The architect and custom integration communities are a long ways away from being perfect partners with one another, but if the presence of three prominent American Institute of Architects at the Spring Azione Unlimited Conference showed anything it’s that both are very much willing to bury whatever hatchet may exist and get to work. And that, for what it’s worth, has to be an encouraging sign for all in attendance.

Building those bridged between the communities has long been a goal of our own with a publication like Connected Design, which showcases the fruits of those who’ve developed strong partnerships with one another. But that’s really just a start and only part of the mission. As Azione President and Founder Richard Glikes told us at the open of this event in Bonita Springs, Florida, there’s a real business case to be made for the integrator—and the architect—to get involved early on in the process. As the space has evolved, integrators have moved from being just that “AV guy” to a crucial provider of everything from lighting, to shades, security systems, power management, full-blown automation systems, and more. But architects may not—or almost certainly do not in most cases—understand or realize the breadth of this space. And that’s what makes the conversations so critical. It’s as much about education and awareness as it is networking and business development.

The three architects in attendance—Mary Cerrone, founder and owner of Mary Cerrone Architects and Interiors; Stuart Narofsky, principal of Narofsky Architecture; and Chris Rose, president of Christopher Rose Architects—all hailed from AIA’s Custom Residential Architect Network (CRAN), which inherently made them a little easier to connect with from the integrators’ perspectives because they actively do work with this space. They all get the need to work closely with a technology professional as early in the process as possible. But even they admitted that that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve been successful at making technology a critical part of the planning process with their clients.

architects aia cran azione spring 2019
Chris Rose (left), Mary Cerrone (center), and Stuart Narofsky (right) have a candid, open discussion with integrators at Azione’s Spring 2019 Conference.

For the integrator, the challenges presented by being a late entrant into the homebuilding process are painfully obvious. There’s the technical side of it where they’re left having to figure out how to essentially “retrofit” their services into a project that’s already underway. Whereas it would be much easier to plan for (and cleanly integrate) things like wires and cables at the start, they’re left having to make something work based on the designs and blueprints that have already been laid out. And on the business side, it’s the sticker shock. When someone who’s not familiar with technology tries to spec in and project a budget for their client that includes any amount of technology, they’re likely to be drastically under guessing, leaving the integrator in a position where they’re not going to be able to meet the client’s expectations, or they’re left with a sliver of the client’s remaining budget, or as the bearer of bad news who has to drop the bomb of actual cost.

Everyone in the room and speaking with the AIA CRAN members—both in the panel discussion we led and the follow up smaller-group conversation—was on board with the idea that it would behoove everyone involved to start those conversations much earlier, but there still seemed to exist a disconnect between how to actually accomplish that feat. For the architects, the answer seemed to lie in basic networking with integrators. They recommended getting involved with AIA, local CRAN chapters, and the like. Integrators welcomed the advice, but many, it seemed, would prefer a basic paradigm shift if the way architects—and others in the homebuilding process—think about technology. It’s one thing, they said, to develop those relationships and have the “in” with an architect in one’s community. But the real challenge comes in having the architect, the homebuilder, or the designer think about technology as part of the homebuilding process from Day 1, and to not have the phone call come only after the topic of technology has been broached with the client.

There are no easy answers to these challenges. The integrators in the room admitted that, more often than not they likely need to be put in their place when it comes to understanding how important technology is to an architect’s client. But, on the other side of that same coin, the architects said they understand the increased role technology plays in today’s increasingly smart homes.

What stands out most from the week, though, is the fact that three members of the AIA were even here to begin with. That’s a major win for the technology integrator, and for Azione Unlimited. The conversation has been started. An olive branch has been extended. Now, let’s see how both sides can work together to keep this momentum rolling and create actual, positive change.