A contractor designs a radiant showroom and gets results.

When Harris-Dudley Plumbing and Heating in Salt Lake City broke ground on its new 19,000-sq.-ft. headquaters, it was planned from the get-go with radiant in mind: Home base would now include the company's showroom.

But for a contractor that has broken into the high-end market of total comfort systems for Utah and Idaho's elite estates, this particular showroom would not feature walls of fixtures and decorative faucets. This particular showroom instead would educate clients on the wonders and joys of radiant heat.

PM took the grand tour of the new offices and a few of the current Harris-Dudley projects this summer, and spoke with Bob Dudley, who co-owns the 75-year-old company with brother Mike Dudley, about the affect the radiant showroom has had on the company, and what he thought about the radiant market in general.

“We had toyed with ideas for a showroom for maybe three to five years, but we always knew it would be an integral part of our new building's design,” Dudley says. “We built that front area with the idea in mind that we were going to invite customers, architects and engineers for the purpose of promoting Harris-Dudley and radiant heat.”

The brothers represent the fourth generation of Dudleys to own the Harris-Dudley Plumbing & Heating Co., and their story has been told in these pages before, but for good reason; the pro-activeness of both its marketing strategies and daily execution warrants a revisit every few years, and this year is no exception.

The creation of the Harris-Dudley radiant showroom illustrates that the selling of radiant systems is a process of many levels. And Harris-Dudley has found a winning formula.

Grand Tour

During our visit, PM wasn't exactly sure what to expect. Radiant is a quiet, hidden system, right? What could possibly be on display to amaze clients so much that they come over to the “wet” side?

The amazement begins the moment you pull up to the building.

The Harris-Dudley exterior has the look and feel of a quiet and manicured business park rather than a highly committed contracting company. “We've built this building from the ground up,” Dudley says. “We have a shop area where we manufacture all our radiant boards. We have a large warehouse area, where sometimes I think we have more inventory than our suppliers. We have space for sales and office staff. We really built this building with the idea of growth.”

A walk through its front glass doors brings you to a wide-open space with a large reception area, and even a comfortable and colorful seating arrangement. The floors are travertine stone in the foyer and dyed concrete in the main showroom. They remain a comfortable temperature year-round with infloor radiant heat.

“Yes, you can say we believe in radiant,” Dudley quips. He points out that not only are the client reception areas radiantly heated, but also the meeting rooms and offices, employee ready-room and break room, truck bays, warehouse, and work areas.

Coupled with the heating of the interior space, Harris-Dudley also features snowmelting in its sidewalks and a few of the paths right before its overhead doors, as well as Unico high-velocity air cooling (very important; more on that later ).

Besides a high stainless-steel work table (for pouring over blueprints and initial strategies), a display area with a setpoint control is assembled so visitors can put their hand on the tiled surface and experience what 77 degrees feels like.

Covering the massive vertical space of the room is the Harris-Dudley “wall of fame.” These progression photo shots bring customers through the process, and aid in visualizing what's going to happen in their own homes. It runs from the beginning stages of a project with tubing going down, to completed houses with fixtures and finishes.

Same with snowmelt projects. There's a similar “wall of snowmelt” for clients to peruse - photos from the groundbreaking and tube installation to the finished mechanical room and melting snowfall. Dudley's goal is to take pictures of each of the company's snowmelt system projects - in the wintertime and in action - to cover the entire wall.

Back at the doorway and to the right of the main entrance you can see through a glass wall into the building's mechanical room. This is the “heart” of the showroom, as Dudley calls it. Here in this highly visible and accessible room, visitors can see into the future of their own homes, and get a taste of what they're in for equipment-wise.

There's a clean display of a radiant panel wall (which Harris-Dudley preassembles on the premises for its projects), as well as a brief introduction to Unico systems. On the opposite wall, the company showcases the various types of radiant installations: infloor/gypsum, infloor/radiant panels, staple-up, under hardwood, under tile, and so on. Look down at the floor and a plexi-glass insert gives you a peek at what goes on under your shoes. The company lets you view a PEX run through the floor.

“The fact that we actually have radiant heating in the floors is important, because that's our primary market - installing radiant heating and snowmelting,” Dudley says. “This is our headquarters. It proves to our customers that we believe what we say: It's radiant throughout.”

So when the customer asks that all-too-telling question, “What would you do?” Harris-Dudley can tell them.

“You have to go out and demonstrate the properties that are superior about PEX and radiant heating. If you're using PEX in your own house or building, that's a sign of faith,” Dudley says. “We're perceived as experts, and when I tell them our entire building is PEX, that says a lot; we had the choice of anything, and we went with PEX and infloor radiant heat.”

Back in the reception area, the design is part business, part industrial showplace. Adding to the contemporary and industrial feel of the room are the 14-ft. open ceilings, where exposed lighting and Unico vents wind their way among the metal ceiling tracks. (This is the important part we referred to earlier.)

While for the most part everything associated with the Harris-Dudley showroom has come along as well as planned, some things have surprised Dudley and even exceeded his expectations.

“One of the things we did that I really wanted was the 14-ft. ceiling. It represents the height of some of the houses we're dealing with. However, I didn't realize how good that was going to turn out,” Dudley explains. “We have two thermometers: one that's about an inch off the floor, and another that's at 14 feet at the ceiling. They're typically within two degrees of each other in both summer and winter, and it's all because of our hi-velocity air-conditioning system.”

Installing the mini-duct Unico system circulates the warm and cool air in the building, so customers are especially impressed at the uniform comfort of the space - no overheated ceilings, no chilly drafts near the floor. It's all about touching and feeling in a showroom, and this aspect has worked well in Harris-Dudley's favor.

“Having the Unico installed in the building has had the largest impact on the sales of the systems,” Dudley says. “I'd say almost 90 percent of the hi-velocity systems we've installed have been direct results of customers visiting our showroom and experiencing the system firsthand.”

Dudley recounts a story about a visiting architect who came to the showroom at first not too thrilled about hi-velocity systems. “Aren't they noisy?” he had asked. Dudley and team informed him that their Unico system was in operation at that moment. But in order to hear the system (or not hear it as the case was) they had to turn off the water cooler, disable the LCD TV screen and humming laptop computer, unplug the refrigerator and unplug a neon clock. Then, after finally turning off the buzzing fluorescent lighting, the barest whisper of the system could be heard.

That project gladly switched to Unico.

It's results like the story above that has made the difference in the market Harris-Dudley goes after: the $1 million-2 million custom homes. The owners of these luxury homes (or second or third homes) want reliability. They want to be able to taxi their private jet and arrive at their mountain home without the slightest hiccup. Showing clients the “Harris-Dudley Way” (as displayed in the photos on the wall) and offering a package of total comfort - heating, cooling and plumbing - puts any fears of inconsistency or unreliability aside.

As for the mass-market building niche, Harris-Dudley just doesn't pursue those types of projects. “We look to the custom builders,” Dudley says. And once they see how the company handles its projects - after they visit the showroom - they actually become Harris-Dudley salesmen.

“No builder wants to have one of his clients tell friends, 'Well, he built a good house, but this heating system sure stinks,'” Dudley says.

“I would say that the way Harris-Dudley consistently gets business is long-term relationships with other contractors and builders,” Dudley admits. Its business relationships turn into instant referrals as the line of communication works for the company long after the success of the initial project is completed.

Finally, A Place To Sell

The Harris-Dudley showroom is run by appointment only, and there are about four different sales team members available to clients, depending on what the customer's looking for. The sales team takes care of scheduling these appointments, and has their varying levels of comfort expertise.

They didn't need any additional showroom sales training, though, Dudley says. In fact, the feeling among the staff was one of relief that they finally have a place to sell, other than home shows.

“We're all veterans of the three-day home shows, or the local parade of homes events,” Dudley says. Having the permanent showroom now gives the team instant credibility. “We're not just three guys on a stool or just a guy in the back of a pick-up. We're in it for the long haul. They can see the volume of work we've done in the past, and the fact that we're highly specialized in radiant heating, not just 'oh, we can do that, too.'”

Home shows do remain part of Harris-Dudley's multipronged approach at marketing. But now one of the main goals of the home show events is to invite clients to the headquarters and ultimately the showroom experience.

“I think consumers have a general idea about radiant heat, but they still may not understand what goes into the total package.” Having a place equipped with radiant heat and a professional space to discuss such projects really helps.

Dudley says there's still a general conception that radiant is more expensive. But he's not so sure that's necessarily true. “I actually believe that a good radiant system vs. a good forced-air system is generally the same. But frankly, most people do not put in 'good' forced-air systems.”

Further misgivings people have about choosing to install radiant heating in a home crop up when they realize they need to install two separate systems. But Harris-Dudley tries to promote that thinking.

“You have to have burners on top of the stove, and an oven underneath,” Dudley parables. “You've got to have two different methods: It is going to be the thing that affects your house the most on the comfort side.”

What's Next?

For years Harris-Dudley has impressed us with its proactive marketing strategies. From securing the Web urlwww.radiantfloor.comand building a fine Web site, to the unique ways it positions and promotes itself to customers, the company seems poised to continue to take things to the next level. And while Dudley and team were open about inviting us to their showplace, they were a bit on the coy side when it came to talking about the future.

“There are things in the works I simply can't discuss,” Dudley tells us. “But in five years it might be fun to have you revisit us to see how those things worked out.”

At the end of the day, Harris-Dudley is a successful radiant contracting company that remains a step ahead of the industry and its market area. As for advice to those interested in showcasing the radiant aspects of their businesses:

“We're very glad that we built our building new. It just gave us so much more freedom,” Dudley concludes. “And if you're starting to carve out your niche as a radiant contractor, having a place to display your work and past projects shows you're serious about the marketplace.”