The Perfect Blend

by Tim Cape, CTS-D
from PRO AV Magazine, March 2008

Creating a great conference room means more than just selecting the right AV. Properly integrating the electronics can turn a good design into a great one.

Perfect Blend Cover 

THE CONFERENCE ROOM IS A STAPLE of the pro AV industry, a common technological integration project that supports basic organizational functions across almost every vertical market. Offering end-users the opportunity to communicate both individually and as a group, the conference room makes use of mostly straightforward audiovisual presentation functions, using basic controls to play video, switch sources, and provide volume control.

Even though some projects occasionally require videoconferencing, speech reinforcement, and perhaps recording, most conference room integrations still fall on the lower end of the complexity spectrum, featuring computer display as the primary AV function. Nevertheless, high-end conference rooms have their place.

While some spaces feature more complex systems, most incorporate high-end aesthetics with relatively simple AV. These higher-look, lower-tech rooms present a common paradox that often differentiates conference room systems from other AV systems. While the guts of the system may be everyday design in many respects, the peripherals and their integration can quickly turn a "simple" system into a nightmare.

When it comes to designing conference room systems, the process is really no different than with any other AV system: Determine the user's needs, design the infrastructure and systems, and then install them.


The first step in designing a conference room AV system is to determine what the end-users need to support their activities and goals. This means gathering a potentially wide range of information from a variety of people who will actually use the system. Some of the key questions to ask during this step include:

  • What do the room's users want and need to do in the space?
  • Is this a low-end utilitarian conference room, a high-end, high-impact, high-aesthetic space, or something in-between?
  • What kind of audio, video, and/or control interaction or connections are required to other spaces?
  • Who will be supporting the AV system and its end-users?
  • Is the conference room existing, in design, or under construction?

Although there will be many more detailed questions to ask, the point is that the needs analysis should not center on what type of projector the user wants or how many microphones might be needed. The key is uncovering what the user will do with the room and AV system. Based on this evaluation, ask yourself: Will your client attempt only local presentations? Is there training involved? Are there off-site facilities to connect to? Do they want two-way or one-way communication? What video and audio sources support their activities? All of these questions and more must be sorted out before selecting the AV equipment and its configuration.


Quick Tips

  • Make sure the hole you cut into a $40,000 table is the right size and in the right place the first time you cut.

  • For a control system, interface is king. A difficult-to-use interface undermines an otherwise good system.
  • If the table isn't under the AV contract, use a furniture designer to help with equipment and wiring integration.


Once the user's needs are determined, the state of the room can greatly influence the AV design and its implementation. A new space in the early stages of design gives systems integrators and/or consultants the opportunity to work with the room's shape, size, orientation, table configuration, acoustics, lighting, and wiring options before the room is constructed. The AV designer can optimize the infrastructure design for both the user's activities and how the AV supports their functionality.

An existing room may present significant challenges (and ultimately compromises) in addressing the user's needs, such as a low ceiling, high aspect ratio (i.e., a long narrow room), background noise, or full-height glass on any or all sides of the room. The most frustrating design experience, however, may be the room that is late in the design stages or under construction, since changes to the room that would improve the AV system installation can't be implemented because it's just too late or too expensive to make modifications.

Depending on the project schedule, the infrastructure may need to be designed and/or built either long before the system design and assembly or in parallel with it. In either case, the AV electronics will need to be accommodated with a variety of base building components. The usual fundamentals apply here: conduit, power, data connections, acoustics, lighting, and heat removal. Equally important (and potentially more problematic) are the room's orientation, layout, and sightlines. While these are typical design tasks for any AV project, it's the room layout and integration of the peripherals, in particular, that can make or break a conference room.


Once the room's purpose, complexity, and aesthetic level are determined, the designer needs to ask himself questions that start to affect the electronic system design and how each component affects the room design based on the user's needs. The primary attention-getters are:

Displays: Does the room require projection or a direct-view monitor (or both)? Are the sightlines okay from seating locations-to-display, presenter-to-seating, and projector-to-screen? Is there adequate ceiling height for the required sightlines and display size? What coordination with finishes is needed? And the question with a potentially big impact on the architectural design and integration effort: How will the display be integrated or mounted (passive mount or motorized solution), and does it need to be hidden when not in use?

When the conference room is on an exterior wall with windows, a direct-view solution, such as an LCD screen, is usually the best choice.

Exterior Room When the conference room is on an exterior wall with windows, a direct-view solution, such as an LCD screen, is usually the best choice.

Microphones: Are microphones required for speech reinforcement? How about audio or video conferencing? The big question here is: Can the wiring be integrated into the table? If not, can wireless microphones be used?

Loudspeakers: Is audio playback required in stereo or surround sound? Is speech reinforcement needed? What kind of loudspeakers are needed (such as overhead recessed, surround playback, or point source cluster), and where can they be mounted? What parts of the loudspeakers are visible and how should they be finished to visually integrate with the room?

Lighting and shades: Is the room lighting compatible with the display technology being used and the room orientation? For example, does the lighting layout and control allow for acceptable front screen projection keeping light levels sufficiently low at the screen? Are the room lights to be controlled from the AV system? Are there motorized shades that need to be controlled (and perhaps provided)?

User interface: Will there be a user interface for control on the table? At a lectern? On the wall? Is it integrated with a computer display? Is it to be integrated into a lectern or table?

Connections: Where will users plug in their computers and other equipment for display, playback, and control? Are the connection points integrated into furniture?

User equipment: If there is AV equipment to be accessed by users, where will it be? In a cabinet in the conference room? In the lectern? In a credenza? In the wall? In a slide-out rack in the wall? Is there adequate ventilation?

Answers to these questions help shape two major room elements: the furniture (primarily the conference room table and lectern) and the display (the ceiling and/or wall where it will be mounted). Loudspeakers can also be an issue, depending on how many speakers are needed and how aesthetically integrated they need to be.


Because many conference and boardroom designs include a lot of hard finishes, don't forget about acoustics. Excessive reverberation along with high background noise and poor sound isolation will decrease speech intelligibility, comfort, and reduce privacy. Ironically for the AV professional, the higher-end the room is aesthetically, the more likely it is to have hard finishes, hence the likelihood of it being too reverberant.

The typical conference room, on the other hand, often includes carpet on the floor and an acoustic tile ceiling. This may be enough absorption to suit most audio applications. However, the high-end boardroom, designed with a complicated gypsum board ceiling, wood paneling, floor-to-ceiling glass walls, a granite-topped table, and a hard floor surface, for example, isn't as conducive to the sound reinforcement, audioconferencing, and videoconferencing the end-user most likely wants. It's probably too reverberant unless some absorptive surfaces are provided. In addition, sound isolation may need to be enhanced to optimize AV systems operation, speech intelligibility, and privacy.



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