Commercial Integrator Europe Q&A: Jonathan Murray, HTI

CIE spoke to HTI’s business development manager about the need for easily understandable residential technology and the future of the networked home.

David Davies

In the week that Scotland decides whether or not it is to remain part of the UK, it seems only right that we target the country for our integrator Q&A. Based in Edinburgh, HTI’s focus stretches beyond home automation and entertainment to encompass the support of clients in specifying and installing energy-efficient systems in residential, hotels and serviced properties. CIE spoke to business development manager Jonathan Murray about the need for easily understandable residential technology and the future of the networked home.

What would you describe as HTI’s primary USPs with regard to the residential integration market?

One of the primary characteristics of our company is that our team have not only done some of the largest residential installations in Scotland, but we have worked with over 100 developers and pre-wired over 4500 homes across the UK.

First and foremost, we don’t focus on the technology, we speak to them about how they want their home to perform for them. If we constantly talk ‘tech’ to clients, they tend to tune us out. Technology in the home should be easy to understand and use, whilst enhancing the homeowner lifestyle. Our clients care about the end performance, not about how it all works.

While we deal in ‘black boxes’, we understand that this is a service and solution-driven business, something often forgotten about when working with other trades as to who the end user is. We try to meet with every single client in order to explain the potential of their new home and explore how they can customise their home to suit their lifestyle.
We always look to provide impartial advice to both developers and homeowners making sure that they gain value in their project from what we do. Sometime this means telling them that something is too much or not necessary and they should focus their budgets elsewhere, like suggesting that instead of putting speakers in as a standard, a developer should focus on pre-wiring more of the property and give the homebuyer more options when it comes to choosing how they want to finish their home. This type of honestly helps build a relationship based on trust for years to come.

While we specialise in new build properties, we also have worked on a number of refurbishment projects, helping homeowners and developers to bring a property up to date without ruining the ascetics of it.

What type of projects represent the largest share of your workload at present? 

Around 40% of our business is working with property developers, encouraging them to pre-wire their developments that will offer homeowners an opportunity to enhance their home to suit lifestyle, while allowing them to adapt and grow their system to suit their evolving needs. The next 40% of our business is working with private clients on their custom homes, which is exciting and challenging work, especially when the project length can stretch into three or four years.

An area that is around 20% of our business but is steadily growing are serviced apartments, where we install environmental controls, which not only enhance the look and feel of the projects, but also help keep utility bills to a minimum. We have recently completed phase one of a serviced apartment block where the lights are triggered into a welcome scene when the guest puts in their 4-digit access code in at the front door. This development, which included the oldest townhouse in Edinburgh, also has multi-zoned heating control to help heat areas only where it is required. The concierge can control all the apartment from the reception, so when someone checks out the apartment can have its lights put off and the heating put into frost protection by the press of a button at reception, therefore ensuring the apartment is switched off. We have some large serviced apartment projects in our pipeline for the next 18-24 months, which will be exciting.

In what ways has the overall project mix changed in recent years – and why?

There has been considerable change in recent years. The construction and home building industry has taken a huge knock with the state of the economy since 2008 but it is slowly starting to come out of that now. During this time we had to look at other associated markets, like the serviced apartments, where demand is still high and also the private client market where individuals of high net worth are looking to build their own dream homes and naturally technology is a part of this. The result is that we went from being 80% developer focused to a much more balanced and robust 40% developers, 40% private clients and 20% serviced apartments mix.

Within the projects themselves the product mix has also changed; where the AV side of things used to be all about the ‘wow’ factor, more and more homeowners are now looking to us for heating and lighting control, both wired and wireless, as ways of reducing the constantly rising utility costs that a home has.

As technology has evolved, our product mix has had to evolve as well. Networking is now a fundamental component of almost every installation, which has opened up the door to remote access and monitoring, which allow us to provide our clients better and faster customer care service at a lower cost.

During your time in the residential integration business, what has been the most significant technological change – and why?

From an AV point of view, everything seems to have changed [so] it’s hard to pick just one but High Definition and its distribution was certainly a challenge, and from an automation point of view the evolution of LED lighting and its dimming certainly gave us some challenges.

To what extent is the networked home now a reality?

The networked home is here already in a very basic form. Wireless routers, handheld tablets, Netflix, Nest all contribute to create a networked home. There are very few devices in the home that aren’t going to evolve into ‘the internet of things’ and with companies like Apple and their Homekit, and Google with Nest now entering the market, this is only going to increase. Over the past couple of years, the single most important training we have provided our engineers with has revolved around networking, because it’s imperative they have solid understanding of building a system that not only talks to the internet. Not only do customers what to get all the features and benefits of a networked home, but it allows us to create a stable remote access. With that set-up,  when a homeowner calls we can go online at the office, see the issue and, in many cases, rectify their issue without spending the time and money in sending and engineer to their home.

What do you make of emerging technologies like 4K, and the impact they might have on your projects?

There is a limited amount of 4K content available but this will likely change over time. We found when 3D came along that initially it had an impact for six months and then tailed off as good HD pictures were giving an almost 3D effect with LED LCD TV screens. I anticipate the same will happen with 4K until there is more content available. In the meanwhile we always try to suggest 4K-compatible components, where the upgrade from 1080p isnt too costly, in order to lower the potential future upgrade cost for the client.

What more can be done – by installers, consultants, manufacturers – to help bring high-end residential automation technology to a wider audience?

For installers, I have for the last 10 years believed that part of our role in this industry is education and I don’t think this has changed. Making yourself available as a consultant and advisor can help make sure the specifiers, whether they be homeowners, developers, M&E consultants or architects, are all getting impartial information in easy-to-understand terms. 

For consultants, the biggest change that has to happen is to get the specifiers to stop thinking of us in the same terms as the electrical contractors. They should be writing performance specifications that suit the end user’s requirements, not tender specifications with a list of components that someone thinks will deliver what the end-user wants. A year ago our MD was asked to consult on a large project up near Inverness. The client has given their tender to 3 different installers and got back quotes for £50,000, £95,000 and £142,000. We worked with them to write a ‘plain English’ performance specification that the client understood and agreed to, and then gave it back to the same three installers. The result was three new quotes that all came back within 4% of each other and the client now had a document they could refer to at the end of the project to make sure that they had the system they asked for.

Finally, manufacturers should look to the tablet industry for how they should develop their product ecosystems. Keeping it too closed and refusing anything but the most basic interoperability with other products is not going to win favour with installers or specifiers. Open protocols systems like KNX allow clients to choose from a wide variety of manufacturers, depending on their specific requirements. Manufacturers who mandate that installers can only use their cable, their switches, their tablets, their amplifiers, etc, don’t even get a look-in with us. Opening up your systems, getting interfaces with other systems and focusing on your strengths without trying to do everything are the best ways to broaden your reach into this market.

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