If You Build It, We Should Come, continued

Consultants play an important role in most new construction or renovation projects. Most architecture and engineering firms cannot afford to maintain full-time specialists in technology design areas such as multimedia, cabling, networking, telephony, and wireless. So, wherever there is a gap in expertise on the architect’s design team, a consultant can provide specialized expertise. Consultants are frequently retained on the college or university side as well; IT staffing levels are often barely sufficient to maintain and support current systems, much less provide hundreds of hours to support a years-long design and construction process. Retaining a consultant can allow a campus technology group to have early and continuous involvement in the design process without adding FTEs (full-time employees or equivalents) or having to manage the construction document-and-meeting bureaucracy.

Technology consultants can also bridge the gaps that often exist between the campus technology groups, the architects, and the engineers. Campus technology representatives usually know what they and their end users need, but they are not intimately familiar with the construction process, construction documentation, bid specifications, and drawing formats, or with the labyrinthine steps required to get a change made once the construction documents are finished. Architects and engineers often have a generalist-level understanding of the relevant technologies, but not the specialist-level expertise necessary for high-level integration of technology with building systems. The role of the technology consultant is to bring these two groups together, to bring knowledge of what other campuses are doing and how similar technology/design integration problems have been solved elsewhere, and to provide each group with the assurance that its needs are being met. Ken Anderson, a project manager with the national construction management firm CPMI (www.cpmi.com), sums up the consultant’s role: “A good technology consultant ties everything together.”

Also in the picture in many projects is the owner’s representative. This could be a member of the campus administration or facilities department, an architect (usually not from the firm or firms designing the building), or a construction management firm. The role of the owner’s representative is to monitor the design and construction processes, manage budgets and deadlines, and solve problems that arise during the course of the project, doing all of this with the owner’s interests represented first and foremost.

Because technology is often installed toward the end of a construction project (with some systems literally the last to hold up building completion), there is potential for conflict, both in terms of schedules and budgets. Built-in technology may be only 1 to 3 percent of the overall project budget, but if cost overruns in other parts of the building eat into contingency funds, there may be little flexibility available on the part of the owner’s representative to accommodate change requests late in the project. A key to successfully working with an owner’s representative is to let that individual know about technology and related needs early, in terms of time, probable costs, and coordination with other groups.

"In some of our higher ed projects, each department wants servers under its control; a mini server room in its area."

-Jeffrey Lee, HGA

The Building

Large campus construction projects are often split into multiple design packages for different types of contractors, depending on the phase of the project. Each package has implications for technology.

The excavation and preliminary sitework package should be planned to allow for copper and/or fiber connectivity between the new building and the rest of campus. The extent to which the campus network is used for telephony/voice systems, or by security for monitoring cameras and alarms, and by facilities for monitoring building systems, will help determine the appropriate sizes, quantities, and channeling of in-ground pathways.

The building construction package, while often not containing much actual technology equipment, is the key to successful technology integration. What follows is a partial list of questions that should be asked in order to flush out the elements of the building construction design package that are essential to successful technology-enabled teaching:

Is there enough room for everything? Jeffrey Lee, telecom designer for the nationwide architecture firm HGA (www.hga.com), notes that “in some of our higher education projects, there’s an IT group to handle data servers, but each department wants its own servers under its control; they want a mini server room in their areas. Especially in the performing arts, each of that area’s studios needs space for equipment racks, or needs to have a control room nearby.” Clearly, space issues for technology equipment need to be dealt with in the program or early pre-design phases, not when the walls are going up.

Are things in the right place? Due to distance limitations of current copper-based LAN cabling, the relative positions of the technology rooms (TR) and main equipment room (MER) on the horizontal and vertical axis through the building need to be within the specifications of the initial cabling technologies. When an architect moves a technology room early in the design phase (in order to give the department chair a larger office, for example), the technology cost and functional implications are not considered, unless someone is at the table to explain the permissible parameters.

Can everybody see? Today, most technology-enabled teaching rooms are being designed as projection-centric or projection-capable, meaning that the main electronic visual aide to teaching is one or more front-projected images at or near the front of the classroom. To facilitate this use of projection technology, a sightline study is necessary to determine two things: First, d'es each student seat have a comfortable visual pathway to one or more of the projected images? Second, d'es the projector have a line-of-sight to the screen? Since construction plans for lighting frequently do not state the fixture type on the drawing, but refer to a separate appendix or table, it can be time-consuming to make sure that (for instance) no pendant lights are hanging in-between the projector and the screen. Also, the use of varying ceiling heights and soffits, while useful in some respects, can, without careful coordination, make the projector-screen relationship problematic. Another important part of help-ing to create a projector-capable classroom is the “switching” of lights (addition of on/off or dim capability). Says Campbell at MCTC: “Instructors really want the ability to turn off lights above the screen, for instance.” Switching only the lights directly in front of the screen d'es two things: It prevents direct spill of light onto the screen, effectively raising the screen-image contrast ratio and apparent image quality by improving black levels, and it allows the instructor to keep the rest of the lights in the room on for notetaking and so that the instructor can continue to see and be seen.

Amazingly, technologists are often brought in after construction plans are complete and network drop locations, data closets, and server rooms are planned.

Can everybody hear? Classroom acoustics get a lot of attention, but are often subject to concerns beyond that of what is best for learning and teaching. “Lighting and acoustics have a great impact on the way students can learn, but they tend to be value-engineered out of projects,” notes Fitzgerald at Minnesota. “The classroom is a sophisticated teaching and learning system; basic design elements need to be considered from the outset.” This is especially important when class sessions involve distance education interactivity or are recorded for video-ondemand playback; the room needs to be quiet with respect to the noise generated by the HVAC system, and nearby plumbing and electrical transformer systems. Noise criteria specifications can be used to convey to the architectural team what the acceptable amount of noise would be from the building systems. The other main source of intruding noise is from environments outside the classroom: adjoining classrooms, hallways, other floors above and below the classrooms, and the outdoors. Windows, doors, walls, and floors need to be carefully considered in terms of how they contribute to the learning environment by shutting out distractions. Finally, reverberation is a factor that needs to be controlled in large classrooms: The RT60 (or reverberation) rating needs to be appropriate for the type and size of the instructional space.

Successful Approaches

Get technologists involved early. Campus technologists and building designers agree that the most important approach to integrating campus architecture with technology-enabled teaching is to get the campus technology people involved early in the process. There are at least three main benefits in early involvement by the campus technology team(s):

1) Being in sync with the program. This means that the design team explains the intended use of the various spaces so that the technology groups can identify the possible technologies that will be needed in the space. Often, technologists are merely handed a set of blueprints and told to add their “stuff. ” Yet, involving the campus technologists in the programmatic detail of how the end users envision the spaces will be used allows technologists to assess potential needs more accurately, with fewer expensive changes late in the process or after project completion. Bender at LKPB agrees with this approach: “Facilities that are prepped for present and future cables and devices mean less cost of future installation, without tearing up walls, floors, ceilings, or finishes.” What’s more, discussion of the architectural program with technology staff at an early phase can bring to light additional program requirements that may have been overlooked with respect to technology issues.

2) Looking good. Involving the campus technology staff early in the process will help to develop the necessary user technology interfaces. This includes location of floor boxes, poke-throughs, wall plates, switches, and other cable access and control decisions. The earlier in the process that these can be identified, the more likely they can be resolved in a way that is user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing.

3) Protecting the dollars. Identifying technology needs early in the project ensures that adequate funds are budgeted for these needs. This will reduce the budget shock that results when administrators are presented with the actual technology budgetary needs midway through a project, long after the initial (inadequate) technology budget has been reduced further in order to pay for the terrazzo mosaic in the building’s lobby. Further, a free flow of information about best practices among architects, consultants, engineers, and campus technology staff allows standards to be raised where appropriate (and when new technologies have become available or are on the horizon), while retaining control over costs through careful evaluation of whether lists of requested items are necessary or sufficient.

Set standards. Another approach that has worked for many schools, is to develop a set of design standards that is given to the design team at the beginning of a project involving classrooms or instructional spaces. The standards cover all areas of design that impact or are impacted by technology, even though the technology itself is not specifically identified, because of the rapid change involved in telecommunications and audio/visual systems. Rather than listing model numbers of individual technology components, general assumptions are made regarding the use of projection systems, display monitors, cameras, and the need for interconnection cabling and cabling pathways. These standards should be reviewed at a high level every two to three years, to ensure that they represent the current best practices of the institution. Part of this review should involve looking at what comparable institutions are doing with respect to building and technology standards; an architect and/or consultant can prove useful for this review process.

In the End…
The success of providing technology-enabled teaching systems depends to a large degree on the ability of campus technology staffs to have their voices heard during the planning and design of campus building projects. Early involvement brings a greater degree of foresight in preventing costly changes, and it also helps build relationships and open lines of communication with the architects, engineers, owner’s representative, and consultants, for the inevitable changes that need to be made. Understanding the role that each person or group plays in the development of technology-enabled teaching spaces helps everyone on campus do his job better.

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