Why Hire a Design Firm?

Using a company that specializes in designing home technology plans can offer several advantages when building a house.

Large custom homes with complex A/V and control systems can benefit from a desgin firm's oversight.

Custom electronics professionals (CE pro) are multi-talented. They can design an electronics system for your home, program it and install it. However, given the current business model of most custom electronics design and installation firms, you may want to consider hiring a company that specializes in design only. To find out why, we spoke with Scott Marchand and Jason Wright of Marchand Wright & Associates (MWA), San Francisco, Calif. Both with extensive backgrounds in home systems design and installation, Marchand and Wright launched their home technology consulting company two months ago after recognizing an unfulfilled need in the market.

One of the main differentiators between a company like MWA and a conventional custom electronics design and installation firm, says Marchand, is that “Typically design/build firms specialize in certain equipment and brands, allowing them to become experts in that particular equipment. This makes business sense because it allows these firms to create repeatable, consistent systems and get the full support of the equipment manufacturers. However, it doesn’t allow these firms to take an agnostic view of all possible options, and help guide the clients to the best options for their home, regardless of systems or brands. This is what MWA offers.”

Three Phases of Project Design

The company breaks down its services into three phases. The initial Predesign Phase, which occurs right after the architects have completed their schematic designs, focuses on education. “We educate clients on all the available technologies and discuss pros, cons and costs of each option,” says Wright. During this phase MWA uses custom computer software that builds a real-time budget as clients add elements to the design. Clients are able to modify the design on the fly and see the changes reflected immediately in the projected budget.

From these preliminary meetings with clients MWA produces documentation that can be used by the architect and other contractors to ensure that the house is built to support certain specified technologies. For example, the main equipment head-end, where the majority of a home’s electronic components will reside, requires significant planning for space, power, ventilation and conduit. Moreover, a design that includes a video projector that lowers from the ceiling will require adequate space and ventilation within the ceiling, and a media room might require that a cavity be constructed so that a TV can be recessed into the wall.

Of course, clients will need a home systems installer to bring the design to fruition. And MWA will get this ball rolling, too, during Phase 2, which typically begins after the general contractor has been brought on board. Based on the scope of the project, MWA narrows down a large list of potential installers to a much smaller list of well-qualified firms. “We analyze each on several criteria until we have narrowed it down to three or four viable firms,” Wright explains.

During the Request for Proposal (RFP) process, each of these firms is then asked to develop a unique plan, based on electronic systems and brands they use on a regular basis, while staying within the confines of the MWA scope of work and budget parameters. After carefully reviewing each proposal, select the “best fit,” and offer their recommendation to their client. “One of the issues we’re resolving is that small installation firms will often try to tackle large, complex projects that they may not be well suited for, and conversely, large firms will sometimes try to tackle small projects that they aren’t geared for. Our goal is to match the right firms with the right project, increasing the likelihood that the project will go well,” says Wright.

During the installation and programming of the equipment by the chosen firm—Phase 3—MWA stays on board to provide additional guidance and support. “We provide project oversight to ensure that all trades are properly coordinated with each other to ensure that there are no gaps or overlap in scope of work, and that trade is moving forward on time and on budget,,” Marchand explains.

Marchand and Wright admit their company’s approach isn’t for everyone. Although MWA’s services tend to pay for themselves over the life of a project, its services are more appropriate for new construction projects of at least 5,000 square feet or elaborate dedicated home theaters. According to Wright, “Our clients are the type of people who want to know that they’re getting good advice, and that they’re getting the best value from the firms that will install and support the electronic systems.”

If you’re considering a high-tech project, also check out:
6 Important Pieces of Info to Share with Your Tech Installer
Integrated Control vs. Multiple Apps for Home Automation
How to Add Lighting Control to Your Home


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