Hard-wired to the future Differentiation: A Virginia homebuilder offers advanced computer, phone, video and audio wiring.

October 19, 1997|By S. M. Tueting | S. M. Tueting,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Early last year, executives of John Laing Homes of Virginia Inc. got together to come up with a new marketing plan, something that would give their single-family homes and townhouses in Maryland and Virginia the edge over those offered by hundreds of other builders in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area.

Carter Morrow, Laing's director of construction and purchasing, had an idea, but it was something few other builders had tried -- high-speed residential wiring. The system would allow a family to network all its computers or run a videotape from one VCR and watch it on televisions throughout the house.

Shortly before the meeting, Morrow had seen a newsletter put out by Lifeline Communications Inc., a small Virginia communications firm. The company argued that builders were falling behind in technology by failing to include high-speed wiring in homes.

Morrow, who was in the process of remodeling his own home, agreed, and talked with officials of the Manassas, Va.-based company. Convinced the system had merit, he suggested Laing install high-speed wiring in its homes.

Laing officials agreed, introducing the wiring system in a subdivision of $400,000 homes in Herndon, Va., in June 1996. Buyers seemed interested, so Laing came up with a print and radio advertising campaign -- "21st Century Homes" -- and introduced the program in most of its single-family homes and townhouses in February and March.

The response was overwhelming.

"The traffic in our sales models shot through the roof and we had 300 hits on our Web page," Morrow said. "I kind of thought we had something there."

"The phone started ringing from all over the country," said Terri Stagi, vice president of Jack Morris Assoc. Advertising, which is handling the marketing campaign for Laing's 21st Century Homes.

Laing's high-speed wiring system goes beyond the standard residential wiring for telephones, computers and audio components, allowing families to hook up their stereo system in one room and broadcast its music throughout the house.

The system also lets homebuyers use their telephones as a sort of intercom system and allows a family to connect a family's computers and use just one printer. Parents of infants also can install a video monitor in the baby's room and watch it on television sets throughout the house.

"[The wiring system] opens up a lot of different things you can do," Morrow said. "That's one of the neat things about it. It's a lot of fun."

The Integrated Service Digital Network (ISDN) wiring is a broad band system that allows large amounts of data to be sent and received. Laing runs a PVC trunk, or large plastic pipe, through the frame of a house, from basement to attic. The wiring is contained within the PVC trunk and extended to a minimum of four outlets or "ports" throughout a house, said Eric Guggenheimer, president of Lifeline Communications, which installs the wiring system in most Laing homes. A central control panel is placed in the basement and a network interface box is in the garage.

Ports are usually in the master bedroom, the kitchen or family room, the den or library, and in a spare bedroom. Additional ports are optional.

Each port has two coaxial connectors -- an internal and external connector, along with a telephone jack. A VCR plugged into the internal outlet can send a video signal to the other ports.

The system also enables residents to hook up cable television or a satellite dish to one outlet and transmit a program to other rooms simultaneously, Morrow said.

The wiring system is designed so that each home automatically has two telephone lines with different numbers. And the system is expandable, Morrow said. The central trunk makes it easy to update the system by adjusting the basement control panel, eliminating the need for interior rewiring, he said.

Once the system is set up and the homeowner has moved in, Guggenheimer's firm sends out a representative to explain the system to the family and help connect their computers, video, audio or other equipment.

"Laing goes all the way. They don't cut any corners," Guggenheimer said. "The consumers win in a big way."

The cost of the wiring system is included in the price of the home, Morrow said. In general, Laing offers homebuyers $5,000 to $10,000 worth of free options. Buyers may choose the $2,000 wiring system or use their option money for something else.

The hardware for the basic wiring system costs Laing about $900 for townhouses and $1,300 for single-family homes, not including labor, Morrow said.

Jeff Sacks is one of the new homeowners benefiting from the wiring system. A principal consultant with Litton/PRC in McLean, Va., Sacks and his wife closed on their three-level townhouse in Laing's Centre Ridge subdivision in Centreville, Va., in June. One element that attracted them to the home was Laing's wiring system.

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