AV Smarts

Developing the Big Picture for Classroom AV Projects

When designing classroom audiovisual systems, it's important to clearly define the project's overall goals, requirements and direction. Here's how.

This is the second article in a monthly series focusing on the design and construction process surrounding audiovisual systems in higher education classrooms. In my February article, I outlined the various stakeholders that can be involved in classroom AV installation projects. I also described the differences between design-bid-build and design-build projects. Now we're ready to move on to the various phases of construction projects and how they relate to AV design and support. As we examine each phase, I'll describe the major milestones and deliverables that make up each phase.

Administrative Phase

It's much more exciting to jump right to the schematic design phase, but I feel like it's important to discuss the process at the very beginning of a construction project: the administrative phase. This phase can take many different forms, depending on the complexity of the project, so I'll present a big-picture view.

When a college or university department (the client) decides it would like to initiate a construction project, its first step is usually contacting the facilities planning department. A project manager from this department is typically assigned to the project, and begins guiding the client through the process. He or she will meet with the client to establish a general idea of the client's wants, needs, goals, timeline and budget. Sometimes this information is compiled to create a program report during this phase, but I'm going to focus on the program report later in the schematic design phase.

After the inevitable red tape has cleared and the project is approved, the project manager begins assembling the design team. The project manager sends out a request for proposal that architectural firms bid on. Those architectural firms then assemble their design team subcontractors to be a part of their bid proposal; these typically comprise engineering firms that focus on electrical, mechanical (HVAC) and plumbing, as well as a team of consultants, including an independent audiovisual design consultant. Including an AV consultant on the design team at this stage is often overlooked, but ideally that individual is a part of the project from this point on.

Before a contract is awarded to an architect, the project manager should engage the school's AV support department to evaluate the AV consultant's qualifications on each individual architect's proposal. Unfortunately, it's very rare that anyone within the institution's audiovisual support department is involved in this stage of the project. It would be great if the AV design folks were working on the project from day 1, but it usually doesn't happen until later (and sometimes way too late in the project).

After the architectural contract has been awarded, the project moves on to the schematic design phase.

Schematic Design Phase

Now that the design team has been assembled, the schematic design phase can begin. The purpose of this phase is to clearly define the project's goals, requirements and direction. A big-picture outline of the project needs to be developed before starting to focus on the nitty-gritty details. Needs analysis meetings with the client and end users begin to uncover the desired goals for the project. Typically, an architectural program report is written at this point, which defines the needs of the client, offers a preliminary opinion of probable cost estimate, and provides a narrative description of the spaces and infrastructure requirements, as well as basic facility plan CAD drawings and renderings. Once approved by the client, these documents act as the foundation for subsequent design and construction administration phases. Taking the time to properly execute the schematic design phase is the key to setting the stage for a successful project.

From the AV standpoint, hopefully the institution's AV support department is engaged in the schematic design phase, and hopefully an independent AV design consultant is part of the design team right at the start of the project. As many of us have experienced, unfortunately this isn't usually the case. Quite often, the client and architect get near the end of their schematic design phase, and even into their design development phase, before realizing that they've neglected the audiovisual component of the project. Speaking from a consultant's standpoint, I'm very glad to be part of the project from the architectural proposal stage, but very often I'm hired by the architect or directly by the client well after the project is up and running.

If the audiovisual system design begins after the client and architects are well into their design process, it's important for the AV design process to take a step back and start with a thorough schematic design phase. The architects and engineers may be up to their infrastructure design stage before the AV system design folks get involved in the project, but that's no excuse to rush through (or eliminate) the AV schematic design phase. The architects will be anxious to quickly integrate the AV system infrastructure requirements into their construction documents (CAD drawings and specifications) so they can put them out to bid to general contractors. As someone involved in the AV system design, you need to stress the fact that nothing gets specified until the AV schematic design phase takes its course.

The AV schematic design phase should always kick off with a review of all project documentation, followed by a complete needs analysis process. The AV design consultant reviews all documents (drawings, the architectural program report, etc.) that have already been prepared by the client or the architect/engineers. The AV consultant will then schedule meetings with the project leaders, the design team, clients and end users to discuss their AV-related needs and goals. The project's AV consultant should include the campus's AV and IT support staff in their needs analysis process, even though those individuals may not yet have a direct interest in the AV design for the project. The AV consultant then begins a review process to study existing AV design documentation, AV systems, standards and facilities to get a better understanding of the direction of AV design and support on campus. This is a commonly overlooked part of the design process, resulting in non-standard equipment being specified and installed. If the construction project is taking place in existing facilities, the AV consultant should perform a site survey to better understand the spaces involved.

After all of this information is gathered, the AV consultant can then write the AV program report. Unfortunately, this is another often-overlooked item, since many AV designers want to jump right into developing the small details of the design. Without a program report, the AV system design process isn't starting with a clearly defined and agreed upon foundation. As important as it is for the program report to define the overall direction that the AV system design will take, it also serves as a key cross-check to make sure all of the client's AV needs have been heard, documented and will be addressed. After the program report is approved by the client, it can be used later in the project to control scope creep — the uncontrolled expansion of a project's scope as the project progresses. When scope creep is left unchecked, project stakeholders may start adding to the AV system's scope until the project's overall size and direction become bloated and blurred. Projects will inevitably experience changes to their scope, but without a clearly written program report to refer to — and a properly defined change process — you're setting yourself up for a scope creep mess.

Typical components of the AV program report are: a project summary, list of project stakeholders, summary of the client's AV needs, descriptions of the AV-equipped spaces, narrative descriptions of the AV system's capabilities and equipment, and architectural/infrastructure considerations. The program report shouldn't dive too deep into specific equipment makes, models, cables, connectors, etc. It should rather take a big-picture approach to defining the project's AV systems. An exception to this will be if there are clearly defined equipment standards on campus that need to be incorporated into the AV design.

Attached to the program report is an opinion of probable cost (OPC) document created by the AV consultant. This is a preliminary AV system cost estimate that includes equipment/material costs as well as AV integrator labor costs. The cost for AV system-related infrastructure may also be included. These equipment and labor costs aren't sourced from an AV integrator at this point in the project. They're best-guess estimates determined by the AV consultant using past projects and industry experience. This document is used for project budgeting purposes, and I'm guessing that most clients will admit they immediately flip to the OPC when they receive the program report. As the project makes its way through the schematic and design development phases, this OPC will be revised numerous times. When the project is finally up to the bidding phase, the OPC will be used as a benchmark to review and compare AV integrator proposals.

After the program report and opinion of probable cost documents are approved by the client, the AV program report should be distributed to all project stakeholders, no matter how small their involvement may be with the AV system design and installation. The project now leaves the schematic design phase and the design development phase begins, which I'll discuss in next month's article.

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