AV Smarts

Keeping Classroom AV Construction on Track

Once the planning, design, documentation and bidding for an audiovisual installation project is complete, it's finally time for construction — and perhaps more than ever, proper coordination and communication are needed to make it to the finish line.

Over the past four months, I have written about the design and construction process for higher education classroom audiovisual systems, including the administrative, schematic design, design development, construction documents and bidding phases of an AV design-bid-build project. This brings us to the final phase: construction.

Now that an AV contractor (integrator) has been signed onto the project through the efforts of the bidding phase, it's time to actually install the AV system that we've spent months designing. Just because we're up to the final phase doesn't mean that we can let our guard down and float along to a completed project: This is where the rubber hits the road. The construction phase requires attentive coordination efforts to make sure that all contractors properly furnish and install all the components of the AV system. Even though the AV design consultant may have gone to painstaking lengths to design every aspect of the AV system — even down to the connector — proper construction coordination and communication are needed to make sure the finished product matches the design intent. All of those hours of needs analysis meetings can be thrown out the window with an uninformed contractor making decisions independently in the field.

Architects typically remain on projects after the general contractor (GC) bid has been awarded, in order to oversee the efforts of the contracted GC. The client wants the architect to make sure that the building is constructed as the design documents dictate. The AV design consultant typically provides the same service during the construction phase; the consultant's role shifts from a design role to a review/approve role. It's best when the AV consultant remains on the project to oversee the construction process through final system commissioning and client training. Even if an AV contractor makes every effort to install the same system that's shown on the design drawings and specifications, the contractor just hasn't invested the same amount of time in the project as the design consultant has.

Construction Administration

The construction phase typically starts with a kick-off meeting to get all the contractors, design team and owner's team in the same room. Periodic construction meetings during the lifespan of the project will also take place. Because of the interdependency of all the various contractors, it's important that relationships are established between them early, and construction details start to get hashed out before everyone's tripping over one another on site. This initial kick-off meeting is an opportunity for the design team to walk the contractors through the design intent of the project, as well as discuss project scheduling and other construction phase coordination issues. Being the subject-matter experts that they are, the contractors may throw up some red flags right away as design intent is clarified. Making sure that the contractors have a thorough understanding of the design details right at the beginning of the construction phase means that there will be fewer surprises down the road, when it's harder and costlier to make changes.

There are quite a few pieces of AV equipment that span the responsibilities of various contractors. Items like projection screens, flat panel/projector mounts, floor/table boxes, etc. require furnishing, delivery and installation coordination from multiple contractors that need to work together. The project manager and consultant need to be at the root of coordinating those efforts.

Right off the bat in the construction phase, it's important for the project manager, architect and AV consultant to document everything. From the moment the kick-off meeting starts, all the way to the final client training session, there are lots of ideas, information and changes being thrown around. The introduction of all the contractors into the project creates lots of "cooks in the kitchen." Their input is usually invaluable, but sometimes important items can slip through without a formal documenting process, which causes issues down the line. A contractor may make a suggestion during a construction meeting, another contractor takes that suggestion to be an informal change order, and now all the involved parties are no longer on the same page.

Following a simple, yet organized, project management process can save everyone lots of headaches. Project managers, architects and/or AV consultants who create detailed meeting minutes are taking the first step to proper documentation. Distribute those minutes to all meeting attendees, as well as those that couldn't attend, and everyone is operating with the same information. Weekly written status updates from the AV contractor are also a way for everyone to stay informed.

Submittals

The submittal process is an essential component of making sure that the final product matches the design intent. In the case of audiovisual systems, submittal materials are items sent by the AV contractor to the project manager for approval before proceeding with procurement, construction and installation. The required submittal materials should have been clearly defined in the construction documents (bid specifications), so there aren't any surprises. The submittal process can be lengthy and costly for the AV contractor, depending on the complexity of the project. If the required submittals weren't clearly defined in the bid specifications, then the AV contractor will no doubt express objection to spending time and labor hours on creating these materials that weren't part of the original proposal.

Typically, submittal materials that are required from the AV contractor are shop drawings, the contractor's proposed project schedule, finalized equipment list, AV furniture details, cut sheets, finish samples, product samples and control system/DSP programming details. Obviously, not all of these items will be required for every project. The AV design consultant is responsible for reviewing and approving all of these submittals, making sure that they follow the design intent as described in the design documents. Contractors are instructed not to order any equipment or begin construction efforts until all of the submittal materials have been approved. Paying attention to the details during the submittal process really sets the stage for a successful construction phase. As long as the AV consultant keeps an organized record of all submittal dates, and responds to them quickly, this process will work well.

Requests for Information

One important aspect of documenting the flow of information during the construction phase is the request for information (RFI). As a contractor is working through the process of preparing for installation, or even while they're in the middle of site work, they may have questions about the design intent. While it might seem easiest for them to pick up the phone and call the design consultant for clarification, it's important for their questions to follow a formal RFI process. If the contractor sends questions on an RFI form to the project manager, and the consultant's response is returned in that same format, then you have easily referenced materials if a question comes up in the future about the same issues.

Change Order

A close cousin to the RFI is the change order (CO). If the question posed by the contractor in the RFI results in a change that involves procurement of additional materials, or additional labor efforts from the contractor, then a CO needs to be issued. The change order originates from the project manager and is sent to the contractor outlining the change, all associated costs, and the new project total cost after the change. All contract scope and pricing changes need to be documented in this fashion to prevent confusion later in the project — and to keep control of the project's budget. Change orders can also be issued when materials and/or labor are being removed from a project, after being deemed unnecessary to the project. Sometimes the contractor is working in the field and decides that a change is necessary to keep the project on track, and seeing no other alternative, they create a construction change directive (CCD). The CCD is sent by the contractor to the project manager for approval.

Quality Control

Depending on the complexity of the project, the AV consultant may wish to be involved with various quality control efforts during the construction phase. This may involve the consultant visiting the AV contractor's shop to test the AV systems after the shop-build process is complete, but before the equipment is moved to the installation site. The consultant may also want to visit the site periodically as the other trades are installing the AV-related infrastructure. Take pictures of all the walls, floors,and ceilings while they're still open and before the finishes are placed on them. Knowing where the cable paths and wall blocking are located after the drywall is up can be priceless. The AV consultant also can perform a final "AV room ready" assessment after the infrastructure is installed, but before AV equipment is shipped to the site. During the AV contractor's site installation period, a few site visits from the AV consultant is a way to make sure that construction is progressing as planned.

Systems Verification

After the AV contractor notifies the client that the systems have been installed, configured and tested, the AV consultant typically visits the site for formal systems verification. Many have started relying on the ANSI/InfoComm 10:2013 Audiovisual Systems Performance Verification standard during this commissioning process. The Performance Verification Checklist that accompanies this standard has become a widely accepted industry standard that can ease the verification process greatly. Whatever final systems verification checklist or criteria that is decided upon should be presented to the AV contractor at the beginning of the project, so all parties are on the same page as to what's expected during these final tests. If specific performance or reference specifications were described in the original bid specifications, then that testing takes place now. A punch list is created by the AV consultant, who makes a return visit to ensure that all items have been addressed.

Client Training

After all systems have been fully tested and punch list items completed, client training can occur. Resist the urge to train clients on partially tested systems, or systems with outstanding punch list items. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and if a faculty member runs into technical issues during his initial training session, he'll never trust that AV system again. It's best to have the lead installation technician or the AV consultant conduct the training session, since they have a deep understanding of the system operation. Conduct a couple training sessions, with one focusing on non-technical users and the other directed toward the technical support staff that will have to operate, service and maintain the AV systems.

Closeout

Now that the equipment is installed and the clients are trained, don't let the project fizzle out just yet. The final step is for the AV consultant to review and approve the closeout submittal from the AV contractor. This submittal package may consist of the as-built system drawings, compiled and uncompiled control system/DSP programming files, equipment/system manuals, equipment inventory/MAC/IP address list, warranty statement, maintenance contract, keys and spare parts. Again, the contents of the closeout submittal package should have been defined in the original bid specifications.

From an AV design and installation standpoint, the project is now complete. The client gives the final sign-off, the warranty period begins, and our journey through all the phases of the project has come to an end.

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