How to Succeed in MDU Automation Installation

MDU automation is vastly different than single-family home projects. Experts share success tips, and explain why MDUs aren't for every integrator.


Photography by Joe Hilliard

By Tom LeBlanc
July 11, 2008
Circling city blocks in a big van during morning rush hour, clamoring for a metered parking spot isn't fun. Neither is waiting at the freight elevator while countless tradesmen haul their equipment up to clients' high-rise condos.

"You can spend 45 minutes in an elevator sometimes," says Robert Bliss of Bliss Home Theaters & Automation Inc. in Westlake Village, Calif., near Los Angeles.

Still, the parking and the waiting (not to mention the building codes and the homeowners associations) are just part of the game for integrators like Bliss who choose to service multi-dwelling unit (MDU) clients.

In many ways, MDUs are a different animal, especially when developers task integrators with providing a base level of control automation for multiple units or entire buildings. It tends not to be as "custom" or individualized as single-family home control systems.

While that can be interpreted as "easier," that's not necessarily the case.

That MDU control installations are easier "is a myth or theory, not borne out by experience," says Howard Nunes, president and CEO of Pepperdash Technology Corp., a third-party control system programmer with locations in New York and Allston, Mass.

Creating control for the masses, he says, isn't realistic -- at least not yet.

"I have seen dealer showrooms set in vignettes for the purpose of pitching MDU units. Consumers just don't buy that way. At current price points, consumers want a consultative sale. You are still selling each homeowner a lifestyle, not an appliance kit."

Generally, John Baumeister agrees. He's the president of Niles, Ill.-based Baumeister Electronic Architects, a company that has done its share of MDU installations in Chicago.

It's not easy for a custom integrator to be profitable doing MDU control installations on a large scale, he says. Often the end user chooses to create a unique set of features -- possibly late in the game -- and the integrator must accommodate. This can disrupt the project timeline and eat into profits.

Integration companies that structure themselves to accommodate MDU installations, however, might be able to do it profitably, Baumeister suggests. "More power to them."

It's just that companies that are built around an extremely "custom" model, like Baumeister, might want to think twice before jumping into MDUs, he says. "It's not our niche."

Niche or not, many integrators are gearing up to do more MDU projects.

"With the single-family home construction market being what it is today," Eric Smith, chief technology officer for Control4, says, it makes sense that "the industry has increased its focus on [MDU] installations."

That's sentiment rings true for Bliss. "We never had an MDU client until two years ago," he says. "We have done eight since and have more scheduled."

He isn't alone, as MDU activity is rapidly increasing in Southern California. Like many trends that start in California and migrate eastward, Bliss won't be surprised if this one follows suit.

About 2,000 miles to the east, Baumeister sees the same trend. He says the custom installation industry is absolutely increasing its focus on MDU installations, and the move is fueled by economics.

"More companies are looking to that avenue as a revenue stream."

A Different Animal

That's probably why Bliss started doing MDUs, to keep the revenue steam flowing.

Looking forward, though, Bliss thinks demand for MDU control might skyrocket. MDU clients want the same control features as single-family home clients for the most part, Bliss says, adding that there is more demand among MDU clients for shade control.

On the horizon, Bliss expects concierge features to catalyze demand for control -- and those features will be specific to MDU clients.

"That's going to be a really cool," says Bliss, adding that his company has beta tested concierge systems for Crestron. He says the appeal is obvious for clients who live in big buildings.

"People move into [big, luxury buildings] for one reason, and that's ease of life." Concierge control features allow end users to do things like order groceries, order Chinese food or request somebody to go pick up dry cleaning at the press of a button.

The great thing about concierge features from an integrator's point of view, Bliss adds, is that they're not difficult to program.

"Once you have [a unit] on the network, it's actually very simple. The hard part is for the concierge [person] who actually has to go to the dry cleaners or to P.F. Chang's.

In Crestron's case, it partners with Vertical Integrations Group to supply concierge and personal services. It's part of Crestron's Multi-Dwelling Unit Total Home Technology Solution.

Crestron isn't alone, as most control manufacturers are focusing to some degree on the MDU market. Control4 established itself as a major MDU player with major hospitality contracts including Ginn Resorts, one of the biggest developers in the Southeast.

On a residential level, Control4 has done well in major metropolitan areas because of "a successful base of dealers focused toward MDU installations," Smith says.

AMX also has a concierge solution. Its AMX Amenities Solution provides electronic concierge services building-wide, says Charlie Cash, residential business unit manager. Similar to the way Bliss describes Crestron's system, Cash says AMX makes it easy for installers to install concierge features.

Also, AMX recently launched AMXhome, a solution that Cash says makes the MDU control installation process "significantly easier for dealers because we've done most of the work for them."

AMXhome isn't just for MDU applications as it is marketed for single-family home systems, too.

It includes pre-defined system components for basic and elevated control of multiroom audio, media room functions, HVAC and Internet access, according to AMX.

MDU Control Considerations

While technologies are emerging to make MDU control installations easier, there are still many challenges for integrators looking to work in that realm.

The following are some key considerations:

Popular MDU Control Features
Generally, the control demands for MDUs are similar to that of single-family homes, according to Control4's Smith.

"However, developers are often willing to make lighting, HVAC and security part of the base home price. MDUs also create an opportunity to integrate community services," he says, indicating concierge features.

Cash of AMX reiterates that shade control is another common MDU control features. Also popular, he says, are "building-wide intercom capabilities, which AMX provides via our VoIP-enabled touchpanels."

These features "can be easily layered on top of the building-wide concierge services component offered by AMX Amenities Solution."

Crestron confirms that lighting, HVAC and shades "are the three most common systems sold in MDUs," according to William Schafer, director of product and channel development. He adds that energy-efficiency is another driver.

Green technologies, however, are popular in single-family homes, too. Nunes points out that Pepperdash doesn't see much of a difference between the demands of its MDU clients and those of its single-family home clients.

"The difference occurs when centralized or interactive building systems are incorporated, such as intercoms, valets, shopping or scheduling of facility amenities," he says.

Along those lines, Baumeister says he sees a demand for control systems to provide building-wide updates, perhaps via text or voice announcement on control systems.

For instance, the HOA might want to use a building-wide system to remind residents that trash pick-up is delayed due to a holiday.

What Integrators Need to Succeed
Installing control systems in MDUs is not for every integrator. "It takes a special skill set to successfully enter the MDU market," says Smith.

He notes experience with large-scale project management is a must. Specifically, he suggests that integrators should have "experience with successfully managing multiple points of interaction including homeowners, general contractors, architects, designers and electricians."

Another requirement, says Schafer, is focus. "The only consistent thing in the MDU market is that nothing is consistent. So every project takes on a mind of its own."

Baumeister agrees that MDUs aren't for every integrator and, in fact, says that his company isn't cut out for most MDU projects.

Manpower is a major consideration, he says, especially when several units need to be worked on concurrently in order to keep pace with an elaborate timeline.

It's not just that Baumeister doesn't have the workforce, he says, it's also that MDUs just aren't his company's bread and butter. Baumeister's infrastructure is built around providing clients with extremely "custom" solutions.

It's simply not built for providing the type of repeatable control systems that are typical in MDUs. "Not that there is anything wrong with [doing that]," Baumeister says. "It's just not who we are."

Baumeister adds that when integrators consider whether or not MDUs are right for them, they should ask themselves the following:
1) Do they have the manpower to accommodate quick changes on a multi-unit level?
2) Are they working with a builder or developer that understands that providing clients with their ideal control system takes time or are they working with one that is purely concerned with saving time and money?
3) Will they be happy doing it?

In Baumeister's case, he has pretty much decided that large-scale MDU installations aren't his company's thing.

Time and Money Challenges
For integrators working on MDU projects, the bottom line is very much dictated by the developer, says Smith.

That, Baumeister says, is critical when considering whether or not an integrator can profit on an MDU project. For instance, if an integrator senses that the developer's priorities are out of sync with his own, that could spell trouble.

"Maybe there are [integrators] that can deal with it and know how to do it, but ultimately I've found that, with large-scale builders, it comes down to cost -- what's the minimal cost you'll give me and what are the freebies?" Baumeister says.

"I don't like playing that game."

Other challenges that can affect the bottom line include maintaining a rapid pace. Time sensitivity is a major factor, says Smith. "You don't have a week to go in and customize a job."

One variable that integrators might not think about when considering the timeline, according to Bliss, is that pesky elevator. It might seem trite, but he says it's significant when forecasting the time it will take to get a job done.

Referring to a major MDU Crestron award-winning control system that Bliss recently completed, "we had to walk equipment up 17 floors because the elevator couldn't fit the screen or shades," he says.

Meanwhile, integrators don't always have complete control over the amount of time a project takes because it can be a moving target. Often during a project, "important variables may change," Nunes says.

"For example, an equipment manufacturer may drop an equipment line or make a dramatic change, rendering your standard gear obsolete."

On Base-Level Control and Packages
Integrators can run into philosophical roadblocks when working on MDUs.

The only way to control costs when working on MDU control systems, according to Nunes, is to "offer an introductory or basic package with options for upgrades that are also clearly identified and distinguished from the base system."

This means that the integrator must provide all units with the same basic control system and have processes in place to offer upgrades that can, in effect, individualize every unit owner's experience.

"When an owner asks for something 'off the path,' get clear scope definition and price it like normal custom work," advises Nunes.

Programmers like Pepperdash, Nunes' company, are probably adept at this, but it's not an approach that works for every integrator. Baumeister tried providing base-level control in MDUs, but found that it's not a good fit for his business.

"We tried it on smaller scales with Crestron systems, offering a base package with lighting control and then asking them what they want individually," Baumeister says.

"What ends up happening is we've even lost jobs because we've made it more complicated, because we're not guys who make packages. The guys who make packages may be able to be more profitable and make that happen."

According to Cash of AMX, "To be profitable in this [MDU] market, integrators must take an assembly-line approach to control system design and installation. Control systems and A/V packages must be pre-defined so that they can be effectively sold and replicated in multiple units throughout a building."

Control4's Smith agrees that the repeatable approach works, but says a more customized approach can also work in MDUs.

It comes down to integrators working with builders to come up with the right solution for individual projects, he says.

"We have seen success among our dealers that fully automate properties with packages similar in all units and we have dealers that are successful with offering customizable solutions for every homeowner." He adds that it comes down to resources.

"If you are going to pre-wire and then work with each homeowner to customize a package, you need to make sure you have the resources dedicated to up-selling the upgrades."

In most cases, Cash says, clients choose to upgrade.

"We've also found that additional upgrades are often added as the project nears completion, which can cause inefficiency. The best way for integrators to prevent this is to physically demonstrate the base package and technology upgrades available at the time of purchase to minimize last minute changes."

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