Collaborating Beyond Technology – Commercial Integrator

Sometimes, collaboration is about specialists on a project who come together to make everything work.
Brian Kelly Photography
Editor’s note: Commercial Integrator has teamed up with the IMCCA, the New York-based non-profit industry association for unified communication and workplace collaboration, to produce a quarterly supplement, titled Collaboration Today and Tomorrow, that focuses on all things collaboration from multiple perspectives.
Collaboration isn’t always about live video and audio to a remote participant. Sometimes, collaboration is about specialists on a project who come together to make everything work. 
For us, it all started on a Sunday night just before sunset…. 
It’s common on Sundays for my husband and me to drive around and do site surveys for our family-owned residential-integration business, TruMedia. That way, we can make sure our week is on track for our team. This Sunday night, we planned to end our site surveys at a job site that stood alone, high on a hill, overlooking our town. As we pulled up, we noticed another truck, which is unusual in the evenings on a job site. But we figured it might just be the homeowners stopping by, wanting, like us, to check out the progress. And that is where we met him. 
The “him” in this story is Ryan LaHaie, chief architect and owner of 42° North Architecture + Design. With more than 25 years in architecture and residential design, he also wanted to check the progress of this project…to view the impressive steel skeletal structure of this home at sunset. That was the first of what we would discover to be many similarities in thoughts and values that we shared with this man who, now, is one of our best collaborative partners. 
Now, don’t get too excited and think this was just one serendipitous moment and the rest is history. This relationship took work and dedication on both of our parts, and it could be likened more to a team sport. This collaboration, however, has been instrumental to our growth over the past four years. It is my hope that you are able to learn something from this tale. You might even take away something to help you develop your own partnerships. 
So, let’s start with the backstory. How did it come to be that LaHaie and I were working on the same project? He admits that, in the past, he worked with one other integrator on a project. Although it went well, it wasn’t, in his words, “anything spectacular.”
But LaHaie was nonetheless intrigued and wanted to learn more about the technology that could be used in a home. A short time later, the builder on this particular project brought us in to serve as integration partner. And those were the circumstances under which we met LaHaie on that fateful night. 
Perhaps both of us lucked out somewhat because of this project’s circumstances. While, at first, the builder was slightly resistant to the concept of a lighting control system and some of the other ideas we suggested, the client was excited and onboard. They were a driving force in the acceptance of an integration partner. 
The real push for integration, however, came during the electrical walk-through. Remember when I told you about the impressive steel skeletal structure in LaHaie’s design? Well, it was so impressive that the client and he insisted that it remain exposed in the interior of the house, as well. The only issue? That severely limited the wall space for the light switches. That was made painfully obvious when we reached the front door.
While the builder, designer and electrician struggled to figure out how they would put in all the switches necessary, my husband just stepped forward and said, “We could do any of those if you really want to…or we could do this instead.” He held up a Lutron HomeWorks six-button keypad. The conversation was over that quickly. This home would in fact be having a Lutron HomeWorks system installed. 
As anyone in the integration industry understands, determining something like this at the electrical walk-through is not ideal. However, as integrators — we who are constantly trying to get a seat at the table earlier — we often must make do with what we get. This meant that it would be “all hands on deck,” and it meant that we would have to make sure our communication with everyone was on point.
We also realized that, if we could do this (and do it well), we would have the opportunity to really showcase what we, as integrators, could add to the design to enhance LaHaie and the client’s vision for the home. 
To say we hit it out of the park would be an understatement. Later, upon reflection, LaHaie said this project really made him realize how important it is to bring up the pre-wire and infrastructure conversation early with clients. He looked at developing a team with us on his projects because he recognized how technology was, in his words, “new and exciting…one of the ‘wow’ factors that can make a home personalized and memorable.” He also viewed it as a method of offering a competitive advantage in his niche. 
On projects in our area, clients often meet with an architect prior even to determining their builder. So, it proved wise to focus on educating LaHaie and his team about what we could offer clients. We discovered that we had a fellow teammate who was committed to educating the builder, as well. Often, builders’ primary objectives are to build the house, adhere to code and stay within budget.
Although these things are of course very important, it is often the architect who designs the “it factors” of the house. And we are better positioned to help them with that. Meantime, architects are the perfect partners to help us convert builders into fans, helping them understand the importance of what we offer. LaHaie is excited to bring us up during conversations with both clients and builders because, according to him, “You make us look smarter!” 
LaHaie says, “The most exciting piece of technology for the home right now is lighting!” It’s not just the fixtures, of course; instead, it’s what can be done with them. It’s the science behind designing a system so that we utilize the natural light from the windows; we allow it to flow through to the fixtures; we balance the color temperature of light throughout the day; and we create and simply automate the scenes so that a client never has to think about it.
We can accomplish all this for a client while minimizing the view of technology and making sure they don’t suffer from the dreaded “wall acne” of having banks of switches and devices all over the place. 
The key to our successful collaboration has been mutual respect for each other’s skills and knowledge. We educate each other about what we bring to the table, and we have open communication. Often, LaHaie and I will send messages or pictures back and forth of architectural ideas we see or technology ideas that are new. So, we’re always keeping our creativity flowing. These conversations allow us to have talks with clients sooner. That way, we can make sure that, in each home, we’re accentuating the details that the architect originally envisioned. 
LaHaie’s advice to other architects is to interview the integrators in your area. Meet with them before you’re under the gun on a project. Discuss with them what they can bring to the table. It’s also important to inspect their work on a job site. If the things that are visible in the mechanical room are neat and clean, you can usually rest assured that what is hidden behind the walls is also that way.
Develop a good relationship with your integrator and then, in plain words, just get out of the way. If you’ve done your homework, you should have a partner that you can trust…a partner that will make you look good. My advice to integrators out there is to learn how to educate your local architects. You shouldn’t try to “sell” them. Be a resource for them, even if they don’t use you right from the start. Always being a trusted resource on whom they can call will eventually win them over.
Also, we all know it’s not ideal to be called in last minute. But, if it happens, be willing to work with the team and don’t spend all your time complaining about it. Instead, have a recap on the project when you aren’t under deadline pressures. That’s the time to have a candid conversation with your architect about how bringing you to the table earlier is in their best interest. 
The bottom line: Don’t give up. These collaborations take work and communication. However, when you find a partner like LaHaie and his team at 42° North Architecture + Design, it’s worth it! 
Good luck and happy collaborating! 
For more Collaboration Today and Tomorrow content, check out our website archives.
Amanda Wildman is owner of TruMedia.
Commercial Integrator is dedicated to addressing the technological and business needs of professional integrators who serve the small and midsize business market. Whether you design, sell, service, or install… work on offices, churches, hospitals, schools or restaurants, Commercial Integrator is the dedicated resource you need.
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