Monday, February 26, 2007


I like things that are simple.

So I was really disappointed after I had the opportunity to tour the New American Home and the InSync Home this past weekend here in Orlando. The homes are models that are part of the annual extravaganza that is the International Builders' Show. The New American Home was built using green principles, and the InSync Home was billed as the high-tech home of the future.

Don't get me wrong... both are beautiful homes that represent the best that architects and builders have to offer. But when it comes to home technology, it's clear that there is still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to execution.

In both homes, the basic technologies included a security system, thermostat controls, "whole home" audio, and lighting controls. (For now, I'm purposely leaving out the NAH's green technologies.) Here's my issue: each system still has its own unique controller, sometimes for no apparent reason. This is quite apparent in the ISH, where there are touchpanels installed throughout the home that integrate all of the controls... many of these touchpanels are located right next to the security or climate control keypads.

In the NAH, there's actually one wall that has over a dozen outlets and controllers on it. Here's my favorite - the thermostat is positioned directly above the touchpanel that clearly has climate controls on the right side:
If you're going to spend the money to integrate all those systems into a sleek touchpanel, doesn't it make sense to make sure your custom integrator is talking to the rest of your contractors? Here's a recent article about this from the perspective of the installers of these systems.

I bring this up because this issue only gets amplified in multifamily communities. By nature, most luxury condos or apartments have a limited amount of space available. The last thing you want to do is clutter that space with every high-tech amenity that you can think of. If you're going to set yourself apart by offering advanced technologies to your buyers, make sure you have a plan for what you want to offer, and work with your designers and contractors to ensure that those technologies fit with the look of the rest of the unit's features. And remember, the simpler, the better.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Get a Second Life

Just as you thought you were getting ahead in this life, there's a whole new world for you to master. It's called Second Life, and it's a completely virtual world that is creating real opportunities to connect with consumers and make real money.
(VIDEO: Forbes)

Lots of big-name marketers have launched their virtual presence in SL, including Dell, Toyota, Gap and Reuters. The city of Manchester created a virtual version of itself. Starwood even gave SL residents an exclusive preview of their Aloft chain last fall. And considering that the average Second Lifer is a 32 year-old woman, creating a virtual parallel of your community may be an interesting way for you to set your property apart back in the real world (some studies show the typical renter is a 35 year-old female).

If the big hit in property marketing in 2006 was full-animation 3D rendering and virtual tours, then imagine the possibilities if your prospective buyers can virtually put themselves in the middle of your community anytime they want. Granted, the total population in Second Life is currently only about 4 million people, but the press opportunity for creating the first condo in your area on SL could be huge. You can even sell the land you develop if you want... just like the real world.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Are Exclusive Providers Still Revelant in a World of Consumer Choice?

Over the past decade or more, property owners have increasingly seen the advantages of partnering with an exclusive telecom provider to deliver TV and Internet services in bulk to their residents. It's worked very well for everyone in most cases - the service provider gets a guaranteed revenue stream, owners buy services at wholesale rates that allow them to create an additional source of ancillary income, and residents get competitive communications services at rates typically far lower than regular retail prices.

But now that customers have become accustomed to a world in which they can have everything customized and personalized, does the bulk model still fit within the principle of giving residents what they want? I can make arguments for or against bulk... it's certainly doesn't require as much thought or planning if you are only providing one option. On the other hand, there is no denying that owners, especially in extremely competitive markets, should consider using a wiring infrastructure that enables them to offer several different choices for phone, TV and Internet services. A number of owners in New York, New Jersey, and other parts of the country are now testing this model (to the dismay of telecom providers), dubbed "open access," and they're getting some very positive feedback from current and prospective residents.

Is it a powerful tool to tell a prospect that they can choose from DirecTV, Time Warner, or Verizon for TV? Only if the leasing staff uses it to their advantage as part of their pitch. Otherwise it's usually a forgotten question until after the resident has already signed the lease. We'll grant that partnering with an exclusive provider is still a good option in many cases, but we'll be keeping tabs on the open access trend as it grows, bringing you updates and feedback from the owners that are taking the plunge.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Builders' Show Product Review

The International Builders' Show concluded this weekend, with many exhibitors focusing on home technologies. The technology pavilion was dubbed nextBuild this year (formerly tecHOMExpo). Here are just a few of the products that were on display that may be of interest to multifamily professionals:

:: Consumer Electronics
The Consumer Electronics Association was promoting their TechHome program to builders, which provides a rating system to measure the level of technology available in a home. A key component of that rating system is structured wiring, and there are always a number of options available at the show. On-Q/Legrand and their new acquisition, USTec, Leviton, Suttle, and Home Director were just a few companies offering structured wiring solutions. Notably, Home Director has an interesting solution that incorporates a wireless router while leaving the router's antenna exposed, and Suttle is still the only supplier to offer a set of modules that allow a property owner to offer multiple phone and data providers without rewiring in the unit.

Flat-panel televisions could be found around every corner, and Sony also exhibited their WallStation in-wall CD/DVD player, which could be a interesting solution for some clubhouses and common areas. IPod docking stations are still a popular item, with options available from Russound, Speakercraft, Channel Vision, and Sonance. The Channel Vision and Sonance versions are probably best suited for multifamily, and Channel Vision is the only firm to offer an in-wall solution for the iPod that can fit in a standard wallplate. HAI showed off a more universal audio system, but there isn't really a way to choose the music from the player without some additional wiring. Control4 demostrated their relatively cost-efficient home integration system - it's all very cool stuff that shows a lot of promise, but it remains to be seen whether the company will be able to gain the traction they need to ultimately succeed.

:: Energy Efficiency
The Green Building Initiative, a non-profit similar to the U.S. Green Building Council, promoted energy-efficient building practices, although the group doesn't yet have guidelines specific to multifamily. Rinnai and Noritz both displayd their lines of tankless water heaters, and a Rinnai representative mentioned that they are currently testing a remote building management system in New Zealand and Japan that they would like to bring to the States in the near future. LED lighting finally made an appearance at IBS, with Moda Light and others showing low-energy lighting solutions. Wattstopper showed off their occupancy and vacancy sensors, which are now required by code in some areas.

:: Telecommunications
Time Warner Cable and AT&T were the only service providers with any kind of presence at the show. A company called Tenvera touted a "fiber-in-the-home" system for ultra-fast connections - there really aren't any applications that would require such a system today, but there is no doubt that forward-thinking property owners should consider running fiber pathways to the wallplates throughout each unit for future applications.

:: Building Management
Because IBS is primarily focused on single-family construction, there isn't usually much to offer in the way of building management systems. This year was no different, but Doorking did roll out a management software package for their access control systems that is currently designed for self-storage centers. The software is being redesigned to work with apartment property management systems - no word on when this will be available. Elbex showed their video intercom system, which now includes a redesigned 7" touchscreen that goes in the living unit - the new version has a very sleek appearance and offers some very interesting features for multifamily properties of all types.

Stay tuned to the nextBuild website for more details about these and other products, or feel free to email me with any questions about the multifamily technology at IBS.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Need for Geeks

60 Minutes recently did a feature on the growing technical support customer service industry, ranging from remote telephone operators from halfway around the world to businesses such as the Geek Squad, Firedog and local custom installation firms. (Click here or on the photo to watch the full video.)

It's clear that people need more help than ever with their home electronics, and it takes a special skill set to solve the challenges presented by TVs, computers, routers and all the other gadgets we've come to rely on. It's also likely that an individual with that specialized skill set is not on the payroll at your community. Owners that plan to use technology to differeniate their properties should prepare to offer some kind of support to those residents that need it. Whether it's free rent for the helpful computer science engineering major in Building 2 or a national partnership with a support service like Geeks on Call or Firedog, property owners increasingly should consider providing technical support just as they provide other emergency maintenance services.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Builder Technology Study

As the International Builders' Show winds down in Orlando, the CEA is offering its Fifth Annual State of the Builder Technology Market Study. The study updates data on builders' offerings and installations of home technologies in new homes. The complete study is available at

Some key findings from the study include: [My comments are bracketed.]

• More builders are offering more home technologies than ever before. Technologies that are gaining ground include home theater, automated lighting controls, home automation, and energy management. Structured wiring is the most popular home technology installed in new homes. [HDTV and the melding of the PC and TV will be significant drivers of electronics in the home. Structured wiring will continue to be the most important amenity in multifamily, primarily because most wireless systems remain largely unproven in high-density communities. Interest in monitored security continues to decrease as access control systems grow in popularity.]

• Home technologies are important to the successful marketing of new homes. 84% of builders say home technologies are important in marketing new homes. However, home builders are relying almost exclusively on installation contractors to market and sell technology to new home buyers. [Quality communications services and technology amenities have also shown to be a significant factor in retaining residents. Many developers have also found that offering a choice of services, rather than one exclusive provider, can be important in the marketing of multifamily communities.]

• Home technologies have a positive impact on builders’ revenues. Over 40% of builders believe home technology offerings increased their revenues in 2006. [Condo developers are increasingly beginning to offer technology packages to buyers, and some technologies such as home theater and whole-home audio are even viable options in many apartment communities.]

• Builders primarily employ security installers, electrical contractors, and custom installers to install home technologies. Home builders are more satisfied with custom installers than with any other type of contractor when it comes to home technology installation. [Best Buy and other mega-retailers now offer installation services, and some telecom providers are subsidizing home technology packages to win business as a community's provider of choice. As service providers and big box retailers get into the installation game, it will be interesting to see what effect this will have on who builders will partner with in the future, as well as the level of quality in the work completed.]

As home technologies grow in popularity in the overall home market, it will become increasingly important for multifamily builders to keep pace. Home buyers and renters have come to expect a certain lifestyle of connectivity and convenience, and homes that force residents to sacrifice part of that lifestyle will be at a serious disadvantage.