If you are a design professional, you often get saddled with subcontractors that are not part of your team. Sometimes they are terrific, yet more often than not they do not meet your expectations. As an architect, designer, or builder, it is important to have a team of professional subcontractors that you trust, that understand how you work, and most importantly … that you enjoy working with. After all, life is short.
Finding a technology partner that fits the bill is harder than it should be. This can be difficult for a few reasons. One, there is not a high percentage of great technology pros out there. We work in a field with little to no regulation or standards. Two, even great ones are not always team players. Three, our industry is constantly evolving, so it’s difficult to know the questions to ask or the guidelines to set in order to achieve great results.
I am here to help. I have been a technology integrator in Los Angeles for over two decades. I have been fortunate to work with some of the top interior design firms and architects in the world. My firm has worked on a dozen or more Architectural Digest feature stories. I play in an incredibly interesting world of wildly successful clients and amazing build projects. My job is incredibly fun, and the projects are astonishing. I am incredibly grateful to be a part of them and I really enjoy working with creative minds.
That being said, I have a lot experience with this topic. I want to help you get the most out of your technology partner, so here are my seven best pieces of advice.
1. Express Your Vision
The problem with most of our industry is the lack of time coupled with the demands of running a successful firm. It is easy to make assumptions and assume that others know how you like to work. I would suggest sitting your technology partner down for a 15-minute overview of how you operate. Be upfront, point out your strengths and weaknesses. Communicate how you like to get information (emails, phone, texts), who are the right people to contact in your firm, and how quickly you expect responses when you need information. Are you the type that thinks big picture and leave the details to others? If so, the integrator needs to know this. That way, they are not assuming that you have that media cabinet figured out and keep pressing you to see if it has the space they need. If there are balls that often get dropped at your firm, let them know so they can help pick up the slack so that you are successful. Also, you can find out how much lead time your technology integrator needs to get boots on the ground for you or need to answer RFI’s. This short huddle pays off in dividends and makes the build process much smoother.
2. Rules of Engagement
Sometimes you get saddled with the AV perfectionist who has no concern about room aesthetics and just wants to provide a solution that is “technically perfect”. This is the time to establish the rules of engagement and let them know where technology sits in the order of importance to the client. Many designers suggest we use invisible speakers in areas that would really be marred with speaker grilles. I get that. Although the sound quality is not as good, I respect that the client prefers the clean look over better audio quality. I also understand that technology must be hidden, sometimes at the expense of performance. A lot of tech folks refuse to accept this premise. This is where you need to have the conversation about which rooms are design-first (formal spaces, Kitchen, Master Suite, etc.) and which rooms are open to working around the technology (Screening Rooms, Exercise Rooms, Rec Rooms, etc.). Set the rules of engagement early on and save everybody a lot of wasted time.
3. Find Out What You Don’t Know
Assumption is the killer of our industry. One thing I know about integrators is that they love to flex their knowledge. You are never bothering an AV professional when you need information to make a project successful. I worked with an AD Top 100 architecture firm on a 40,000 square foot home recently. The architect designed a beautiful screening room and plugged in a screen size from a previous project assuming that would be OK…with no input from me or the client. The end result was a $150K construction bill to excavate another three feet of height for the theater because the designed room did not have enough height for the screen the client wanted. A quick call to ask “Is this OK?” would have avoided a lot of egg on the face.
Never assume how much space electronics need, how much cooling is required, and never assume sizes of anything (TV’s, Screening Rooms, Equipment Racks, etc.). Get the real answers so you always look smart. Your technology partner typically wants to help you look like a rock star. The Home Technology Association (HTA), an association dedicated to helping design professionals, builders, and homeowners find the most qualified home technology firms, has a great article on their website that highlights the many preconstruction items your technology pro can help you with in the design phase of a project. The earlier the engagement, the less chance of problems and costly change orders later.
Technology budgets are often another mystery. HTA created an objective budgeting tool for you to share with your clients so they get a realistic budget range for professionally installed technology systems such as we are talking about here.
4. Choose A Great Partner
As mentioned before, the AV industry is hit or miss. There is a low barrier to entry, so the country is full of sub-par installation companies. Literally 90 percent of them would not meet your standards. You need a great partner and you need one that works on your type of projects. You can find qualified home technology professionals through organizations like HTA, where every company is fully vetted and even can receive endorsements from architects, builders, interior designers, and other trade partners so that you can be assured that they speak your language.
5. Find Out All the Services they Offer
Most designers are a little in the dark as to what an “AV guy” does. They expect that they do audiovisual and control systems like Crestron, Savant, and Control4; though many do not know that a technology integrator typically provides lighting control systems (i.e.: Lutron), security cameras, telephone systems, motorized window treatments, WiFi networks, acoustical consulting, house-wide battery back-up systems, and more. And with the advent of circadian rhythm lighting, some integrators are offering compatible lighting fixtures. Your life is always easier when you have one call to make when something needs to get addressed. I suggest you get the complete run-down of what you can source out from your tech partner. It is for this reason that many of us in the industry are calling ourselves Home Technology Professionals, as “audiovisual” is just one slice of what we do.
6. Designer Discounts?
A lot of designers I have encountered assume there is a “Designer Discount” on all of the items an integrator sells. Unfortunately, this is not the case. There are a few instances where manufacturer’s offer designers “specifier commissions” but overall, the margins on electronics don’t have enough room to offer designer discounts. I have found that clients are typically OK if a designer or builder marks-up our labor, wiring, and most of the installation materials though they bristle at paying a mark-up on commodity items like TV’s and iPads. Another solution is charging your client a project management fee for the time spent collaborating with your technology partner. At the end of the day, I suggest having a conversation about this type of thing before any proposals are created or before any pricing is given to clients so you can clarify the billing process and how you will get compensated in this process.
7. Personality is Important
Some trades do their work with little drama and you never hear from them again. They do things that are typically uncomplicated. This is not the case with technology. It is complicated and ever-changing. That TV and under-bed lift you specified last year has changed models, dimensions, and cost. Multiply that by 200 tech items going in the home. Having a great technology partnership will require a lot of communication. Probably more than you want or have time for. This is why it is important to partner with someone who you like interfacing with, who will have your back if things go a little sideways and makes the process a delight and not a burden. A tall task, but there are a lot of great people in the tech industry who are fun to work with, you just need to find them. Don’t settle for someone you are willing to put up with, find someone who you want to be a part of your team. If you are struggling to find a good partner in your town, reach out to me and I will be happy to make an introduction.
With technology being an uber important part of your clients’ lives, you can’t bury your head in the sand and take whatever “AV pro” comes your way. Find a great technology partner, get them on your team, and make sure they are a personality fit. Your working relationship with your tech pro will help your projects run smoother, eliminate stress, and make a difficult aspect of your projects much, much easier. They might even save your bacon on a project or two.