Pro AV Logo Originally published as a Consultant's Connection
column in Pro AV Magazine
  August 2004

Importance of Infrastructure

Infrastructure design is critical for both consultants and integrators, but the required expertise runs deep and wide.

By Tim Cape, CTS-D

So much of what we see in the trade press has to do with the products manufacturers produce and the project work of consultants and integrators. There’s also a fair amount of discussion about fundamental technologies such as basic video, audio fundamentals, and troubleshooting, developing screen technologies, IP data networking, and even a little about lighting, acoustics, and electrical grounding. But far too little emphasis is placed on the overall infrastructure side of our work in much of the readily available pro AV periodicals.

This is not surprising, given that new displays, fancier switchers, and more powerful DSP products are a lot sexier than electrical conduit and mechanical system noise control. Besides, both the readers and advertisers are not so infrastructure-oriented as they are AV product- and system-oriented. Maybe that needs to change — at least a little bit.

Getting involved

Many integrators are forced to dig into building infrastructure design when they start a design-build project — whether it be a new building, a renovation, or just a system retrofit. They are often faced with too little power, conduit, backboxes, and space — not to mention inadequate budgets. Just as often, the environmental issues of acoustics, lighting, space planning, and sightlines are not addressed. And in many cases, there’s no hope of ever addressing them because the facility design and/or installation is already complete. Many integrators getting involved in these projects early on are learning — sometimes the hard way — that infrastructure design takes more time, effort, and expertise than they thought.

Especially in the last five to 10 years, consultants have also entered the project earlier to address such infrastructure issues in a timely and cost-effective way, avoiding both project delays and budget-munching change-orders. Unlike integrators, consultants are generally geared for this process because their profit model is based on it. Get involved early, go to the meetings, do the design and coordination work, and expect to spend at least two to four years on a particular project. However, many integrators have trouble adjusting to this kind of time commitment. Their business model is typically set up on much shorter project lifetimes, plus the additional expertise needed in this area isn’t always available.

The water is wide

In our business, one thing that is commonly underestimated or just plain overlooked is how much effort should go into the infrastructure part of an AV system design. We start a project with needs analysis (which should be part of the architectural programming process), followed by a conceptual design and budgeting exercise for the systems. After that, there is usually a big chunk of time and money spent working on the base building bricks and mortar, duct, and piping to get the space suited up for all the technology it will be expected to take on. This infrastructure design process takes a lot of varied expertise that’s sometimes hard to find. Let’s review some of the most important issues

Architectural: One of the top missed opportunities in working with a new building is getting the space for everything — from alternate seating layouts, equipment rooms, and projection rooms to control rooms and cabling pathways.

Interiors: We have to be able to work with the interior designer to address issues related to lighting and peripheral equipment integration of items such as projection screens, projector mounts, loudspeakers, and AV furniture

Structural: We may have to work with the structural engineer to establish slab thicknesses for acoustic purposes, coordinate where and how large floor box openings can be, or get more horizontal clearance (column spacing) or vertical clearance (floor-to-floor height) just to address AV issues.

Mechanical: The heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) system almost always has to be modified to some degree to accommodate the additional cooling required for AV equipment. Often it’s not just the equipment, but additional lighting that also generates more heat than one might expect in a low-tech building. The most important aspect of the mechanical system design, however, is usually the acoustical impact. We have to evaluate whether or not fans, chillers, pumps, and terminal units are going to cause too much noise for the AV systems to function properly. Then we have to communicate to the mechanical consultant and architect how to fix the problem — in their language.

Plumbing: Mainly because of the noise, AV professionals may even have input on the plumbing system. Therefore, we have to be able to read the plumbing consultant’s drawings and tell them when they need to reroute a roof drain or provide cast iron waste piping to reduce noise in a particular area.

Electrical: The electrical system supporting a low-tech building doesn’t usually have what it needs to support a technology-rich environment. Basic items like separate isolated grounding, additional outlets, and junction boxes for AV equipment have to be located and communicated to the electrical consultant.

Data/telecom: The networking aspect of pro AV is much more in the forefront than it has been in the past. Today, it’s much more a matter of course to ask for the additional data outlets we need (not to mention the IP addresses later). More intimate negotiations may be needed depending on the level of AV/IT integration, and don’t forget about the new CSI MasterFormat, which will make our lives even more interesting.

Lighting: Lighting is crucial for both presentation and videoconferencing facilities. This can be a huge impact on budget, space, electrical, and HVAC requirements. It takes early coordination in the design process and may require collaboration between the AV, electrical, and lighting designers as well as the architect and interior designer to get the space properly lit.

Acoustics: Acoustics is more familiar territory for many of us in the AV business, but it sometimes is addressed too late in the design process or cut as an early “cost savings” under the “value engineering” process. And acoustics isn’t just about fuzzy walls. It’s about wall, ceiling, and floor constructions, room shaping and HVAC, electrical and plumbing system noise control, as well as vibration isolation.

Whew!

As you can see, a technology-rich building project requires many levels of expertise. That’s why members of the design team outside the AV discipline need to be educated on these issues. By the same token, we need to learn their language and understand their concerns and limitations if we are going to be good design team citizens.

Because most consultants have already structured their fees and project schedules around these (and other) important issues, the challenge falls more on systems integrators. Because most have been so focused on installing systems after a building’s been mostly or completely built, integrators have had to play catch up on a lot of infrastructure issues. So regardless of how some consultants feel about including integrators on design teams, as integrators push to move up the project timeline, they are going to have to be able to address all of the assorted infrastructure issues (as well as the volatile post-bid issues) just as consultants do if they are going to be successful.

 

 

 
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