Thursday, October 1, 2020
 Making the Connection

 With Toll Brothers 

One of the biggest challenges that the members of the custom integration industry have faced is finding ways to get in on the ground floor with architects, builders, and designers. It’s almost cliché at this point to talk about how technology is something of an afterthought in the homebuilding or remodeling process. But that’s the very reason why a publication like Connected Design exists. And it’s a mission that we and others in the industry will continue to harp on—building those bridges—until the end of time.

So, it has to be seen as completely validating and somewhat relieving to find that one of the largest home builders in the country not only supports that mission but is actively out in the field working with technology integrators to make the work they do as important as the other pillars of the homebuilding industry. That’s exactly what we discovered in a recent conversation with Toll Brothers, the Horsham, PA-based company that continually ranks among the most successful home building companies in the nation.

Connected Design had the unique opportunity to visit one of Toll Brothers’ new Philadelphia-area Design Studios, which was completed with the help of a local integrator. There, we met with Felicia Ratka, President of TBI Smart Home Solutions, to talk about the company’s approach to working with integrators, the challenges that they’re working through when it comes to in-home technology, and more.

Here and at top, a glance inside of Toll Brother's Pleasanton, California, Design Studio

Connected Design: What's the elevator pitch on Toll Brothers? How does TBI Smart Home Solutions fit into the mix, and what's the mission of the subsidiary?

Ratka: Toll Brothers is an award-winning Fortune 500 company founded in 1967 that embraces an unwavering commitment to quality and customer service. Toll Brothers is currently operating in 22 states nationwide and is a publicly owned company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. For five years in a row, Toll Brothers has been ranked the #1 Home Builder Worldwide on the Fortune Magazine “World’s Most Admired Companies” list. Toll Brothers also has been honored as national Builder of the Year by BUILDER magazine, and was twice named national Builder of the Year by Professional Builder magazine.

TBI Smart Home Solutions evolved from our former home security division, Westminster Security, to encompass a broader spectrum of home technology solutions for our buyers. It is part of Toll Brothers’ commitment to helping buyers live smarter, and offering them the best technology available to enhance the way they live.

Inside of the Toll Brothers Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, Design Studio

A little more than a year since the TBI Smart Home Solutions rebrand, how has business changed?

In addition to security, Toll Brothers had been offering technology and smart home solutions for many years. In 2016, we changed the name to TBI Smart Home Solutions to bring all of our home technology offerings under one umbrella to market and promote. It has helped us turn those options into more mainstream features that can be explained as part of a larger vision for how our buyers can live smarter with technology.

Toll Brothers, with TBI Smart Home Solutions, was really ahead of the curve from a smart home standpoint in the homebuilders industry. How do you, as homebuilders, stay on top of the trends in in-home tech?

This is true. Our home security division was created more than 20 years ago. At the time, it was innovative for a builder to get licensed and start its own security monitoring business. Our smart home options evolved from there. We added smart thermostats in 2008 with z-wave locks and video, using Honeywell security panels. We also had been selling systems like Crestron, Savant, and Control4 as custom options for buyers through our low voltage integrators. This was a full decade before Google’s Nest started driving mass awareness and interest to the smart home market. As a builder, it is critical to know what’s going on with technology. Toll Brothers is a registered member of CEDIA and we also work with four dozen full-system integrators across the country which act as sounding boards for new ideas and often bring new products to us for review. Beyond all of this, Toll Brothers also has an Innovation Council made up of 50 individuals across the country with a wide range of experience and expertise who are tasked with evaluating new products and processes that enhance our buyers home experience.

Our integrators are more than just trade partners, they are strategic partners whose opinions and thoughts matter.

—Felicia Ratka

How important are partnerships with the technology community in the work you do?

Extremely valuable. Our integrators are more than just trade partners, they are strategic partners whose opinions and thoughts matter in how we create and deploy various solutions. We also make sure we are aligning ourselves with the best companies and products out there. In addition, we work closely with the manufacturers of the products we use. As an example, we have gone to both and Control4 and presented them with scenarios we thought could improve the customer experience for our buyers which resulted in product integration that didn’t previously exist. They act as resources for us from an educational standpoint and providing trainings as subject matter experts for our sales, design studios and construction teams.

Thinking beyond just the work of TBI Smart Home Solutions, how has in-home technology impacted homebuilders?

Today, technology in the home is an expected conversation, whereas it once was something builders would only discuss if asked. In years past, you’d be offered your standard number of TV and phone locations, and that would be the end of the tech conversation. From a structural standpoint, Wi-Fi is really forcing builders to look at how they’re building and what they’re building with. For example, where can a builder provide dedicated space for a home buyer’s network gear?

What are some of the biggest tech challenges you face, and how are you working to overcome them?

Technology changes so fast so it can be overwhelming and complicated for builders to deploy because it most likely will overlap multiple trades and all that needs to be managed on the construction side. Selling technology is just as difficult, making sure that there is no domino effect, and everything works together the way it is supposed to. Making sure we are partnered with the right companies is key. It’s important to know what is (or isn’t) on their roadmap and if they are being forward-thinking enough to stay ahead of the tech curve by creating the innovative products and services as opposed to following another company’s lead.

What do you look for in an integrator before deciding to work with them? Is there set criteria or certain skillsets that you look for?

It's important that our trade partners in this area are truly full systems integrators, well-versed in whole-house networking and more. They need to be Control4-certified so they can hit the ground running, and we like to make sure they are familiar with and have worked with DSC security panels. If they are members of CEDIA or buying groups, even better. It tells us they are invested in continuing education and stay on top of the latest and greatest products. From an operations perspective, its important they understand the difference between working with custom builders and production builders. When they can staff appropriately and they understand how scheduling needs will affect our ability to keep a home that is under construction moving forward, it helps us to meet the expectations of our buyers. They also need to have a quality, professional salesperson representing the product and services we offer. We’ve learned that the individual who is best at installation is not always the best salesperson.

We recently had the opportunity to walk through one of your design studios. What's the strategy behind these spaces?

Our Design Studios are laser-focused on incorporating the best retail strategies with the consumer experience. Every space is different, so our goal in the layout of our Studios is to inspire our buyers by surrounding them with curated, high-quality products to personalize their home. We organize the Studio by providing selection galleries, organized in a way that aide our buyers in making confident, streamlined decisions. Buyers have clear sight lines into vignettes that help them visualize how elements will look together. Additionally, we have interactive displays that allow the buyer and Design Consultant to “play” with combinations of products and finalize selections that reflect the homebuyer’s vision for their home.

Your commitment to building relationships with the integrator community shines through in those design centers as well. What role do they play in these design studios?

Our integrators play a key role from the beginning. Whether it is a Design Studio build or remodel, they work with our engineering team, local architects and our IT Department to make sure the studio is wired efficiently to operate smoothly. They help us design and build out everything from access control, to the lighting and audio, along with pulling wire and deploying the network requirements for each location. They’re the ones procuring and installing all the television monitors, and setting up the digital signage and media players provided by our Marketing team. In some of our Signature Studios they are even installing video walls. On the client end, our integrators get the opportunity to meet with just about every buyer that comes through the studio. They present and discuss all the low voltage options they are contracted to install. Some locations, like our Pennsylvania Studio, will see up to 900 buyers pass through the Studio in one year. That’s a great opportunity for the integrators.

Are there any challenges in building out these design studios?

Merchandising technology can be difficult. We work to determine what format provides the most impact in the customer’s experience, and how that impacts our carefully crafted space plans. We have to understand what the process feels like for our buyers when they sit down to review the low voltage options. We strive to have the maximum number of our offerings be fully functional because the best way to sell technology is to demonstrate it. Device placement is calculated depending on the size of the Studio. In some cases, we might be limited with the area we can allot for low voltage displays, so we focus on what we think resonates the most with the demographic of the region.

Toll Brothers strives to educate our buyers that technology is not one-size-fits-all, and we craft our offerings based around that concept. Our integrators have the ability to help develop and price the options that each buyer can build upon, and we really value their expert input.

—Felicia Ratka

During the tour we talked about how these design centers are starting to rapidly expand throughout the country. How do they vary from one another? What ties them all together?

We have an intentional strategy for elevating the Customer Experience that features a consistent branded look, feel, and overall space plan across our Toll Brothers Design Studios. Our goals are to up-serve the customer, and to provide a consistent and differentiated branded experience across all of our Studios nationally. While space allocations for particular categories may vary based on geographical preferences, there are consistent elements throughout our new Studio layouts, including welcome lounges, selection galleries, interactive displays, finalization rooms, and digital content that provides product inspiration.

Why should a technology integrator want to work with Toll Brothers?

As America’s Luxury Home Builder, we are committed to helping our buyers live smarter. We recognize that delivering a true luxury experience in this area can’t be done without our low voltage trade partners. Many technology integrators are used to selling custom systems and they think that is lost in production building. That is not 100 percent true. Yes, we try to create “standards,” and that may require integrators to stay within certain guardrails, but Toll Brothers strives to educate our buyers that technology is not one-size-fits-all, and we craft our offerings based around that concept. Our integrators have the ability to help develop and price the options that each buyer can build upon, and we really value their expert input. And, from a builder standpoint, we pay on time. That always helps!