Building Your Dream Theater: Step 1 Assembling Your Team 
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Written by Brian Kahn   
Sunday, 01 May 2005

AV Education on RHT

Building Your Dream Theater:
Step 1 – Assembling Your Team

Written by Brian Kahn

Creating a topnotch home theater is a major undertaking. Getting your media room to look like the ones that grace the pages of Revolution Home Theater take many resources beyond money. Turning your dream system into a dreamy reality can involve designers and experts of all sorts. As a practicing attorney in California, I want to show you some of the best ways to protect your interests as the client when building a custom home theater.

Hiring Top Professionals
Whether you are installing your top of the line components in a custom house, a partial remodel/addition or “simply” going to convert an unused room to a home theater, you need to hire the right professionals to get the job done. Who to hire and how you check on them is critically important. The old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure” is especially true with construction projects. Proper planning will avoid heaps of trouble during construction and after completion.

The scope of your project will determine who you will need to hire. In all cases when you are planning on building a theater room, whether it be dedicated or mixed use it would be good to retain a home theater design firm or top AV retailer. If the theater room represents the largest portion of the addition, remodel or new building, your home theater firm is going to be your main contact outside of your contractor. Look around the office of your local store or design firm to see how many sets of plans they have lying around. If there are none – be worried. You will want them to be comfortable with both the designs you or your architect will be creating. Also you should ask them about their ability to draw CAD (computer-aided drawing) designs of what they want to implement.

You will most likely need an architect if you are building anything more than the simplest chair riser or shelving system. And if you need to submit plans to the local building department for approval, you should have an architect on board. It is wise to check with either the local building authorities or architects to see if what you are contemplating involves permits. Checking on permit requirements should be done early on, as it will help you determine who needs to be hired and will hopefully prevent you from coming home one night to find a big “stop work” notice on your front door. If you fail to get the necessary permit(s), there is a good chance that your local building authority will leave this lovely notice on your door, forcing you to stop what you have done and, most likely, rip it all out and start again, even after submitting plans and obtaining other permits. There is very little to be gained by not getting permits for your project.

Picking the right architect is extremely important to the whole project, not just the theater room. A good architect will have the experience to draft plans that best serve your wants and needs within the constraints provided (money, space). He or she will work with your theater designer to help ensure a seamless and efficient integration between the work of the theater designer and the rest of the project. Be sure to ask about other theaters and media rooms the designer has done. What dealers and AV designers has your designer worked with before? Who are your designer’s favorites and why are those his or her top choices? All of these questions help you qualify your architect for the all-important home theater portion of your project.

The practical skills that an experienced architect will bring to the picture are invaluable. These include the ability to draft clear, concise plans that your contractors will be able to follow and build efficiently. All too often, architects create masterpiece plans that absolutely do not work in the field, requiring many changes that end up costing you lots of money and will add stress and delays. Depending on the team you end up putting together, you may want your architect to do additional work besides just drafting plans, such as contract administration and construction observation.

As you can see, the architect does a lot more than just creating the plans to get you through plan check. Look at the architect’s portfolio, especially material on similar jobs with theaters. Ask for references, not just from homeowners, but also contractors and home theater professionals. With all of the information floating out there on the Internet, check the architect out on your favorite search engine; you never know what will pop up. If you already have a home theater company in mind, ask if the architect has worked with the firm. How does the architect communicate with you? You are likely to have lots of contact with your architect and will want to make sure that you can easily understand each other.

Once you have narrowed it down to a few firms, its time to do some background investigation work. Check with the American Institute of Architects to find your local governing body. Contact them and check on the architect’s license and see if there have been any complaints filed. You should also ask for a copy of their insurance policy. They should have a policy in place equal to or greater than the value of your project. Lastly, check the court dockets for the areas in which the firms are located and build homes and find out if they are a party to any lawsuits. If so, that does not necessarily disqualify them, but you will want to ask what happened.

Assuming that your home theater designer/installer is not also a general contractor, you will need to hire a contractor for the construction aspect of the job. If you already have an architect and/or home theater company on board, ask for references. If you can find someone who already has a good working relationship with your team, you are a step ahead of the game.

Contractors generally fall into two groups, general contractors and sub or specialty contractors. The basic difference between the two categories is that a general contractor is licensed to do a wide variety of construction work, whereas a specialty or subcontractor is usually licensed to perform work in only one or two fields, such as plumbing or electrical.

In addition to referrals, you can check up on potential contractors by checking your local licensing association (in California, it is the Contractors State License Board) to check on license standing and complaints. The local Better Business Bureau, court dockets and of course the Internet are also other good ways to check up on prospective contractors. You will also want to make sure that the contractors have workers’ compensation and general liability insurance.

When checking out a contractor’s referrals, ask for homeowner and industry referrals. When speaking with homeowners, be sure to ask about things like whether the contractor performed the work on time and on budget, was responsive to inquiries and whether the job site was clean and well organized. When speaking with other contractors, ask how many jobs they have done together and what types of jobs they were, whether there were any problems, and if so, how were they dealt with? Was everyone paid in a timely manner?

Price is also going to be a factor in hiring a contractor, but it should not be the only or perhaps even the main factor. A low bid does not guarantee that this particular contractor will be the least expensive in the end. A bid that is significantly lower than those of other contractors should raise suspicion. Be leery if a contractor is willing to prepare bids before seeing at least rough plans. The contractors should ask you for a set of plans and will ideally inspect the house to see what conditions and finishes they will have to work with, as these can greatly affect the cost of construction. Get a breakdown of all the bids you receive, as some may include different things. Try to get all of your bids to be identical in scope, as this is an area where an architect can come in handy by managing the bid process and responding to the contractors’ questions to help ensure the accuracy of the bids.

The most exciting hire will probably be that of your home theater designer. Just because we got to this profession last does not mean that the home theater designer should be the last one hired; in fact, the home theater designer should definitely be brought on board prior to plans being drafted if at all possible. A good place to start your search for a home theater designer is by checking with your favorite home theater store and the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA) for referrals. The home theater designer will have to work within the parameters that the architect or builder sets. In some cases, the architect can modify the parameters given with input from the designer. Within those parameters, the HT designer will have to design and instruct his or her other contractors on what to do.

There are advantages and disadvantages in hiring a home theater designer affiliated with a store. If you need electronics, this situation can provide a one-stop solution and perhaps even a price break, as you are spending money on the store’s design and installation services. On the other hand, home theater designers tied into a store may be pressured into using or selling certain brands which may or may not be the best for your particular needs.

When looking for your home theater designer, there are some specific things you will want to look for in addition to the things you will want to look for in your other professionals. Of course, you will want to check on their references, insurance and licenses, but there are also elements unique to the home theater designer. Are you looking for any automation? Systems integration? Touch panels? If so, you will want to not only ask if they can do it, but you will want to see examples. When looking at the examples, see if the touch panels are intuitive and easy to use. Does the integration work reliably and accomplish the goals set out? Perhaps you want integration so that when you hit “Movie” on the remote, the window shades drop, the lights lower and the phone system is muted. Any systems integration or home automation company can do this, but a good home theater designer will know which effects are desired for the home theater experience and therefore which systems should be linked and how the settings should relate to the hardware.

It is perfectly reasonable to ask to visit one or two of a designer’s installed home theaters, especially if you are doing a big job. Is the designer experienced in doing similar projects? Make sure that he or she has a good grasp of the technology you wish to incorporate into your system. Having firsthand knowledge with the intricacies and quirks of each system is worth a lot more than someone who has just read up on the specifications of your proposed system. As many audio and videophiles know, system synergy is crucial. The components of a theater need to complement one another, not just have good specifications. Looking good on paper and actually working well in the real world are completely different issues. These are some things that your home theater designer should be able to help you with and this is where the designer really becomes valuable.
Like an architect, much of what the home theater designer does is appearance-related. Therefore, it is important to make sure that the designer’s taste matches yours or that the designer is at least willing to work within your parameters rather than trying to force a signature design down your throat. That said, if the designer is good and has a signature system or core of components, there is probably a good reason for it, so ask about it.

As with the other key personnel involved, make sure to get bids for the designer’s work, references from homeowners and other professionals. When following up on references, ask the professionals how the designers were with coordinating and communicating with the other trades. Make sure you follow up on the references for everyone you are hiring, I am always amazed to hear my clients tell me that they were provided with a ton of references, so they assumed they person was good without actually checking the references directly.

Most good home theater designers and installers are members of CEDIA. If the designer you are looking at is not a member, ask why not. Does the designer meet the criteria for membership? If the installer is performing any work other than plugging in the gear, he or she will probably need to be a licensed contractor, at least for low-voltage electrical work. Check this person out the same way you would any other contractor with respect to construction license and insurance status. These are all easy requests for a top firm and they should easily be able to get you the documentation you need.

Once you have your team assembled, you will need to work out the details of their roles. Figuring out what each professional should do and confirming it in writing is an important step that sets the guidelines for the project.

The next article in this series will be on how to negotiate contracts with your hired professionals to set these guidelines and protect your best interests.

Disclaimer: The material contained in this article is not intended to be specific legal advice with respect to any particular problem or question and is intended to be a general overview of the subject. Before hiring any professionals or signing any contracts with respect to installation of your home theater system, it is recommended that you seek the advice of an attorney who is familiar with your particular project, concerns and needs.

Brian D. Kahn is a partner in the Law Offices of Linda L. Northrup, A P.C. The firm, with offices in Los Angeles and Westlake Village, California, has been focusing on the areas of real estate and construction law since 1981. He may be reached at (805) 230-2210.

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