Thursday, October 1, 2020
 Disrupting The Cycle 

While working in the smart home industry over the last 12 years, I’ve noticed a disconnect. Integrators and architects pursue a common goal: Elevating the lifestyle experience of their clients. Yet integrators often make their technology decisions without tuning into the architect’s overall vision of aesthetics and simplicity, focusing only on technology. As a result, architects have been trained by integrators to see technology for its potential threat to that vision, never mind the potential impact on project logistics and budget. There are many in our field who want, even crave, the opportunity to participate in the realization of great design, but other factors often stymie the best intentions.

The integration of technology is often an afterthought - if it is thought of at all, it is typically far too late in the process - usually taking the form of a frantic call two weeks before the walls are to be closed. Ironically, client demand for integration services continues to increase, even as the perpetual arrival of last-minute panicked requests to my queue serve to reinforce the negative connotation that integrators cannot, or will not, make design a priority. In my career, I have seen enough to know that a shakeup in the industry is needed if this cycle is going to be broken.

Architects built their businesses on strong design and comprehensive documentation. Doing so at the beginning of the process sets the project on a clear path for success. Working from a shared vocabulary and documentation from Day One of a project kept all parties pointed toward the same goal. It defines the vision, removes the bottleneck of poor communication, prevents issues of interoperability, and creates a responsibility matrix for all aspects of work. However, the design documentation for low-voltage technologies, specifically those that allow the client to realize their desires, is typically absent in this initial plan. If the integrator could provide this, thorough documentation that the trades would share, success would be inevitable.

The homeowner would also benefit from such a process. Traditionally, homeowners have been left to compare several disparate concepts/ quotes, wondering which integrator would stray the least from their promises, and who was offering a plan that would even work. The ability to vet each integrator competing for the job would elevate the client’s experience with the systems they are going to use and remove fear and indecision from the process.

With a meticulous design, using industry standard equipment on which to base every quote, qualifying an integrator’s capabilities becomes clear before committing to a long-term relationship. If done correctly, this front-loaded design and documentation process replaces dashed hopes and continual change orders.

This was processing when I met Chris Smith from Cloud9 Smart. We immediately clicked on the design-first direction technology needed to be headed. His excitement and clarity was refreshing. Cloud9 Smart had come to a similar conclusion regarding the initial design process and he too realized that something was broken. They had developed a business model around putting the design in front of the client and trades as early as possible. They called it a SmartDesign. With Smart- Design, Cloud9 Smart charges a nominal fee on a per-square-foot basis. Using this to pay for engineering time up front they had found a way to create the low-voltage design documentation so sorely needed during a project. This allows for a properly defined scope, for the architect to know all of the client choices during the design phase, the trades to get on with their work, and the client to realize their vision of an enhanced yet simpler life.

Cloud9 was taking their commitment a step further. They had decided to create a role specifically focused on the architect channel. In fact, that’s why Chris Smith and I had been introduced in the first place. According to him, the architect specialist needed to have a rare skill combination of technical prowess and relationship management. The original vision had seen the architect specialist as mostly a sales position but we eventually agreed that education should be the focus. We would begin by introducing architects to the various technology options and listen as they share the hurdles they face. This would create a feedback loop to help them solve challenges and evolve into a collaborative process.

Our first architect initiative was developing an AIA-registered course focused on “Blending Technology into Your Design.” Before developing our course, we spoke to some friends in the design community. They let us know that Lunch and Learns can be too stolid, informative but boring. Our course, by contrast, has been a resounding success. We are lucky in the what we do is actually fun. By bringing along samples, ensuring our deck was aesthetically beautiful, and keeping things engaging we were able to easily avoid this problem.

Further feedback was that Lunch and Learns are too often a thinly veiled sales pitch. Thankfully, we weren’t planning on doing any selling. We do have an agenda, but it is to make sure we are all being the best partners. Our course focuses on the possibilities of what a connected home can bring to a design and the process that makes it a reality. We always ask two questions at the end of a course. First, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how did we do?” Second, “What is the worst Lunch and Learn you have sat through, and why?” We make sure to keep all of this in mind when presenting, and improving our presentation.

We have now expanded well past our original course. Initially, our catalog was based on topics that were part of our daily business such as lighting, shades, home automation, and hidden technology. As a technology company, we are often well ahead of the curve in using technology to drive our business. We realized that being a business was a shared interest and are currently expanding our catalog to include working remotely. This course is in development by one of our own virtual employees. There is also an opportunity to remove confusion and highlight use cases as well as potential problems for emerging technologies. The first topic in that field to receive a course from Cloud9 Smart will be the Internet of Things (IoT). This is all only slightly related to our field but when our partners are more successful, so are we.

The positive reaction from the architect community to our outreach has motivated more courses, more conversations, and the biggest accomplishment yet from the new architect-centric approach: The AIA CEU Summit. Now in its third year, the educational collective will return to the Savant Experience Center in New York City’s SoHo this October. Leaders in the lifestyle technology industry teach courses all day, architects earn multiple continuing education units throughout the day, and two parties (architects and integrators) who historically haven’t communicated enough are able to connect in a meaningful way.

In the time since I took up my position, we have been all over New York City offering Lunch and Learns and strengthening partnerships with architecture firms. Knowing that Cloud9 Smart and our architect partners are able to bring clients the spaces they dream of, in a collaborative way, without surprises, has felt like a broken system fixed.