AV Smarts

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The Who and What of Classroom AV Design

There are plenty of resources out there informing readers about what projector they should buy or how to create huddle spaces — but when I was a higher ed tech manager, I was always looking for advice on successful project management. Particularly when there are architects and contractors involved with large projects, managing the design and installation of classroom AV systems can be a struggle.

This is the first article in a monthly series focusing on the design and construction process surrounding higher education classroom audiovisual systems. I will cover the different types of AV installation projects, the roles of all the stakeholders involved with classroom AV design and install, and the various phases of construction projects and how they pertain to AV, and I'll dive deeper into each phase to highlight the major deliverables. I make an attempt to adhere to established standards from InfoComm and the AIA (The American Institute of Architects), but over the years I've tailored my project management process to reflect real-life scenarios. If you've ever struggled with keeping a classroom AV system installation on schedule, getting the right design deliverables to the right stakeholders, or ultimately delivering the exact AV system that the project called for, then this series of articles will help you.

Project Stakeholders

Before we dive into the different types of AV construction projects, or the phases that make up those projects, we need to review all the possible stakeholders in a higher ed AV installation project. If a classroom AV installation project goes awry and there's a big scramble at the end of the project to get it back on course, it's probably because the correct individuals were not involved with the project in an early phase. Every institution and every construction project has a slightly different mix of project stakeholders, but this is a typical makeup of all the major players:

Owner Team:

Client. In the case of higher education construction projects, the client is usually the department that's initiating the request for a classroom construction project. Typically, a point person from the department is in charge of coordinating the department's administrative involvement (budget, scheduling, etc.) in the project, but he or she isn't necessarily one of the individuals who will be using the new AV systems.

End users. Faculty or staff members, and sometimes students, are included in this group of individuals who will be using the new AV systems after installation. This group rarely has any knowledge of (or interest in) any of the administrative aspects of the construction project.

AV support staff. This group of stakeholders is made up of the individuals that will ultimately be responsible for the daily operation, repair and maintenance of the installed classroom audiovisual systems. They may be employed by the specific department requesting the AV installation, a centralized campuswide technology support department, or a combination of both. These staff members are also typically responsible for defining campuswide AV design and equipment standards.

IT staff. Information technology employees are responsible for providing and maintaining the IT infrastructure required for classroom audiovisual systems, such as network data connections and telecom service. This group defines IT design and technology standards for the campus. 

Facilities staff. These campus staff members are responsible for the structural and electrical work associated with the installation of audiovisual equipment. They typically handle the wall or ceiling mounting of projection screens, projector mounts, interactive whiteboards, speaker mounts and other AV equipment attached to the building structure. They are also responsible for the installation of power outlets, connection of power to electric screens, providing cable path and pulling low voltage cables for AV installations. Facilities staff may also handle HVAC requirements pertaining to AV equipment. The institution's interior designer may also be a part of this department. Depending on the size of the construction project and campus standards, other contracted trades may handle many of these duties. 

Construction planning staff. Many institutions have a construction planning department that acts as the project manager for the owner side of construction projects. Some institutions hire a construction project manager to represent them, if they don't have anyone on staff with those skills. Other project managers come into play from the general contractor and AV integrator, but the client's project manager takes precedence and acts as the communication bridge between the institution's stakeholders and the contracted stakeholders. This individual is also responsible for the administrative aspects of the project, like establishing the project timeline and assembling the required bid documents for the contracted stakeholders.

Design Team:

Architect. An architect is typically hired by the institution to provide design and construction administration services for larger construction projects. He or she assembles the project's design team, which can consist of electrical, structural and mechanical engineers, as well as consultants specializing in AV design, acoustics, lighting and networking. Depending on the type of construction project and the institution's project manager's level of responsibility, the architect has a degree of involvement in the management of the construction phase.

AV consultant. An independent consultant that specializes in the design and construction project management of installed of audiovisual systems. An AV consultant can be subcontracted by an architect or hired directly by an institution. A truly independent AV consultant is vendor and manufacturer agnostic, making design decisions based solely on the client's best interests and needs.  

Contractors:

AV integrator. This is a contractor that specializes in the design, installation, configuration and repair of audiovisual systems. The AV integrator may be contracted directly by the institution, or a subcontractor under the general contractor. Typically, the AV integrator roles that have some sort of client contact are: sales representative, design engineer, project manager and installation technicians. I'll talk more about each individual's role in subsequent articles.

Contracted trades. A general contractor, electrical contractor and HVAC contractor are typically hired by institutions for larger construction projects, when the required work exceeds the capacity of the campus facilities department. They are responsible for providing the same structural, mechanical and electrical services as described in the "Facilities staff" section.    

Types of Construction Projects

Before we dive deeper into each phase of a construction project and discuss how each stakeholder is involved in those phases, we first need to talk about the different types of construction projects. Factors like project timeline, budget, funding source and the client's construction project management experience all come into play when looking at the different types of construction projects. There are always exceptions to the rule, but from the perspective of AV system installations, projects typically fall into these categories:

Design-bid-build. Design-bid-build projects are typically larger projects that involve many of the different stakeholders that I discussed. Project budgets need to be large enough to pay for this involved process, and the project schedule needs to have enough time allotted to each step in this process. State schools often have to rely on this process with project budgets over a certain amount, because they have strict public-fund bid requirements. They can't have the same individual designing the bid documents, then also bidding on that same project to sell and install the equipment. From an AV standpoint, these projects typically involve an AV consultant taking a lead role in the design and installation management of the AV systems. The AV consultant works with the owner and design teams to prepare the initial infrastructure and technical system design documents (CAD drawings), as well as the bid documents needed to hire the AV integrator (scope of work or construction specifications). The AV integrator is hired through a bidding process and the construction phase begins. With direction from the AV consultant, the AV integrator finalizes documents (shop drawings), coordinates with other related trades, procures equipment and the final installation takes place. Wrapping up the entire process, the AV consultant and owner's representatives are involved in the commissioning of the AV systems. Throughout the course of this series of articles, I'll be using the design-bid-build process as my basis for discussion, since it's typically the process that many find hard to manage.

Design-build. Another popular process in higher ed AV installation projects is the design-build model. From the AV standpoint, this process involves an AV integrator handling the design aspects of the project, as well as selling and installing the AV systems. This process is typically seen with projects that don't have very involved infrastructure or technical design requirements. Projects that have a very compressed timeline or value-engineered budgets also typically look to the design-build model. Some higher education institutions rely heavily on the design-build process because they have in-house AV support staffers who are comfortable creating their own design documents (CAD drawings, scope of work, etc.), augmenting the design services provided by the AV integrator. Projects that are funded with private money may not require a full bid, which is a good case for the design-build model.

Other models. There are other project management models that come into play when looking at higher ed AV installation projects, but they're typically used for smaller projects. These are usually "homegrown"; projects that many refer to as "hang-and-bangs": small classroom installs that may involve a mix of owner-furnished equipment, for which the installation of equipment is either handled by the owner's tech and facilities staff or an AV integrator. Since these models can take many forms, and usually don't have well developed project management processes, I won't be focusing on them in this series.

About the Author

Mike Tomei is an AV design and management consultant based out of Central New York, and the owner of Tomei AV Consulting. Tomei AV Consulting provides system design, project management and AV management consulting services to the higher education, K-12, corporate and commercial markets. Find out more information at www.tomeiav.com or contact Mike at mike@tomeiav.com.

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