The problem with bringing on a low-voltage contractor to work on projects involving dozens or hundreds of new homes is that these contractors are often too small to handle the logistics of getting the job done on time and on budget. These low-voltage contractors or custom electronics (CE) design-and-install firms are not apt to be well-capitalized, and they can't compete on price.

A recent survey of more than 1,000 residential builders from Dallas-based Parks Associates bears this out. Distributors, manufacturers, and “other” channels score higher than custom installer/integrators when home builders rank partners by preference. Price is most important for builders, but broader product selection and better support also ranked high in choosing a provider for nonstructural technology gear.

AVAD, a Van Nuys, Calif.-based company, has what may be a solution to this channel dilemma in its dealer-to-builder (D2B) program, which matches builders with custom electronics companies that have undergone a training and certification program. AVAD has also created a distribution network and can provide builders with turnkey product and marketing packages for home theater, whole-house audio, lighting control, and central vacuum systems.

AVAD began in 1998 as a marketer, supplier/middleman, and distributor of the electronic gear that goes into a digital home. Primarily, it sought to impose order on a marketplace that was too diffuse and risky for the national and international makers of consumer electronics or, as Joe Piccirilli, AVAD's executive vice president for marketing and new business development puts it, “to address inefficiencies in the custom installation channel.” About four years ago, it began a D2B program to match builders with installers and products with projects.

“Builders were confused by products, and they were worried that the people who were putting our stuff in knew nothing about production home building. In the production building world, when the dry-wall guy says he's coming tomorrow, he actually means it. And builders want things in packages. And they want to make sure that when it gets into the home, it works.”

A LOCAL PRESENCE AVAD developed a national network of about 100 custom electronics contractors, each of whom underwent training, financial background checks, and a certification process. AVAD works with CEDIA, the Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association, on educational and certification programs. AVAD's 28 distribution centers, with a handful more expected by year-end, target builders' regional divisions.

Regional—as opposed to national—distribution aligns most effectively with large home builders' regional and local autonomy. It also enhances security. “You can't leave our stuff on a job site,” says Piccirilli.

AVAD assembles equipment based on what home buyers, installers, and builders specify. One reason they provide this service is that, as Piccirilli puts it, “Outside of Sony, nobody can provide a complete home entertainment solution, and even Sony has problems doing that.” Among AVAD's CE partners are Bose, Belden, Fujitsu, Harman Kardon, InFocus, Lutron, Marantz, Niles Audio, OnQ, Philips, Polk Audio, Samsung, Sharp, and Universal Remote Control.

Diana Jerome, design center manager for the Centex Homes Seattle Division in Kirkland, Wash., says both the company and its customers have been pleased with the AVAD program. “Home buyers like having us install these things [surround sound, speakers, and plasma TVs] and having them rolled up into the mortgage. And they love the service.” Likewise, Heidi Bauer Bernier, design and merchandising manager for the Seattle division of DR Horton, also in Kirkland, says the AVAD program has worked well. Currently, DR Horton's Seattle division is working with Home Theater Specialties of Lynwood, Wash., which also is involved in projects with the Seattle division of Centex Homes. The offerings, she says, range from “two or three sets of speakers to full-on home theaters.”