Building homes wired for the future

It takes sense to allow for networked computers and whole-house video

Technology

January 10, 1999|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO -- Boys and girls, can you say "twisted pair"?

You say you don't know what "twisted pair" means? You say you don't care?

You say you glaze over during explanations of high-tech household features? Yes, I know. It's not that you don't recognize the potential benefits of having a house that's wired for the future; it's just that you'd be just as happy to be told, instead: "Plug it in here and go on with your life."

Alas, the leaders of the Geek Chic movement take a certain pleasure in your inability to differentiate POTS from Category 5, LANS from RG-6 dual co-ax. It isn't that you, the techno-timid, don't yearn for your new house to be up to snuff. It's just that, for reasons ranging from plain ignorance to shyness about using the wrong acronym, you don't know how to ask for it.

As a result, you'll probably end up with a house that's wired about the same as one built 40 years ago.

All the players -- the builders, the technology companies and even we consumers, the Great Unwashed -- agree that it makes sense to build houses that can serve up high-speed Internet access, networked personal computers, whole-house video and a long list of other features.

Even if you don't install or even want those features, the idea is to make your house ready when the time comes -- at a price that Builder magazine pegs at about $1,000 per house.

But each player seems to be looking at the other guy for an explanation of why a mere handful of the homes built in this country last year (about 55,000, according to one estimate) had these so-called structured wiring systems.

Somebody is going to have to blink first, and I think it's going to have to be consumers, even the technologically impaired ones. Maybe especially them.

Builders have said that consumers aren't asking for higher-tech wiring, that buyers only want to put their money into bricks and mortar. Maybe so, but this doesn't get the builders off the hook because builders make decisions every day about what's best for their buyers, making specific decisions about products based on the buyers' generalized concerns.

In November, Lucent Technologies Inc. brought into town representatives of building companies from around the country, the stated goal being to show how they could implement such technology into their designs.

Their mere attendance at the conference indicates that the builders are at least weighing their options, slowed partly by the array of possibilities and by their own learning curve.

"I speak at a lot of builders' groups, and I stand right up front and say two things," explains Bob Scanlon, a Lucent regional manager. "One is, you're the most computer-illiterate group I have ever met, and they all laugh and they all admit it."

Scanlon's second observation is about builders' aversion to cost. "When you talk about builders having to spend a bit more money in their homes, that's a stumbling block."

It may fall to consumers to speed up the process by daring to ask for something.

There's a consensus in the industry that when a builder offers a certain feature, in short order his competitors will offer it too.

So here's a suggestion: If you visit model homes, note on the registration cards that you're interested in an optional, upgraded-wiring package.

And don't expect any instant response, although anything is possible in a motivated business environment. "During the last two years," Scanlon says, "we went from trying just to get an appointment with a builder to builders calling and saying, `How quick can you get here?' "

Who knows: If you ask, you might get what you want, even if you're not sure what it is.

Pub Date: 1/10/99

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