Home Automation Podcast Episode #31: An Industry Q&A With David VanWert
Exploring a better approach to the design-build process
This week's home automation podcast features our host Ron Callis interviewing JB Fowler. Recorded live on Wednesday, January 24th at 12:30 p.m. EST.
About David VanWert
David VanWert has nearly 20 years of experience in the A/V integration field with 8 years as President of VanWert Technology Design with design projects throughout the globe. When not running the day to day operations of VTD, David enjoys spending time with his wife and two daughters, going to concerts, playing ice hockey, and snowboarding.
Here are some of the topics Ron had the opportunity to discuss with David:
- David's background in the A/V industry
- His company, VanWert Technology Design
- The benefits of design on a project
- How to improve the "process" of technology on high end residential projects
- And more!
Ron: Hello everybody. Happy Wednesday. I hope you are doing well out there. Thanks for joining me for another episode of Automation Unplugged. Brought to you by One Firefly. So today is Wednesday. What is it, 1232 on January 24th, 2018. I hope you're having a great day. And I know that I've actually been pretty into a fun research project with my wife in that our son goes to a particular school and he's in the third grade entering fourth grade soon. And we've been trying to deliberate and determine do we keep him at that school and or do we move him to another school? And it's been, we're up to our eyeballs in school visits and tours and so anyway, I was doing that this morning and I'm fresh off of some of those interviews and I'm here with you guys today. So we have a very exciting guest. I'm going to go ahead and bring him in. Now. We have the one and only David VanWert. How are you sir?
David: Not too bad. I am doing good.
Ron: Let me go ahead and check our Facebook actually and see if we are streaming. So bear with me here as I check our technology and see if it's cooperating. For those of you that have been with me for a little while on some of our shows, you'll know that sometimes it cooperates and sometimes it does not. And I know that I am, Oh, I hear some audio. I think he's killing that now. Busted. I think David was checking it out too. So David is with VanWert Technology Design and David, I've known you for, I want to say maybe 10 years or so?
David: A little bit longer than that.
Ron: Since your DSI days, right? All the way back then. And that was 10 years ago. So 10 years. So, and you've been running VanWert Technology Design for the past eight plus years.
Ron: Can you describe for our audience what is VanWert Technology Design? What type of business and I'm sure that we'll go from there.
David: Yeah. So we're a designing consulting firm for all technologies throughout the largest states and other projects. So, you know, we help with the the overall design process for all types of technology, movie theaters, automation systems, lighting control, shades, security, you know, the works, you name it, kind of all of the things that during the design process of a home are not being developed, you know during the design process with an architect or your other trades.
Ron: So you run a consultancy helping homeowners or architects. And I want to peel the layers back as we go through this. But you help homeowners design and specify the technology for their homes and then make sure that it gets implemented correctly. Is that right?
David: Correct, yeah. In a nutshell.
Ron: In a nutshell. So how did you get started in the AV integration space and is that what you call what we do? Is it AV integration? Is it home automation? What is it? And how did you get started here, if you don't mind?
David: Yeah, so I like most people, I lump it into the AV integration. You know, sometimes people like that term, sometimes they don't. Most on the construction side of things, everyone kind of calls it the AV guy, if you will. But yeah, I got started in the industry coming up on just about 20 years ago started working for Circuit City when I was a kid. Like a lot of us started in this industry and selling stereos and TVs back in the late nineties. And just really enjoyed being able to do that for a living. And it's not a bad thing to be able to do. And throughout the years, just kind of worked my way up the ranks. You know, through different integration firms. You know, from Circuit City to a couple of different custom companies. And then, eight years ago saw this saw this need. Saw a big hole in the design process when a client is building a new home and decided to really jump head first into it and see where it took me. And here we are eight years later.
Ron: So what were some of the holes or the needs that you felt existed in the marketplace? Why should a homeowner hire a technology consultant versus going to an integration firm that might be able to, you know, some of them might argue, do the same thing. So what's the value proposition of hiring a firm like yours?
David: What I found, you know, as you mentioned, eight, 10 years ago I was with with DSI Entertainment Systems, which at the time was the 800 pound gorilla in Los Angeles. They had the vast majority of the business, had a huge company, everything else. And while I was with them in a design and sales capacity, I kept coming across, competitive bid situations to where you'd get brought onto a project. And you're bidding against two other companies, and the typical you know, MO of that is you get brought in by the contractor or the architect and they'd say, okay, give us a proposal. And really that would be about the amount of detail you got. They'd say, we want speakers here, here, and here. We want TVs here, here and here, and we want wifi throughout. And, you know, that was about the amount of detail that you got a lot of the time. And so what I found is that there would be all of these competitive bid situations that you would lose for no reason. That, integrator X, Y, Z would get the job because they're selling the same exact thing for 30% less or 40% less, you know. But we all know, that's never the case. And really what I found is during the design process of a home you have all of these trades or professionals that design a project and then you have other professionals that execute a project. You know what I mean? For instance, you have the architect that designs the home and design some spaces. You have an electrical engineer, you have a mechanical engineer, you have a lighting designer, you have a landscape designer, you have an interior designer. All of these different professionals that design a system and then it's executed by somebody else, whether that's the general contractor or the HVAC guy or the electrician, you know, the list goes on and on. And I found it. I said, okay, why is our industry, which is arguably the most complicated part of the house, done completely different? It's the only one of the trades in the new construction business that's done design build, typically only. You know, to where everything else is done, the opposite, you know. And so that's what really kind of peaked my interest. And I said, okay, that doesn't make any sense, you know. And so that's what gave me not really the idea. But you know, kind of pushed me to do that. I bounced it off of some of my peers. You know other architects and contractors in the space, and then they jumped at the idea. And so that's really what gave me that push that those years ago. So now I appreciate it.
Ron: And David, I want to address our audience. If you're out there. Thank you for watching. Please like the video. Please share the video and maybe most important, please comment. So if you have questions for David and you want to hear him respond live. And by the way Lewis, thanks for giving me feedback that the stream is working well. That's always good to hear. And and hi to you. And David, Louis Galvon says hello.
David: Hey Louis, how you doing? Thanks for watching.
"In terms of interfacing with a customer that's hiring or engaging with a technology consultant and I hear you is that there certainly are a lot of examples of much of the rest of the house being led by a designer in some capacity to then have that work in many cases done by others."
Ron: So if you're out there, please comment, like, share. It helps us spread the love, spread the good message out to the industry and everybody wins. And again, if you have questions, we certainly want to field those questions. Now, David, in terms of interfacing with a customer that's hiring or engaging with a technology consultant and I hear you is that there certainly are a lot of examples of if not all of the rest of the house, much of the rest of the house being led by a designer in some capacity to then have that work in many cases done by others. How do you engage with them? Because I'm going to say maybe the field of doing technology consulting or design, there it's not as common as the architect or the interior designer. You know, you and I were chatting offline about the number. It certainly seems like maybe there's less than 50 entities in North America doing this, maybe much less than that. So what is the process to simply engage them and help them understand why bringing a technology designer is the right answer. And then when they agree and you're on board, how do you go through the next steps? I mean, where do you start?
David: So I found that using that analogy.. Cause when a homeowner is first building a home it's a daunting process there. There's a lot to know. There's a lot that they don't know. And technology is one of the major things that the entire design team from the architect on down. It is mostly not their expertise. And so being able to really like in that analogy of you already have, a mechanical engineer, electrical engineer, a lighting designer. They're easily able to wrap their head around. Oh yeah, that makes a lot of sense. That there's this other missing hole of not only just the AV, but everything nowadays talks to each other, you know, being the AV, the automation system, the lighting control, the shades, the network, the security, you know pool and spa control, you know, all of the different things that you can integrate, you know, now are all under one ecosystem. And having somebody that's able to think about those things early on and talk about what the client wants to accomplish, how to integrate those things effectively throughout the home, and then do it much earlier. You know, a lot of the times we're brought on very early in the design process, sometimes even before general contractors you know, just so things like equipment room spaces and conduit requirements and power requirements and all of the backend stuff can be thought about and budgeted early on. Things that typically don't happen until much, much later in the process. You know, most of the time, more often than not, AV as a general term isn't really thought about until framing, you know and so you, a lot of times clients and the rest of the team gets behind the eight ball on that.
Ron: Is this a California thing? Is there a density of consultants in California? I know there's, you know, a bunch of, a number of well known firms up in San Francisco, there's a good handful there in the LA Orange County market. Is this a, an LA California or not LA, but a California thing? Or are you seeing technology consultants emerging around the country?
David: Yeah, I would say it's more concentrated in LA, probably just really due to the size and scope of the projects.
Ron: There's a lot of big projects in that market.
David: Yeah. I mean, you drive down any street in LA and there's a 10,000 plus square foot house going up on every corner. You know, so there's definitely lots of business around here. But yeah, and I think across the country, you definitely have pockets of people that are starting to do this. And it's kind of a lot like a lighting designer, you know, many years ago, lighting designers didn't really exist and homeowners or the design team will say, Oh, well that's the electrician's job. You know, but not the case anymore. I mean, I would say a vast majority of projects that we work on have a lighting designer as well. So it's kind of along the same lines as that profession, you know, and starting to definitely grow exponentially. You know, eight years ago there was, maybe two or three of us that I was aware of throughout the country, and now, like you said, they're definitely starting to pop up. And, you know, I'm seeing a lot more of them throughout the country.
Ron: So what is a typical deliverable from you? When a client's paying you under contract, what are you delivering? And I'm gonna make a guess. I'm assuming you're listening to them and helping them understand what's possible and balancing that with budget to design a specification of sorts and something perhaps that can be put out to bid for contractors, but what if you don't mind?
David: Sure, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, so we go through, during the process and kind of the design development we really talk to clients across the board with all of these different technologies, you know, from AV all the way through security and cameras and things of that nature. Even things that your typical AV integrator doesn't necessarily touch always. But we'll provide everything from detailed floor plans reflected ceiling plans, conduit requirements, interior elevations, section drawings. So really everything for the most part that not only brings a project together and makes it, you know, easier to install, but then also creates a template or a platform for integrators to submit, you know, true, you call them apples to apples, bids. You know, I think that's one of the biggest benefits of two clients. But then also to integrators is, you know, I saw myself on the other side. You know, on the integration side, there was never truly an apples to apples bid comparison. There was always something different, Control4 versus Crestron and things like that. And you were never really bidding from the same map if you would. So having our deliverable that goes out to bid to integrators truly allows them to bid exactly the same thing. You know, really based on what the client's needs are and their budget and all of that is developed before an integrator even sees it. So it definitely helps to allow things to get much tighter. And it allowed all integrators to be on a level playing field, which in our experience, majority of them really liked that fact that they're now bidding again based on who they are and what their team is and not necessarily, you know, who's the rock bottom price.
"There's a number of choices of good control brands, good lighting brands, good shading brands, good audio brands. And a lot of times integrators pick their horse or maybe a few horses they're gonna ride and that's their brand. But as a specifier or consultant, you really have your choice of everything."
Ron: How do you handle a manufacturer specification? Right? So I'm just giving an example. You know, if you have a few decide that you want a touch panel. Control space control system that can talk to lighting and shading and music systems and a specification could be written around that. You know, there's a number of choices of good control brands, good lighting brands, good shading brands, good audio brands. And a lot of times integrators, you know, pick their horse or maybe a few horses, they're gonna ride and that's their brand. But as a specifier or consultant, you really have your choice of everything. And so do you delineate preferences or do you let the contractors bidding on a spec to delineate brand preferences? I don't know if that's a tricky question or not, but I know for some it could be sensitive.
David: Yeah, no, not necessarily at all. So a lot of the things are somewhat interchangeable. You know, from, let's call, a speaker specification just for distributed audio, maybe not necessarily for private theaters, but you know distributed audio surrounds basic surround sound zones, things like that. A lot of that stuff, as long as you start with a base spec you know, throwing out a couple of brands out there. Whether it's a Sonance speaker or an Origin acoustic speaker or name a myriad of other brands. At the end of the day as long as you're following that rough performance spec they're fairly interchangeable. You know, at the end of the day, does a client care if it's an Integra receiver or a Denon receiver? Probably not. You know, most homeowners have never heard of those different brands. But from a control system standpoint, that's one of the things where you definitely try and lock it in. And they all have their pros and cons and so we do our best to run the client through the different options. What are the different pros and cons are of the systems and allow them to decide cause especially the biggest one is Crestron versus Savant. You know, that's always every single project. That's always the biggest sticking point of biggest point of communication.
Ron: Does your specification end up based on the result of you educating the customer. Is there a brand that is picked in that brand? And that product mix is what goes out to bid?
David: Absolutely. And so we detail some other consulting firms that I'm aware of, you know, do more of a high-level spec. They'll call it a touchscreen interface, you know, or a six and a half-inch speaker and leave it for a lot of room for interpretation. I think the downside to that is it opens the door for a lot of variation in term of spec and budget. You know, so we'll really find today and should the selection be Crestron, we'll say, location X gets a TSW 760, get it down to that granular of detail. And based on that, really based on the control system specification is how we'll kind of hone in on who the best fit might be. I mean, it has the benefit of a vast majority of your top dealers in Los Angeles and Orange County. All support Crestron and Savant. So it never really becomes much of an issue. But you know, an integrator will ask, well, why did we select brand A over brand B? And we'll say, you know, typically there'll be a sticking point that a client says that are really flipped that, whether it's customization or template-based, you know, really kind of helps drive that conversation.
Ron: So what is your read, or now that you've been at this for eight years, you now have projects that have gone through your full cycle. Is that accurate?
David: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Now quite a few.
Ron: Well now with the benefit of looking at those projects and knowing what projects look like without the technology consultant and with, what's your opinion on how they're different or better having gone through a process like?
David: Sure. So I think know the biggest benefits are going to be early on. You know, from a design team standpoint being the architects, the client contractor, you know that standpoint, it allows someone to fill that hole without having to engage an integrator quite that early. You know, like I said, a lot of the times that stuff gets thrown by the wayside or it's just kind of a question mark. A question mark throughout the early in the process. So it helps kind of fill that hole, filling in a lot of the questions from a design standpoint, requirements standpoint and it also takes it off their plate. You know, normally a general contractor is required to do this. And like I said, it's not really their expertise. So in most cases they're happy to have somebody that that's able to not only develop a scope of budget and design requirements for Leon, but then also manage the bidding process and making sure that things are apples to apples and everybody's on the same page. And then from an integrator standpoint it's helpful for them early on, because then again, most of the time they're in a competitive bid situation but it now allows them to showcase who the company is and not who's the lowest price. And they're not fighting against the brands or different solutions. Client knows what they want, they know the budget that should cost them and allowed levels, the playing field with all of that. You know, so those are definitely the biggest benefits that would be.
Ron: Do you find yourself getting brought in by homeowners directly or are architects bringing you into the table or interior designers bringing you to the table? How's that dynamic working?
David: Our three largest referring partners, if you will, are definitely architects contractors and construction managers. Those are the three. You know, we definitely get referrals from integrators as well. As well as you know, we'll have homeowners finest directly from time to time. But yeah, those were the top three.
Ron: Okay. And you are doing projects not just in LA is that correct?
David: Yeah. Right now we've got current active projects, numerous projects in Hawaii. Florida, we have a big project going on just awarded a project in in Saudi Arabia. So now we're kind of kind of global, if you will, just wrapped up one in Halifax in Nova Scotia. So yeah, lots of projects all over the map.
Ron: How do you those projects that are outside of your backyard? Are you jumping on an airplane and visiting the job site? Are you doing it virtual? Are you doing this video conferencing?
David: It's a mixture of kind of all of them really. You know, the nice thing is that during the design process, since we have, this real detailed bid spec and the client knows what they want, they know the budget. We can now focus on who's going to be the best team for the project when it comes to an integrator. So who's going to do the best job? Who's got the best track record, who might be the best fit personality wise for the client. And so we're really able to pick really good quality integrators and let them focus on what they do. And they, you know, most of these integrators do a great job. And so, once the project is awarded, there's not a whole lot of babysitting involved. You know, it's that major milestones that, you know, allows the client to, to feel good, to make sure that somebody is acting, as that high level project manager kind of checking in on things, dotting all the I's and crossing all the T's. So yeah, in terms of remote projects, you know, we'll visit at your major milestones being, you know, pre-wire completion, you know, maybe trim and that final, you know, to make sure that everything's working properly and it's really that last little 5% that that can make or break a project. So it's just, you know, pushing all the buttons and running everything through its basis to make sure it does what it does. And making sure that that vision that started two years prior actually is seen through.
Ron: So I would imagine you must have some dealers that are knocking your door down to make sure you know who they are and that they're on your list of people to potentially bid projects. Is that the case? And how do you handle that?
David: Somewhat, yeah. I mean we tend to kind of fly under the radar a little bit. You know, and in LA in particular, we're a bulk of our businesses. You know, LA, it's obviously it's a huge town, but it's a very small community when you get to that level of integrator. So a majority of your projects all typically tend to to get bid by the same pool of contractors, you know, maybe 10 AV integrators somewhere in that ballpark. And so for the most part, everyone is well aware of who we are and what services we offer at that point. So yeah, surprisingly enough, I don't get a lot of cold calls from other integrators.
Ron: You will, after this video.
David: We will see. I will blame you if my phone starts ringing off the hook.
Ron: Yeah, exactly. What is your read on the HTA and what Josh is doing over there, Josh and his team are doing to really align the best in class integrators throughout North America and trying to make it easier for the design community. And homeowners to know who they are.
David: Yeah, I think it's great. I mean, it's a fantastic idea. You know, I've definitely been monitoring that and keeping an eye on what Josh and the team are doing. And at least it's a very, you know, call it 10,000 foot view of really what we do on our backend during birth, during the bid review process or integrator selection really helps people vet, who's potentially bidding on a project. So, off the bat at least you're narrowing it down from a market like LA for example, that has literally hundreds of integrators. You know and really whittles it down to knowing, okay, I've got, these section of integrators that's already kind of passed the test, if you will. So at least it develops a boiler plate for integrators. So, yeah, I think it's fantastic and I definitely hope that you know that a lot of architects and just the design team is using that as a resource. I think it's great.
Ron: If you don't mind Josh or sorryJosh from HTA. David, if you don't mind, we have an audience. Many of them are integrators and so they are what you used to be used to be an integrator and now you have this vantage point as a consultant. So interacting with the end user and the design community and a little bit of a different fashion. What if any advice could you give to an integrator and in ways that you think they could perhaps focus areas of their business they could focus or what could they do to maybe be just a little bit better, more attentive to the customer's needs? If you don't mind sharing.
"From an initial design development when first talking to clients about scope and what they want to accomplish, one of the first things they say is how much is all of this stuff?"
David: Yeah, no, I think one thing that was very early on it was, it was really eyeopening. Being on the other side of that coin you know, architects and contractors were a lot more open. You know, now that I wasn't selling them things. And from what I found out, the industry in general, has, and it's, depending on what contractor you talked to, a pretty bad reputation. You know, that just that it's never smooth. You know, there's always issues. It's always complicated, you know, there's always problems. It's always a pain in the butt to bid properly. You know, so really I think that the biggest piece of advice is that design development, it's tough, because from an integrator standpoint and I struggled this when I was on the integration side is, do you charge for your design services? And, you know really insist that that's done before submitting a proposal. In order to get that documentation done. You know, I've found that just helps things go so much smoother and if, you know, there's plans to refer to it just creates a template and a map again that just improves that level of coordination. I think that's a big problem is that there's so such little coordination when there is coordination, it happens far too late in the process. So, yeah, I mean it from an integrator standpoint, either improving upon or even offering it at all, just those design services you know, to your clients I think would be tremendously helpful.
Ron: I agree. I've been standing on the soapbox trying to help our industry see themselves as designed centric businesses and thus they should be able to charge for their professional experience and knowledge that's worth money. And every other design trade interacting with that end user is charging a fee.
David: Yeah. I mean that's the thing. I mean, if electrician were to walk onto a job site or get invited to bid, he's going to say, okay, where's the electrical plans? You know, he's never going to bid a job sight unseen with a homeowner or even a contractor is saying, I need outlets here and here and here and here. I need downlights in these different locations. I need sconces. There's gotta be specification for it or else the bids not going to be accurate. You know, and it's wrong.
Ron: Every bid they get from contractor ABC are all going to be different because the client or different members of the family told every different bidder different things.
David: Yeah, absolutely. And I see that and I hear that from contractors constantly. I mean, you can easily get swings and you can get three bids from different integrators. And I'll talk to them about the same thing. And you can get hundreds of thousands of dollars in swings and budget easily. I see quite often.
Ron: What are your opinions on some of the softwares out there to aid in discovery or budgeting? And I know that I'll just mention a couple that I'm aware of. There's the sales tools software from Mark and Susan site. There's slate plan from the guys up there, San Francisco. You know, so I'll name those two. Do you use those or are there other tools that you think that you use or you think integrators could be using in the kind of qualification stage of dialogue with a client?
"From an initial design development when first talking to clients about scope and what they want to accomplish, one of the first things they say is how much is all of this stuff?"
David: Sure. So, yeah, I actually do use sales tools. Kind of in the first couple of meetings we get brought on board. Played with the slate plan. But by that time I've already had sales tools in our resources. So that seemed to work well for me. But yeah, from an initial design development when first talking to clients about, a scope and what they want to accomplish and all of that, one of the first things they say, okay, it's how much is all of this stuff. And so sales tools, this has been great for, within 10 to 15%. It's not concrete, but at least it's a good jumping off point to be able to really start to develop that budget, you know, because you could talk about all of this great stuff and then it's two or three times more than the client even imagined it would be. And so it's nice to be able to scale that back. You know, those first couple of development meetings before you can put pen to paper, if you will to start laying things out.
Ron: Got it. Well, I appreciate you giving your opinion on that. David. If those watching would like to learn more about you and, or your business, what are the best ways for people to reach out to you?
David: Sure. VanWert Design, you know, across most of the socials, Instagram, VanWert Tech Design on Facebook here. I can visit our website, contact information is right on there. You know, phone number and email, all of that great stuff. So yeah, feel free to reach out anytime. Always like hearing from different folks. Even integrators too. It's always nice to add additional resources. You know, we definitely don't know every company out there, so it's great to be here about others for future projects.
Ron: Okay. Well, David, congratulations on your continued success. I get to have say the fortunate I have the fortune of having watched you from inception to, I follow you on Facebook and I think Facebook and Instagram and I see you gallivanting around the world and doing really cool things for cool people. So congratulations on that.
David: Thank you. But it's been a lot of fun. I truly have enjoyed it.
Ron: And thank you for joining me on episode number one 31 of Automation Unplugged. It was a lot of fun having you on.
David: Thanks for having me, Ron. I appreciate it. It's been great.
Ron: All right, ladies and gentlemen, don't forget to like this video, share it. Give me some comments, although we're about to go off the air, so I'll reply to you offline. Or maybe I'll do it online. We'll see. But thanks for watching another episode of Automation Unplugged. We have lots of awesome guests lined up. I think we're booked out a good number of months into the future here, so keep coming back for more. We'll keep trying to do it on Wednesday mid day and if we can't do that, we'll let you know in advance. And on that note, make it a great week. I appreciate you following us and I am gonna bring up my end of show artwork and there you see it. Visit us at onefirefly.com you can give us a call, sign up for our newsletter and I will see you next time. Thanks so much everyone.
David VanWert has nearly 20 years of experience in the A/V integration field with 8 years as President of VanWert Technology Design with design projects throughout the globe.
Ron Callis is the CEO of One Firefly, LLC, a digital marketing agency based out of South Florida and creator of Automation Unplugged. Founded in 2007, One Firefly has quickly became the leading marketing firm specializing in the integrated technology and security space. The One Firefly team work hard to create innovative solutions to help Integrators boost their online presence, such as the elite website solution, Mercury Pro.