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For some, the market for future proofing homes is now; for others, it’s on the horizon. Either way, the demand for residential structured wiring and green building is growing, and the electrical contractor is positioned to lead the way.

“Today, residential integrated systems are a real industry,” said Michael Strong, vice president of Brothers Strong in Houston, a remodeling firm. “And, of all the partners in home construction and remodeling, the electrician is the one who brings to the table the latest technological advances. Our firm wants an electrician who doesn’t just pull wire. We look for forward thinkers who can comfortably talk with the white collar client, the designer and really be visionary. In Houston, we increasingly see electricians on the front end of the construction process. Brothers Strong doesn’t design/build without the electrician.”

An opportunity crystallizes
A survey of electrical contractors detailed in a July 2006 report for Electrical Contractor (2006 Electrical Contractor Profile Study Topline Report) indicates that contractors are recognizing and working to secure their role in residential future proofing. Among firms with 10 to 19 employees, whole-house automation is more likely to be offered. Smaller firms would initially take on individual elements, such as home theater/sound or security and fire/safety systems. In residential work, single-family housing is found to be the largest revenue generator. For firms of fewer than nine employees, it represents half the income. The majority of those interviewed indicate a commitment to training over the next year, with a high interest in datacom and telecommunications as well as green and sustainable technology. Chris McCanles, president of Terra Nova Inc., an electronic systems integration company in Waukesha, Wis., prefers the term “future ready” to future proofing. “Future proofing implies being a clairvoyant, who I’m not,” McCanles said. “But we can get it right, so if we come back to add, upgrade or change products for a customer, it can be done without breaking into walls.”

Strong said, “It’s not the customer who misses something, it’s us. The better we are at asking questions, the better we can serve that customer today and in the future. That means a longer planning time, but it’s worth it.”

“Capacity is so important,” said Greg Carker, an electrical subcontractor who often works with Strong. “With home integration, you have to build for both existing service and future options. Many times homeowners have hired us to go back and provide additional power for new needs. That is never ideal. It’s harder to configure and more costly.”

All three men take the extra time to sit down and plan with their customers and partners such as builders, security specialists and others. Eliminating expensive work requires a longer window of planning. Asking questions about lifestyle and amenity requirements helps to foresee homeowner needs. The countless arrays of products in this burgeoning market also contribute to this extended planning process.

“Our residential integrated customers are building $400,000 or higher homes,” McCanles said. “However, what is today’s luxury becomes tomorrow’s necessity. We fully expect integrated systems to make their way to smaller homes as costs come down. Our builders are starting to come around, too, [and are] not always viewing integrated systems as an up sell.”

Elements of home integration
“Home integration is not just sex appeal but functionality and options,” Strong said. “Structured wiring allows homeowners to map out their living space, so it remains relevant and works for them many years down the road.”

Structured wiring is often called the electronic backbone for integrated systems. Multiple-use Cat 5 cable is increasingly popular for accommodating most structured wiring challenges.

With wires hidden behind walls, outlets throughout the house can be wired to accommodate multiple uses (audiovisual/telephone/computer). Automation can also be added and housed in connected panelboxes to control and program everything from security and lighting to appliances. Examples of typical customer needs include networking for multiple home computers, high-speed Internet, central vacuum systems, whole-home audio and video, home theater, and on- or off-site control of blinds, fire and medical alerts, or security alarming.

Being prepared
McCanles believes electrical contractors who expand their services are poised for home integration work. Ken Wagner, vice president of Garman Electric Inc., located outside South Bend, Ind., is one such contractor. The trouble is the business isn’t there yet.

“We have our alliances in place,” Wagner said. “But the demand from the residential customer is low. We’ve done a couple home integration style projects, but it’s been in concert with home audio specialists, security and so forth.”

While Wagner has seen structured wiring, home automation and other future proofing marketed to electrical contractors, his homeowners are the audience he wishes were more aware.

“Home automation is just being mentioned in my region,” Wagner said. “My guess is we’ll be more involved in the next three to five years. Early adopters of new technology are our market to date, and it’s encouraging that income isn’t the driver.”

“Right now, structured wiring is an up sale for our builders,” Wagner said. “Almost 80 percent of the homes in my area are spec/build or presold units. Home automation is not offered in a spec package. If the builders aren’t hearing about integration from their customers, it’s hard to sell. I see it down the road, though. Today, I may install what I call a networking box so a customer is equipped when home automation kicks in. The electrical panel might accommodate RG6 and cabling for future needs.”

The sustainable building factor
You would expect to find green building in California, and you do. But other parts of the country are turning to green for a number of reasons. Often, it is a gathered response involving a commitment to a community, an answer to a growing market and a perceived eventuality to future proofing. The Greater Houston Builder’s Association developed its Green Building Initiative to “promote and facilitate practical approaches to green construction.” The City of Houston is actually home to a pilot Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) sustainable home sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). USGBC began “LEED for Homes” in August 2005. The LEED system rates buildings in five different areas, including sustainable site planning, water efficiency, indoor environmental quality and recycled building materials. While certifications exist for commercial building, the house in Houston and others will be used to further establish guidelines for residential builds.

More than 200 builders, representing 1,600 homes across the country, are participating in the pilot program, and 26 homes have already been LEED-certified. The pilot phase concludes this spring with an official rating system due by summer 2007.

Strong and his company are enthusiastic advocates of green building. That enthusiasm led to a spinoff company called Greenhaus Builders. Strong’s Greenhaus is the builder for the Houston pilot house working with Evergreen Design Studio, a residential design firm, which initiated the project.

Kathleen Carrier’s experience in building her own solar-powered home led to the formation of her company, Evergreen Design. She remains part of a pioneering group of individuals that found each other, including some in City Hall, who actively promote sustainable construction in Houston.

“Today, I have homebuilders asking for this sustainable design,” Carrier said. “I’m convinced it will become the standard. In the past couple of months, business has started exploding as people are finding me and want what I do.”

“In Houston, the homeowner wants something more than your basic installation,” Carker said. “Sustainable building plays right into that desire. As a contractor, this level of residential future proofing might not only involve structured wiring but also solar panels where I need to figure out how to tie back into the local power grid. As prices for such solar equipment come down, the surplus power generated by the solar panels can really add up to an energy credit for the homeowner. In fact, we used the power from the panels used on the LEED house as a power source during construction.”

All three designers have learned that green construction is far from ordinary.

“With green building, I’m tackling new items such as solid concrete walls,” Carker said. “I’m dealing with different equipment like power converters for solar panels. The construction knowledge and experience I acquired through the LEED pilot house has allowed me to add expertise and service capability.”

Carrier and Strong agree. “The LEEDs project has been a day-to-day learning experience in green construction,” Carrier said. “It’s a great public relations vehicle for homebuilders and consumers to learn first hand what green building is and the considerations that go into it.”

“The professional building community is coming around,” Strong said. “This LEEDs pilot home will be an influential example to spur further green building in our area.”

Carker’s advice to electrical contractors considering the home future proofing market is simple: study.

“Do your homework. Stay up to date. Future proofing is our future. We’re the contractor being asked to make everything come together. Everything in a future proofed home has some electrical connection. To take on this work, I had to read up and learn. Never stop learning.”     EC

GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction and the landscaping industries. He writes trend, design and other business articles for Gavo clientele.