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

When Integrators Consult

What’s the deal about who does what? When it comes to design services, it doesn’t have to be consultant versus integrator — as long as the owner and architect know who they are talking to.

By Tim Cape, CTS-D

I'd like to revisit the age-old discussion about consultant versus integrator when it comes to design services. There's been a lot of heated banter at trade show bars about the differences between design services provided by a consultant and those provided by an integrator — but what are the real issues beyond plain old competition? Is it a technical issue? Is it just about process? Or about money?

Money is certainly a spark, but there's also a lot of debate concerning the process of delivering the most appropriate system. Process does affect a system's technical performance (and everyone's profitability), but ultimately it's about satisfying a customer's needs with the best possible result. So what's the deal about who does what?

Sometimes a process is just a process

Looking at the situation objectively, in the design and installation process, an owner has needs. A qualified professional interprets those needs into a conceptual system and budget. An infrastructure design is developed to support the electronics. The electronics systems are designed. A contract to install them is put in place. The system is installed. At the end of the process, the system is checked, aligned, and commissioned. Then the end-users are trained on how to use it.

Except for bidding, the elements of this process are the same whether it's a consultant-led design-bid-build contract or an integrator-only design-build contract. Documented or not, there are best and worst practices associated with each part of the process to get from point A to point Z. For tasks such as a needs analysis, infrastructure design, and system documentation, there are good-better-best (and bad) ways to accomplish these tasks. However, the end result should be the same for any system delivery method — a well-designed, operational, user-friendly AV system.

A job well done is a job well done

The needs analysis should document the user's needs and provide an agreed-upon basis for the system design. As a best practice, this should not be just an equipment list. For larger design projects, it may be that only major components are identified, and the deliverables should include a functional description of the system — perhaps with graphical layouts of room configurations and/or seating areas.

Infrastructure design should address all areas of the facility design that would impact the system installation and operation such as acoustics, lighting, power, data, and structural requirements, among others. Again, the results of this task should be the same whether performed by an integrator or an independent consultant. They should also address the requirements in a form that the recipient (electrical, architectural, or data/telecom consultants) can understand and use. Similarly, system as-built documentation should include complete information including equipment layouts and lists, wire numbering, and equipment manuals and procedures — no matter who designed the system

Other elements of design and installation can be seen in a similar light. In short, there are ways to design and install a system that most of us in the pro AV industry should be able to agree upon as good practice no matter who we are. However, there are circumstances that can make some parts of the process more difficult to agree upon than others. This is especially true when the design-bid-build process is contracted to an integrator for consulting services without the installation contract.

The danger zone

If an owner goes design-build over design-bid-build, then it's all about integrator competition, and the market for independent consultants has been reduced by one project. There's nothing wrong with this if the integrator is suited for the project type and size, and the owner gets the system he or she needs.

If, however, an owner decides to go with a consultant-led design-bid-build process, there can be potential stumbling blocks for owners or architects who haven't experienced the full gamut of options for implementing pro AV systems. Some owners and architects still don't distinguish between an integrator and an independent consultant, or know why the difference impacts their process. This can create a situation where integrators and independent consultants are vying for the same consulting-only contract.

Every independent consultant I know is riled when confronted with the possibility of competing with an integrator on a consulting-only contract, and this issue has long been the primary source of animosity between the two parties. Many consultants would prefer integrators never participate in consulting-only pro AV projects. By the same token, there are contractors who would prefer consultants weren't in the design market either. Nevertheless, this is the world we live in, and it's not all that bad.

A place for everyone

Some projects are best served by integrators under a design-build contract without an independent consultant involved. Design-build is generally the best choice for projects that are less than $300,000 and/or have a very tight timeframe where the full-fledged design-bid-build process isn't viable.

On the other hand, projects with budgets of more than $1 million that have long design-installation schedules (two to four years or more) are better suited for independent consultants. Most of the same design tasks are involved for any size project, but the business model of most independent consultants is set up to accommodate the longer-term, large-budget, multi-meeting, facility design-intensive projects, whereas most integrators are tuned to the mid- to lower-budget projects of six-weeks to six-months in duration.

Given the above generalizations, there are other options (see my column, "AV's Brave New World", in the July 2002 issue on page 38), and there is a large overlap where either process could work equally well, although there are exceptions to these situations.

The complaint department

There are a bunch of reasons consultants give for not wanting integrators in the design-only market — subsidized (i.e., low) fees, inexperience in base building infrastructure design, product bias prevailing over appropriate design, and a general conflict of interest if consulting integrators are allowed to bid on their own bid documents to name a few. Self-contained single-vendor design-build contracts are fine, but when biddable documents to multiple integrators are required, the trouble begins — and not necessarily because the design isn't good or unbiased.

On the other hand, most of the complaints integrators have about independent consultant designs have to do with the quality and consistency of their work. This is why integrators want more design control. As I have written about before, those of us who have participated in well-executed design-bid-build projects realize how good it can be. When both the consultant and integrator do a good job, have well-defined roles, and have a good relationship with each other and the owner, life is good (and hopefully profitable). Those who have been in the less-than-ideal design-bid-build projects also know how bad it can be.

Know thy process

There is more to be said on this subject than I have room for here, but I will address some of the fallout in future columns. In the meantime, it's important for owners and architects to understand the difference and appropriateness of implementation options for pro AV projects both large and small, and what the potential pitfalls are for any of the available processes



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