Meet Your Future Partner

What do architects think about collaborating more deeply with AV consultants and integrators? We went straight to the source and heard positive feedback. 4/05/2011 1:46 AM Eastern

Meet Your Future Partner

What do architects think about collaborating more deeply with AV consultants and integrators? We went straight to the source and heard positive feedback.

Jennifer Cordes at Slaterpaull Architects says that technology designers are now a big part of her firm's overall design teams.

Credit: Don Cudney

RTKL Associates in Baltimore seemingly has an answer to the age-old dilemma of how to better coordinate the design efforts of architects and AV professionals: The international architecture firm maintains its own in-house audiovisual and building systems division. The AV group is so good at what it does that it sometimes finds itself in the awkward position of doing AV consulting on other architecture firms' projects.

Over lunch in Baltimore's Fells Point neighborhood, one of RTKL's vice presidents, Bill McCarthy, AIA, and the head of its AV and acoustics practice, Tony Warner, CTS-D, say the things AV integrators and consultants have wished for years they could say to architects so that, for instance, the sight lines in a new conference room are taken into account, or the wall for an impressive array of flat screens can bear the load. "Architects don't lock themselves in a room and come out with a solution," says McCarthy. "AV should be inherent to the solution from day one."

"A lot of new workspaces are driven more by function than by form," Warner says. "That requires a deep collaborative effort."

Not every project RTKL works on has an AV component, but about 80 percent do. Which means that neither camp (architecture nor AV) can avoid the other. RTKL isn't the only firm that has brought AV and architecture together under one umbrella, and there are AV consultants such as The Sextant Group that have made the decision to bring architectural expertise in-house (though in our case, not practicing architects). But these forward-thinking shops are in the minority. In a recent Pro AV survey of architects, only 7 percent said that their company had its own staff of AV consultants and integrators. That leaves a lot of critical work for AV consultants and design/build integrators to coordinate with architecture firms.

How will the rest of the project teams that work on new buildings, brought together from separate disciplines, ensure their finished products are tightly integrated, easy to operate, energy-efficient, future-proofed, and exactly what the client envisioned when they asked that their new space include all the latest AV and communications technology? Admit you don't know everything. Learn some of what the other side knows. And for goodness' sake, start sharing ideas when the projects starts, not when it's further down the road. Fortunately, there are architects who understand the role of AV pros and are ready to welcome them into charrettes.

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Meet Your Future Partner

What do architects think about collaborating more deeply with AV consultants and integrators? We went straight to the source and heard positive feedback.


"Our clients recognize that information and possibilities lie far beyond the four walls of their project," says Jennifer Cordes, AIA, LEED AP, and principal at Slaterpaull Architects in Denver. "Today's buildings have the potential to link people to the outside world in real time. Technology has helped us achieve this goal and thus the technology designers have become an integral part of our design teams."


At RTKL Associates, Tony Warner (left) is the AV guy. Bill McCarthy is the architect. Their close coordination pays dividends for the architecture firm's clients.

Credit: Michael Starghill, Jr.

Indeed, with the increased use of audiovisual systems in commercial and institutional buildings, it's become critically important for architects to plan early for the integration of technology into their designs. Videoconferencing and elaborate telepresence suites are becoming more popular for global collaboration. Digital signage systems for scheduling, wayfinding, and news updates are visible in lobbies and meeting spaces. Overarching metacontrol systems can help create a truly intelligent building by tying automation, electrical management, and audiovisual systems management into a common control platform that supports a client's sustainability goals (see "The Building Management Mix," page 40).

None of these functions in a vacuum. Planning the infrastructure to support such applications guarantees optimal performance and transparency. Doing the opposite, i.e. considering technology late in the process, creates a visible layer to an otherwise thoughtful design.

Moreover, doing things the right way and considering technology's impact at the outset of master planning, programming, and conceptual design helps lower overall costs. In fact, the savings from early planning can be significant. Early planning helps itemize up-front costs for estimating a responsible minimum investment, and provides benchmarks for determining the long-term cost of ownership. But most importantly, integrating technology from the outset should obviate most of the cost for post-construction changes, such as physical infrastructure, cabling, conduit, power, and technical interfaces. Often, these changes can exceed the cost of the technology itself. RTKL's McCarthy says that because the company's architects work with AV designers from the outset, "it's actually a cost benefit to clients."

"Early and continued identification and coordination of the audiovisual requirements as an integral part of the design process is critical to the ultimate success of the facility and reduces the need for redesigning later in the process," says Rod Kruse, FAIA, LEED AP, and principal at BNIM in Des Moines, Iowa.

It also helps ensure that the building includes behind-the-scenes provisions to support AV systems. "Specialized spaces are needed to accommodate state-of-the-art technology," says Cordes. "These include server rooms, [intermediate distribution frame] rooms, recharging stations, etc. Securing and controlling the temperature in these spaces optimizes equipment performance. This puts pressure on the floor plans, HVAC systems, and overall building energy use. If coordinated early, we can accomplish energy savings by locating technology rooms so they can be easily exhausted and include heat recovery options, which reduces energy use in colder months."

But beyond the less glamorous, albeit critical support infrastructure for AV systems, from conduit to equipment rooms, there are a slew of design considerations that need input from an AV expert.

"Rapidly changing media and technology raise issues ranging from sight lines to natural and artificial lighting, from acoustics to material selections, from planning for flexible, adaptable uses and reconfigurations to providing for a supporting, flexible, and user-friendly infrastructure," explains architect John Guenther, FAIA, LEED AP, of St. Louis. "With an appreciation for and knowledge of these issues, the architecture can accommodate the technological requirements gracefully and successfully, with balance and thoughtfulness, all in service of those seeking and sharing knowledge in a supportive, flexible, and beautiful environment."

In practice, how is that accomplished?

Meet Your Future Partner

What do architects think about collaborating more deeply with AV consultants and integrators? We went straight to the source and heard positive feedback.


Architects and AV pros say that before a project program is developed, clients benefit from "blue-sky thinking" about what could be, not just what is. "We start with user-group meetings to brainstorm the vision for the building," Cordes says. "Once established, our team meets regularly with the technology designer to realize the vision."

Developing a design and actually constructing a significant project can take 18 to 36 months or more. In that time, technology applications will likely go through at least one full generation of capabilities (and come out less expensive in the end). The only way to allow for this inevitable change is to help the building's owner look beyond their current applications to what's likely to be available at the time of occupancy and through the first several years using the facility. Micro-fine LED displays, high-bandwidth wireless networking, full-featured smartphones and tablet computers were science fiction less than two decades ago. Holographic imaging, flexible flat-screens, haptic (force-generating) controls are quickly moving from Hollywood's imagination to the boardroom. Clients notice cool technology all around them and want it where they work.

"We're no longer interested in just seeing how the AV is connected, or the mechanisms, or the devices," says Hraztan Zeitlian, AIA, LEED AP, and principal for DLR Group WWCOT inSanta Monica, Calif. "We're interested in seeing the amazing effects and impact of seamlessly integrated AV systems." In other words, when working with architects, there are AV companies that need to change their focus from the systems they could integrate (videoconferencing codecs, sound reinforcement) to the experience the building's users want to have. "If your goal is to sell the latest technology, that's not a needs-based approach," says RTKL's McCarthy.

Similar to the master-planning process, creating a technology plan helps anticipate new applications that supplant existing systems. Scheduling a visioning session before a project starts can open the eyes of building owners and occupants to new possibilities. "Infrastructure for future technology must be explored," Cordes says. "Technology is constantly evolving and the only way to keep up is to imagine the possibilities."

Comparing up-front costs versus life-cycle costs can, for example, lead clients to invest in newer technology that provides higher productivity and collaboration. But even after a useful visioning session, some potential AV systems may not be economically or technically viable. The building design should still include infrastructure to accommodate future systems in a flexible and cost-effective manner–a point the AV professional can help drive home.

The best investment any building designer can make is in a robust technology foundation. This would include cable pathways (in above-ceiling trays or underfloor ducts), provisions for fiber-optic cabling to desktops and rooms, structural and electrical support in walls and ceilings for display devices, adequate power and grounding systems to prevent interference, and programmatic consideration for server and data distribution throughout a building. It should also take into account oft-overlooked technology support spaces, like the area needed behind a rear-projection videowall, if one or more are desired.

The problem is, architects don't always know what they don't know. They know sight lines are important, for instance. They know viewing angles and acoustical performance can impact their clients' utilization of a classroom, auditorium, or meeting facility. Many even know the basic AV technologies required. But they often need someone to alert them to what they may not have taken into account.

"Increasingly, AV systems are an essential part of our learning environments," says Jay Bond, AIA, associate vice president for facility management at California State University Fullerton. "Early and frequent communication and coordination among the faculty users, architects, engineers, facility managers, campus IT managers, and the AV consultants is essential if expectations are to be met. The AV consultant can play a crucial role in ensuring that the right questions get asked at the right time, and that the proper answers are provided."

Meet Your Future Partner

What do architects think about collaborating more deeply with AV consultants and integrators? We went straight to the source and heard positive feedback.


What can be especially frustrating is the fact that a few questions up-front can sometimes overcome very simple design mistakes. John Godbout, CEO and founder of AV design/build company CCS Presentation Systems in Scottsdale, Ariz., says his company is working on a huge new building in Phoenix that represents up to $3 million in AV equipment and integration. When the AV team visited the site to examine the equipment room, they realized the room lacked a doorway–there was only an opening in the floor. "If we'd worked with the architects more up-front, there sure would have been a door," Godbout says. "And guess what? There was no air-conditioning duct."

Though considerable progress has been made in persuading architects of the need to meet with AV professionals early in the process–both by individual AV companies as well as by InfoComm International through its CTS for AV initiative (–it's still incumbent upon AV companies to take the first step when necessary. Godbout says that CCS Presentation Systems has people whose job it is to reach out to architects and general contractors (GC). "When we hear about a job, we'll call the GC, find out who the architect is, and call them to try and secure an up-front meeting," he says. "Sometimes we can, sometimes we can't."

For all the efforts by AV pros, and for all the receptiveness of today's architects, there's still room to improve collaboration betweem the two sides. Godbout says only about one-quarter of the projects CCS works on would qualify as optimal partnerships between his company and the architect. But just a couple years ago, when CCS started actively reaching out to architects, none of the projects the company worked on were true collaborations.

"Some companies started earlier, but we're just getting into it," Godbout says. He recognizes that AV consultants have been at it even longer, helping architects realize the potential of advance AV systems. But still, he says, "Pro AV integrators are the function to the architect's form."

Craig Park, FSMPS, Assoc. AIA, is a principal with national technology consultants The Sextant Group. He trained as an architect and has practiced as an AV consultant for more than 25 years. Pro AV editor Brad Grimes contributed to this story.

Meet Your Future Partner

What do architects think about collaborating more deeply with AV consultants and integrators? We went straight to the source and heard positive feedback.


Architects share their views on AV systems and working with AV pros.