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In MDUs, the Sky's the Limit

When PRO AV asks its readers whether they do work in the residential market, nearly half say they do. Now, that figure might be down this year if all we were talking about was single-family homes. But residential projects encompass so much more.

Credit: Cy CYR/WPN

WHEN PRO AV ASKS ITS READERS whether they do work in the residential market, nearly half say they do. Now, that figure might be down this year if all we were talking about was single-family homes. But residential projects encompass so much more.

By the end of 2008, the city of San Antonio expects to see an additional 6,200 new luxury apartments on the market. In Toronto, now called the Condo Kingdom by local pundits, 33,980 units are under construction, more than are under development in Manhattan, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Only Miami exceeds Toronto's pace, where properties with name like Jade Ocean, Jade Beach, and Asia continue to make the crane the national bird of South Florida.

In fact, a market shift from single-family homes to multiple dwelling unit (MDU) properties has created something of a glut. That's why more developers plan to include a broad array of technologies to differentiate their products and entice buyers, many of whom are expected to be empty-nesters and younger retirees coming from houses where they've already grown used to integrated AV, automation, and security systems.

“Projects like the Jade properties and Asia at Brickell Beach are becoming the templates for the future of MDU systems,” says Pete Baker, vice president of sales and marketing for control systems maker RTI. “They've provided for structured cabling from the very beginning, the subsystems they're putting in are logically tied together, and they've partnered with systems integrators who are scaled to be able to meet the needs of the projects.”

And who also, almost by necessity, have strong IT backgrounds. Because in the high-rise, Internet Protocol is where it's at. For MDU developers, devices that are IP-addressable mean a larger pool of products to choose from; they allow wireless and server-based systems to be more widely implemented in units; and they now address one of the biggest concerns of integrating systems for multiple units: security (information and otherwise).

“Every endpoint on the system is specifically designed to require a programmed permission to be used,” explains Chad Gillenwater, vice chairman of AVI-SPL. “With the permissions in place, one unit owner can respond to a doorbell by activating the lobby security camera, tilting and panning it if necessary, and having control of the camera and its content for the time it takes to answer the ring. That way, no one else in another unit can watch who's calling on them.”

Another challenge particular to MDU environments is the fact that any propertywide systems will have to be updated periodically. Again, this argues for an IP-based approach. “The touch panels in a unit are the common port of entry for information and system updates,” says Baker.

Jimmy Baikovicius, principal at Ikatu, a Boca Raton, Fla.–based integrator that's working on the Jade and Asia condo projects, says updating the software is done transparently. “The touch panel in each unit is programmed to look like a typical button-type interface, but it is actually a Web page on an always-connected browser,” he explains. Each unit becomes a private network that rides on the buildings' common fiber-optic cabling.

Of course, high-tech systems integration in MDUs isn't a completely new phenomenon. Luxury “condo hotels” popular in markets like South Florida and Las Vegas have often had so-called electronic concierge services, ranging from unit maintenance to valet services, available to a homeowner or guest. Gillenwater says these kinds of services, along with entertainment content packages, will help sell integrated MDUs.

“You're going to offer the same basic functionality to the entire building, such as concierge access, security camera access, and cable television,” Gillenwater says. “After that, the developer can arrange tiered packages of systems that the homeowner can either purchase along with the unit or upgrade to later. The functionality isn't going to go out of style.”

Such an implicit and potentially appreciating value proposition could help overcome what Gillenwater believes has historically held back wider implementation of integrated AV/IT systems in MDUs. “Developers did not see the value in systems and as a result were reluctant to pay for them,” he says. “They couldn't see the possibility of successfully passing the costs on to the buyer. When you have a flexible set of systems and give the buyer options, you have a better chance of making the upsell and creating an ongoing revenue source.”


Still, experts caution that not everything on the market is ready for prime time, and that anything that's not bulletproof could offset the benefits of a well-connected building.

“Energy conservation, in the form of lighting control and automated window shades, is a huge priority for home buyers now,” says Bill Schafer, director of channel development at Crestron. “But developers have to make sure that the components going into these systems are capable of working in an MDU environment, which is different from that of a single-family home.”

For instance, Schafer cites the wide use of wireless dimmers in MDUs as a way to expedite electricians' installation work. “But you can't put a wireless dimmer designed for a house in Kansas into a condo in Manhattan,” he says. “The RF environments are totally different. The condo wireless dimmer has to be properly shielded against a higher level of RF.”

In fact, says Schafer, the products Crestron recommends for MDU use are the same ones it specifies for medical and military applications. “Using components that aren't specified for heavy-duty use is taking a chance on making the home automation systems a liability rather than an asset.”

Dan Daley is a freelance technology writer, author, songwriter, and music producer.


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