10 Tips for Designers Involved in Electronics Projects
Columnist John Caldwell offers 10 expert tips for assuring a healthy design-installation partnership.
The homeowner often benefits when a designer and an installer join forces in the early stages of a project. Photo: Ed Asmus
May 04, 2007 by John Caldwell

I visit hundreds of dealer showrooms and home theaters in client’s homes every year. After I’ve witnessed just how bad some of the design basics are, I’m consistently shocked when the dealer, designer or home owner tells me how much the theater cost.

Just last week I was in a theater in a palatial Malibu estate where the interior designer had covered up the carefully designed acoustical panels with fabric so thick that it rendered them into reflectors rather than absorbers. Next, I noticed that the front row of seats were hopelessly too close to the screen. Expensive risers had been built in such a way that prevented them from moving any further back. The back row had four feet of space in front of it before the first row and could have easily benefited from a more optimum performance design. But perhaps the greatest design flaw in this theater was the massive aisle running right up the middle that took away at least the four best seating positions in the room. The prime seat (we call it the money seat in the industry) was taken up by a custom built cabinet for DVD storage!

We are at this interesting stage in the maturation of the home theater marketplace where the category has clearly turned from a luxury item to a lifestyle item. Most home owners today wouldn’t dream of building a new home without a home theater, much less the proper data backbone and structured wiring.  The design professionals are fully aware of this, but most are still woefully behind the curve on proper home theater design. Most are designing for the eye test. What looks pretty or will photograph well for a magazine. We desperately need a layer of professional design in our industry, but it must be added the right way.

I’ve been involved in the custom audio/video world since ... well, since The Beginning. I’ve seen the profession of “system integrator” grow from a few visionaries catering to the Rich and Famous, to many thousands of certified experts backed by the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA), an international trade organization.

I have also been involved in the world of art and design. All humility aside, my perspective on the crossover between technology and style is quite well rounded.

From where I sit, the two camps have never been closer. New manufacturers with decor-first form factors are gaining momentum quickly. Outreach programs to bring designers into the fold quickly are working. Design professionals are starting to “get it.”

The popular conception is that system integrators and interior designers are at odds. Take home theaters, for example. Integrators are thought to compromise style in favor of the audio and video performance of an installation. Interior designers are thought to do the exact opposite. And this is exactly as it should be!

This fundamental difference in perspective is what drives both professions to greater success during cooperative efforts. Because the reality is, most homeowners who can afford an interior designer can also afford a home theater or a multiroom music system or even a whole-house management system. And such homeowners are likely to demand that neither the integrator nor the interior designer make compromises.

Hence, I offer my sage advice to you and your interior designers in the form of 10 tips for projects involving home electronics. If you are about to hire a professional designer, make sure to share these.

Top 10 Tips for Designers Involved in Home Electronics Projects:

  1. Ask your clients upfront if they are working with a technology system integrator— If your clients have already found an integrator, then they will know that the best time to install audio, video, computer, and control system wiring is before the walls are completed. Retrofit wiring can be done, but it is more expensive and invasive. If they haven’t found an integrator, then you have a chance to recommend one with whom you work well.

  2. Don’t let the integration project start without you—The earlier you are part of the project, the more likely your requirements will be met without dispute. Get involved from the planning stage. Attend the initial meeting between your clients and the integrator, and position yourself as a decision maker.

  3. Make sure the integrator asks LOTS of questions about your clients’ living and entertaining habits—Good integrators are skilled at asking the right questions, but chances are you know the clients much better. The more integrators know about how everyone in the house lives and works, the better they can design an integrated system the family can live with comfortably.

  4. The use of technology allows every room to be your canvas—Today, most clients have TV and music in virtually every room. Ask the systems integrator to explain how he can offer sound and video in virtually any location, but be able to hide most of the equipment and control it from anywhere with cost-saving, step-saving integrated system design technology.

  5. Be your client’s advocate for style and ease of use—Clients, especially men, can get caught up in the excitement of high-tech electronics. As a result, they may be reluctant to ask tough questions. In such cases, your more pragmatic viewpoint is essential.

  6. Consider the house or living space to be your client, too—A future-safe technology design ensures that the next tenants (who may also be your clients) will get the most from the home. The critical element of a future-safe design is structured wiring. Make sure your clients discuss structured wiring with their system integrator.

  7. Establish regular communication with the integrator—During a home theater project, for example, much information needs to be shared about cabinetry, furniture, and floor-and wall-coverings. Without good communication, clients can unwittingly agree to interior designs and system designs that are incompatible. An integrator could be designing a large-screen home theater system that calls for darker tones and wall and floor coverings for quiet acoustics. On the other hand, the clients may have asked the designer for white walls and a tile floor, in which case they’ll love the look but hate the theater.

  8. Listen to the integrator’s absolutes when it comes to sound and video—A good system integrator will lay down the law when it comes to what works and what doesn’t for acceptable sound and video performance. For example, fabrics covering speakers must pass the “breath test” or sound quality will be poor. A plasma TV may hang like artwork, but directing a spotlight at it will wash out the picture.

  9. Deal with money issues up front—Most integrators are willing to reward designers who bring them business. You may not want a commission; you may just want your clients’ needs met. Some integrators may pay a finder’s fee or commission on the entire sale, while some may offer “profit sharing” on room furnishings that they specify—theater seating, customized “art-speakers,” noise-absorbing wall panels, fabric screens, and A/V furniture.

  10. Develop a relationship with one or more local system integrators—You know who to call on for cabinetmaking, upholstery, fireplaces, window treatments, electrical work, on and on. In fact, your long-standing clients come to you to find contractors of virtually every stripe. If you don’t have one or more good system integrators in your Rolodex or Palm, please contact CEDIA. They have high standards for integrators. They will take good care of your clients.

Please share your perspective on the home theater design process. The more we can talk about it, the better the state of the art.

Good listening and viewing!

John CaldwellJohn Caldwell is a 28-year grizzled veteran of the A/V business
and co-founder of StJohn Group, Inc.

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John Caldwell - Contributing Writer, St John Group, Inc
Caldwell is a 28-year grizzled veteran of the A/V business and co-founder of St. John Group, Inc.

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