Friday, March 30, 2007

Top 10 Questions to Ask Your Architect: Part I

Consumer technology is getting more exciting, more compelling and more complex than ever before. The choices that you face as a developer or property owner are increasingly confusing, but cannot be avoided. Here are a few questions to ask of your architect before you get started that will help get your project off on the right foot:

10. Do my property's technology needs change if my project is for rent, for sale, or some of both?
Condo associations might not want their telecom services from the same providers that you may contract with to provide service to renters – understand that you might need separate provisions (and contracts) for each. Also, buyers may expect more choices to be available - think multiple provider and in-unit upgrades.

9. How can residents select the phone, TV and Internet provider of their choice?
Multiple providers means more choice for residents, but it also requires a more thoughtful approach to structured cabling networks. In any case, caution the architect or MEP against using any proprietary service provider designs. Also, consider cellular network amplifiers as many residents will rely solely on their mobile phones.

8. Does the leasing office design consider how our staff will utilize technology?
The onsite staff has technology needs that are very different from those of the residents. What does the leasing staff need? Will there be terminals for residents to access the property's web portal? How can maintenance staff become more efficient? Security is also a huge issue; residents or other unauthorized folks should be on a separate network to keep them from accessing private data.

7. How will residents access wireless Internet services with minimal interference? Residents like the freedom of wireless Internet access, but it gets messy in a high-density environment if it’s not properly managed. You should consult an Internet service provider that can automatically authorize accounts and remotely manage wireless Internet access in each unit.

6. What in-unit entertainment options do you expect our residents to use most?
Walk through a Best Buy – flat-panel TVs, audio in every room, and iPod docks are quickly becoming the norm. Planning for your residents’ lifestyle will give them greater flexibility, reduce damages to your units (a poorly hung plasma can wreak havoc on drywall!) and enable you to offer electronics upgrades.

Pay attention to the gadgets that you see people using, and keep an eye on the unique experiences that other industries offer to their customers. Think about the options you would want available to you if you were a resident. Offer something new and different, but take the time to test it for yourself - a new service won't do you any good if it doesn't offer a great resident experience.

We'll have five more questions next week... by then, at the rate things change these days, we'll probably be asking ten completely new questions.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

If My Hotel Offers a Unique Experience, Why Can't My Home?

It's all over the web today: Hyatt Hotels has formed a partnership with U.K. digital music agency Audiosuite in which they will offer guests collections of destination-specific music. Hyatt is starting with properties in Arizona and Texas, and plans to roll out the new digital download program across North America and the Caribbean throughout 2007. Guests will be able to download the music in digital MP3 format and take it home with them. The music can also be heard and purchased via websites associated with each hotel - check out or The company will do marketing around the program, and will measure the program's success in by music downloads. Austin Business Journal, Marketing Daily, WebWire

:: Be Local, Add Value
Hyatt executives say the project evolved from a desire to find ways to add value and create more of a "sensory experience." But the music offering reflects a trend among premium hoteliers to make their properties seem local - a kind of anti-franchise movement in design and amenities that often focuses on sensations and non-tangible aspects of the experience that aren't necessarily obvious.

To the multifamily developers that aren't already thinking this way - you should be. Whether a renter or a buyer, nothing is more local to your resident than her home. The ability to customize to a location, to focus on things that will give the resident a sense of place, is very important these days. Much like evolving hotel chains, multifamily developers that used to build the same garden-style project wherever they went are now building mixed-use and transit-oriented communities that fit in with their locations a lot better.

:: Create an Experience
There are some great technology-based services out there for developers looking to create a music download arrangement like Hyatt's, from companies like Napster, Rumblefish, Grooveshark, Ruckus, and others. Be warned that multifamily doesn't usually fit in their regular business model, so it might take some trial and error before you find the right partner. There are also some unique ways emerging that allow residents to acces their favorite tunes from Internet radio services through devices that can be placed in units or in a property's common areas.

But sound is just one of the senses - what about an on-demand server or movie download service for those that are more visually stimulated? Many leasing offices have offered small movie libraries for years, just take this idea a step further. Smell? Gadgets now waft scents on command that are designed to create a specific reaction in the mind of the "sniffer." Would your prospect feel more at home during a property tour if the air of the model unit was filled with the scent of a fresh-baked apple pie? Possibly. Taste? I haven't come up with one for that yet, but you get the idea.

A resident's experience will determine whether that person ultimately decides to renew his lease and refer one of his friends to your property. Making technology personal and easy to use will enable you to create unique service opportunities that will go a long way toward a great overall experience.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Cell Phone Service: Amenity or Expectation?

As more residents gravitate to cell phones as their primary (or only) phone line, this trend has trickled down to affect a whole host of systems that are regularly deployed at multifamily properties: telephone entry systems, intercoms, security alarms, and even satellite TV systems, to name a few.

All of these are important considerations for property owners that need to be examined, but I recently had an interesting debate with a colleague about the central driver of this issue - the cell phone service itself. I say that cell phones are ubiquitous, and consumers - your residents - now expect to be able to use their mobile at their leisure, no matter where they are. Therefore, property owners need to provide quality cellular coverage in the same way that they now provide high-speed Internet to their residents.

Conversely, she says that cell phone amplifiers are an amenity that can be marketed by forward-thinking property owners... while that may be true, I think cell service is now like plumbing or air conditioning - the properties that don't have it will be at a serious disadvantage. From personal experience, I know that it can be very frustrating if I'm sitting in an airport that has lousy cell coverage... I'd be really frustrated if that happened in my kitchen.

Because many residents now forego the traditional landline in exchange for their mobile phone, I'm going to make the assumption that these folks will want to use that cell with some reasonable level of service. We've been doing cell network amplifiers in buildings for over two years, with noticeable improvement in in-building coverage in almost every instance... there are even a number of other companies that focus solely on in-building wireless.

As you're considering the wireless communications that complement wired services for your property, take a three-pronged approach: look at how you will offer high-speed wireless Internet, two-way radio service for emergency responders, and quality in-building coverage for the major cellular carriers. Answer these three questions, and your residents truly will be able to enjoy unwired convenience in their wired world.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Low Voltage Design Cheat Sheet

From some of the questions we've been getting lately, there still seems to be some confusion about the physical limitations of telecom signal distribution and the associated implications on a building's layout. As a property developer who will offer telecom services as a resident amenity, it's beneficial to have a basic understanding of how these complex technologies will be incorporated into your project. Here are a few of the first things you’ll want to consider as part of your design:

:: Main Site Communications Room
Start with a central distribution point. The best way to distribute telecom services is from a Main Communications Room – this is where all the services will enter the site and are distributed up the risers or out to the other buildings. This space needs to be accessible to your service providers at all times, and may require 150 square feet of floor space or more, depending on your selected providers. A lot of electronics will be running constantly in here, so you'll need to have adequate HVAC installed. Of course, it's imperative that this room is completely operational before the first units occupy.

:: Building Communications Rooms
Depending on the size of the building, you'll probably need one or more smaller Building Communications Rooms on every other floor (or at each building) for the distribution of services (see why below). These rooms should have at least 50 square feet of usable wall space, and typically do not need HVAC... they normally can get by with a temperature-controlled exhaust fan.

:: Cabling Run Lengths
A site’s cabling backbone ideally should use optical fiber to distribute massive amounts of information, but on the resident floors, the distribution is often accomplished over copper cables. When using regular coax, video signals can only travel about 150 feet... this means that cabling run lengths shouldn't exceed 150 wire feet from the nearest Building Communications Room to the outlets in the furthest units.

Because video signal distribution requires the shortest cabling lengths, you'll sometimes use a supplementary video distribution closet. This is a much smaller space – it will only house video distribution equipment – that effectively extends the video run lengths to reach the farthest points of your building.

Other issues that should be addressed early on include appropriate grounding and surge protection – talk to your low voltage design consultant to determine the specific requirements for your project.

Retrofitting cables and pathways once the sheetrock is up is expensive and time-consuming... it's much easier to address your property’s infrastructure needs as part of the initial planning process. Work with your design team on these three points, and you’ll be one step closer to offering the great technology services and amenities that your residents will expect and appreciate.