought up to date quickly. When homeowners decide they want to take advantage of some great new technology they've heard about, they need only hook up to a wire that's already there or pull wire in an existing conduit.
A home that easily adapts to new gadgets will enhance your reputation as a forward-thinking builder. One that doesn't could come back to bite you. "If you don't at least prepare for this stuff," says Apostolos, "you begin to look negligent."
Scott Gibson is a freelance writer in Steep Falls, Maine.
Finding an Installer
Electronics specialists are represented by the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA), an Indianapolis-based trade organization founded in 1989. It now has some 2,000 members in dozens of countries (800-669-5329). The association's Web site includes a locater service to help find design and installation firms by zip code. To foster better relationships between builders and electronics designers, CEDIA has created the Builders Council task force and is recruiting builders to get their views. Interested builders should contact CEDIA president Jeff Hoover at firstname.lastname@example.org.