Whole Home Integration

An Interview with Noah Stokes of AVT

Mason Kirby: Thanks for joining me today. How did you get involved with AVT, and what’s the nature of AVT’s business?

Noah Stokes: Our business model includes doing all of the high and low voltage work on a project.  This starts with the design and includes the running of the wires, providing the equipment, the installation and all the way through to the programming and final instruction.  We have this approach for a couple reasons.  With the low voltage industry as a whole, everything has gotten so complicated and there are so many options out there that work great independently but, “don’t play well with others” to quote our Lead Programmer Joe Hutton that everyone has to be really careful with each piece they select.  Once it’s in there, usually you’re stuck with it.  If we can be the only one pulling the high and low voltage wires for security cameras, for central vacs, for phone systems, for all of those sub-systems we can choose the systems that do “play well with others” and ultimately create a truly integrated environment.  Plus we have a dramatically higher success rate that they will work and to their full potential with little or no waste.  Much of this is contributed to the fact that we are one company all in constant communication, all on the same page moving towards the same goal. 

Mason:  Here we are knee-deep in June 2009.  How are you able to differentiate your services or product from the competitors?  At the end of the day, somebody’s told me ‘I love to pull wire’, great, I know a lot of people that love to pull wire.  What’s going to make the experience you have with the customer distinctive or somehow unlike the competition?

Noah: We hope to make the whole process easier on the client.  It makes it easier on the architect and builder by being one company they have to deal with, one meeting they have to schedule with one person.  For instance, if they want to move where they have their lighting control keypad, they have to call in AV guy, the Electrician, the HVAC guy, the radiant heat guy, the security company, and the people doing the pool.  Our main goal with taking on many of these responsibilities, even just adding on the electrical or simple systems, like the central vac system or a phone system, is to make that whole process simple. Time is money these days, if we can provide that for all 3 parties involved then we feel that equates to a less expensive, better run project overall.

Mason: So you essentially have an integrated service delivery model.  If an architect calls you and says, “Hey, I need some pre-programming for a very complicated sophisticated AV client, but the electrical scope is something that is integrated but is going to happen well after permit drawings have been completed.”  How do you manage internally and externally those different pipelines?

Noah: We work very hand in hand. It’s as close to being 2 separate businesses when it comes to the AV and the electrical as possible, but being all under 1 roof, all part of the same staff meetings and project meetings.  As separate as they are, they are also very interconnected.  Our ideal circumstance is to have an architect say, ‘Hey I have a client, we’re in the design phase, things are not 100% ironed down, and they would like to talk to you guys about designing in these subsystems of the AV and get everything out there in the open, pricing and then the Client can make more educated decisions from there.’  As far as the electrical, we’re not as worried about that because it pretty much is what it is.  It’s much more cut and dry comparatively.

Mason:  Tell me a little bit about how your company approaches the preliminary design of AV systems?  You have an interesting tool that is halfway between the showroom experience and the designers conference table.  Tell us a little bit about it.

Noah: What we have done is work with a company to develop software that is called the Visualizer. It’s a 22’ touch screen that shows someone a virtual 3-D environment.  It shows the virtual house and various touch screens and keypads that they can touch and see how the lights turn on, how the fireplace turns on, how the fans turn on and the blinds go up, with the press of just one button.  This helps people understand that even though it is a very complex process on the back end, the user interface is as simple as pressing a button labeled “reading” to reach the desired scene in their home.  No more confusing banks of controls and switches, and multiple controllers. 

Once they’ve seen that, what’s more impressive is the Approximator.  We take their blueprints and go through that conversation we talked about earlier.  How they want to use the house, what levels of control they need in each room, what they don’t want and don’t need etc…  Then would have them go through and select on our pre-designed systems that have prices and installation, tax and everything included in there, and they’d go through each system building and pricing it right in front of them.  Everything from the speakers types and quantity, the quantity and size of video displays and controls, the lighting control options, shade controls and be able to view the differences and complexity of each in an easy to understand format. We build that with them in the first meeting.  They can design 2 systems side by side, and we can print those systems, including prices and go back into each one later with an amp and touch panel and speaker already assigned and priced out.  They can compare it apple to apples to the competition, they can have an intelligent conversation about whether they think they need/want more or less.  We found it to be an incredible tool to make the whole process so much simpler for everybody.

Mason:  So essentially you have a tool that allows you to do a preliminary design with real dollars and cents updated in real time.  That’s pretty remarkable given the complexity of the systems that you’re working with.   Lets look forward to 5 years.  It’s now 2014 or 2015, what’s the landscape look like for an integrated cabling/infrastructure company like yours?  What kind of projects will you be working on?  What’s the next leading edge?

Noah: When it comes to whole home integration, I definitely see a trend that is coming and I am very excited about it personally!  It really hits home for me because there is something I am seldom without, my cell phone, more accurately, my iPhone.  What we are seeing is that many, if not all companies at this point that deal with custom residential electronic products have an application for the iPhone that you can use to control the systems in your home, similar to if you were at a $2,000 wall mounted touch screen.  This such a great option and a very near reality because having the controls available on a device you are already carrying around, eliminates 80% of the touch panels that we would ordinarily be installing in a home.  Why pay 10x’s as much and still have to get up to check the security cameras on the touch screen in the kitchen, or turn the AC up or down.  Just do it from your phone, that if you’re like me, you are already using to check emails, the weather, doing my banking, looking for a place to eat a nice dinner tonight.  Yes, the wall mounted touch screens are more functional as a whole and it won’t completely eliminate the need for them, but in a lot of instances where you need that extra amount of control but don’t want to have to have another touch screen.  Also, as of now, the user interface and set up for these Applications is so easy, you usually don’t need any training.  (It never hurts, but mostly isn’t necessary.)  Not to mention that in five years with the phone being a major controller for the home, these types of systems are only going to get less expensive, easier to use and more inclusive of what they can control.  Which means us lowly people can enjoy some degree of the control that used to be only reserved for the super wealthy.  There are no limits to where this can go and how many ways it can make out lives easier.  This is just one of the major ways home integration in going.  I’ll be updating our blog, www.blog.avtinfo.com with some more trends in the industry and other cool things to keep an eye on as they arise.

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About the Author
Mason Kirby is an architect practicing in the San Francisco Bay Area of California.

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