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Smart developers fuel electronic growth

In an upscale subdivision of metro Atlanta, a long-time developer of single-family housing showcases a home with features that allow the homeowner to see and speak to someone at the front door from any phone or TV, automatically control home-wide heating/cooling and lighting with the touch of a button and enjoy the best in home theater or stereophonic sound in any room in the house.

The first residents of Tampa's Harbour Island City Apartment Homes by Post Properties take advantage of the multiple phone lines built into their units to set up in-home computer LANs, which enable them to effectively work out of their homes.

In Orlando, residents of the new 250-unit Colonial Grand at Cypress Crossing complex will be able to enjoy high-speed Internet access, advanced digital cable TV, surround sound and state-of-the-art security and energy management features.

Meanwhile, in a number of college towns throughout the nation, students can select off-campus apartment housing where their monthly rent check pays not only for a place to live, but also for phone, cable, computer facilities and Internet access.

Following a trail originally blazed by single-family developers, a number of multifamily developers are focusing on building units that accommodate the latest in home automation features. The multifamily community is now taking things a step further, however, as it increasingly caters to the upscale renter with unit infrastructure that allows residents to enjoy the benefits of the latest advances in consumer electronics.

Single- and Multifamily Applications Both the single and multi-family development communities are incorporating the home automation/consumer electronic features that comprise a "smart residence" into their product types with a great deal of cross-fertilization taking place.

Digital Interiors provided Atlanta single-family developer Chatham Holdings Corp. with Smart House technology for a model "ultimate smart home" the company constructed in Atlanta's Bethany Green subdivision in mid-1998. Digital Interiors does what George Ide, vice president/marketing for the company, refers to as a "prewire" or unit wiring for telephone, cable, security, home theater, audio and intercom systems, as well as providing system accessories.

"This is a business about satisfying desires in today's marketplace," says Richard Holtz, president of Ormond Beach, Fla.-based RRH Associates and creator of the SmartApartment. "It is taking today's consumer electronics technology and gearing it to the wants and needs of the young professional/high discretionary income/first-time renter and deploying it on a mass scale at an affordable price."

Smart Attributes RRH Associates' SmartApartment takes apartment tenants into the 21st century with advanced telecommunications, video, Internet and online-shopping services. These apartments are wired using Enhanced Category 5 wire, to enable ISDN, ADSL, Cable Modem, T-1 Lines, Ethernet (10 or 100 BaseT) computer network hubs and other technologies for Internet access and computer networking. Each unit is also pre-configured for three telephone numbers, with expansion capabilities for up to four more.

Other attributes of this unit include in-wall stereo speakers for whole-home background music and pre-wiring for home theater. Also each room in the SmartApartment has a multimedia wallplate, which is equipped with a telephone jack, a data jack and two video jacks supplied by high-performance, RG-6 quad-shielded coaxial cable.

The Post Experience Holtz's SmartApartment architecture is the basis for the PostSmart apartment, now being developed by Atlanta-based Post Properties. This unit began to take shape a little more than two years ago at Post Collier Hills and Post Glen Apartments, two properties in Atlanta. Since then, PostSmart apartments have debuted in Dallas, Nashville, Charlotte, N.C. and most recently in Tampa, Fla.

"A PostSmart apartment includes home office capabilities including wiring for multiple phone lines, wiring accommodations for enhanced Internet access and being able to put computer networks together with minimal equipment," says Jay Hartz, a PostSmart project manager.

Meanwhile, plans are on tap for PostSmart apartments to eventually incorporate a remote energy management system, allowing residents to call in from their offices to set the heat or air conditioning levels, so their units are the perfect temperature when they arrive home.

"These apartments seem to appeal to a wide age range -- from the mid-20s to early 40s," he notes, "with most of them being telecommuters or people that work out of their homes entirely.

The electronic backbone of the PostSmart apartment is its structured wiring, according to Doug Fikse, building systems division manager of Harrisburg, Pa.-based AMP Inc., a manufacturer of these systems.

"Essentially, we put together the high-quality, high-band-width cabling system for a home to accommodate current and future communications and entertainment technologies, which include phone, Internet access, video on demand, ISDN and cable modems," he says. "This electronic "pipe" system includes outlets that someone can plug into to use these technologies along with a centralized distribution block that the service providers can connect with."

The AMP OnQ structured wiring system provides the electronic pathway necessary to support digital audio, video, voice, data and control systems. The AMP HideOut component is an in-room/in-unit wall plate with connections for telephone and data, coaxial cable and optional fiber-optics. Meanwhile, a central distribution panel provides the link between incoming service providers and the single-family home or the apartment building, from which point each room (or unit) is connected.

Managing the Creature Comforts There's more to a smart residence than just a lot of hardware that makes it easier to work at home. For example, SmartApartment units at Colonial Grand at Cypress Crossing in Orlando, a development of Birmingham, Ala.-based Colonial Properties Trust, add security systems, automated climate control and home theater prewiring to the electronic amenity mix -- along with high-speed Internet access.

These apartments were designed with amenity package known as "Colonial's Vision," as is the case with the PostSmart apartment. In addition to work-at-home features such as pre-configured wiring for three (and expandable to eight) separate telephone and/or data lines, these units also include prewiring and enclosures for in-wall background music speakers; built-in personal alarm systems with wired sensors on all accessible doors and windows; "smart" thermostats that automatically switch to energy-saving settings when the personal alarm system is set to "away" mode; daily mail notification lights; and surround-sound home theater.

One manufacturer involved in the Cypress Crossing project was Las Cruces, N.M.-based Smart Corp. A technology partner with AMP Inc., Smart Corp. is a manufacturer of home automation management products.

"These products are designed to provide residents with greater levels of comfort, control and security," according to Mike Issacs, Smart Corp.'s director of marketing and sales. "The SmartOne family of products allow residents of homes and apartments to easily control and interface with other products such as audio-video components, security systems, lights, HVAC equipment and appliances, as well as low-voltage products such as lawn sprinklers, motorized drapes and garage doors openers."

SmartOne systems give users a simple interface by which to send and receive messages and instructions to and from system components and security,lights, entertainment and HVAC systems. Utilizing CEBus technology, an industry standard protocol for communication across household wiring, SmartOne systems are designed to be expandable, depending on the needs of the resident.

Smarter Housing for College Students Another market for units featuring the latest in automation and consumer electronics is comprised of today's college students, who want the same electronic niceties in their college quarters that they had while growing up at home.

"Designing technology-based amenities is, when all is said and done, a business about satisfying desires, and whether you're talking about young professionals or college students, you've got to understand the lifestyles of the market you are looking at and what their wants and needs are," says Holtz. "Today's college students are kids who, when they were in high school and living at home, often had telephones, televisions and personal computers in their rooms, so they want a place to live with the same amenities."

Irving, Texas-based JPI Inc. has completed eight off-campus complexes to date, with another five under construction.

A typical project of this type is comprised of 200 to 300 fully furnished units, each having from one to four individually leased bedrooms and common kitchen and living areas, explains JPI Vice President Derrick Turnbull. "Each unit is wired with Enhanced Category 5 wire with the ability for residents to set up T1 access either to the Internet or to the college servers. Projects also include state-of-the-art fitness centers, as well as a central computer center featuring five or six fully equipped personal computers."

JPI cuts deals with phone, cable, and Internet service providers for bundled and/or bulk services for each complex. In turn, bedrooms are leased to students for rents that range from $290 to $575 per month, figures that include all of these services.

"What we have done is set up a one-stop shop for students, where they can get all of these services by writing out just one check per month," says Turnbull.

Issues Including home automation and consumer electronics, features in apartment units can work in a few ways to make money for the multifamily developer -- one indirect, one direct.

At Post Properties, all PostSmart amenities are considered value-added. They come with units at no extra charge, however, these apartments can be fairly expensive. Post is obviously happy with what the amenities ultimately contribute to the bottom line, according to Hartz, with some 3,500 PostSmart units existing and another 5,042 under construction.

Developers can also enjoy the benefits of what Holtz calls "residual revenue streams." These are sources of ancillary income in the form of fees paid to apartment complex owners by cable, telephone and Internet service providers.

"We (RRH Associates) developed many of the first deals out there today, and they have gotten to the point now where these service providers are effectively paying for the wires that serve as the toll roads for these services," says Holtz.

In the long run, however, the value-added aspects of making apartment units smarter are the most important.

"We have learned over time is that, while residual revenue streams can be critical, the increased occupancies and higher per square-foot rents achieved are the more important parts of the equation," says Holtz.

On the marketing side, for a project to be successful in implementing home automation/consumer electronics technology and adapting it to its local market, the most critical thing is to make sure the leasing and maintenance staffs of a project are well trained, says Holtz. Development of informative collateral materials for residents is also a must.

"In today's housing market as a whole, home automation/consumer electronics technology is growing faster in the multifamily segment, as opposed to in the single-family arena," according to Holtz. "And the range of technological amenities available today, coupled with the wants and needs of the current crop of higher-income, Class-A property renters has changed the way a lot of apartments are being developed."

"We find that in many complexes we're working on," says Holtz, "there's a lot more emphasis on accommodating home theaters than fireplaces."

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