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

Contracting the Design Phase

Owners and architects have an important responsibility in starting out pro AV projects on the right foot.

By Tim Cape, CTS-D

What happens when a client uses an integrator as a consultant once a project is underway instead of taking the traditional consultant design-bid-build approach? I've spoken with various integrators about their design efforts and experiences with design-only contracts and found that almost all offer the service because they're asked to do so — either with or without the owner or architect understanding the potential implications of their choice. While some integrators may decline such requests and pass them on to an independent consultant, others may not. Sometimes these projects are actually better candidates for design-build, depending on the scale, schedule, and budget.

If the owner chooses an integrator for a design contract and plans on design-build with the integrator, the process can be like any other design-build contract, except the design and installation are contracted separately with the same integrator. But even under the best circumstances, this scenario doesn't often work according to plan. And it can be even more problematic if the owner doesn't understand who's truly an independent consultant and who isn't when making their initial choice.

Choices, Choices

When selecting a design consultant, it's important for the owner to understand the differences in process between design-bid-build contracts and a design-build contract. The initial evaluation of the options is different for each process. Ideally, in design-build there should be a clear and specific scope of work offered to a number of firms to solicit apples-to-apples responses. With a more general scope of work outlined, this choice can also be purely qualifications-based and later negotiated with the selected design-build firm.

If the owner uses the design-bid-build approach, the owner (or architect) first selects the consultant and later also chooses the contractor. The difficulty in this case is in selecting the consultant, and the owner can create thorny situations for everyone if there aren't good apples-to-apples comparisons here, too. Owners need to know who is an independent consultant and who isn't, and avoid asking independent consultants to compete against integrators in a consulting-only contract. (Although most independent consultants would turn down this kind of request.) It's also important to understand what the integrators consulting role is during and after the design phase of the project.

Installation Happens

With many integrator design-only contracts, particularly for large projects, it can be difficult to assemble the diversity of expertise required to design the infrastructure for the base building in which the systems will be installed. In addition, higher-level staff may be required to attend a seemingly unlimited number of meetings during the design phase of the project, which can often last a year or two. This is also a big financial risk if the integrator has reduced the design fee to get the project installation contract — an outcome that's far from certain in many cases.

Once all of the meetings are finished and the infrastructure and systems designs are completed, other problems can arise. In some cases the owner may originally promise the installation contract to the designing integrator, but much to the chagrin of the designing integrator, later decide the design should be bid. In this situation, there’s still a chance that the integrator could get the job, but what if they don't?

Normally in an independent consulting project, the consultant is contracted to produce the bid documents, review the bids, and monitor and evaluate the installation once the integrator is selected. But if the owner expects this kind of help from a consulting integrator, the integrator will have to answer questions, review documents, evaluate the installation, and check out the systems being installed by an integrator who may be his competitor.

These situations are never good, and it's really up to the owner and architect to recognize the possible consequences of leading the project into these waters.

The Path Seems Clear

Still, many integrators have great designers with a wide range of expertise, and I don't advocate against hiring them. However, some contractual situations can cause a lot of problems — often through no fault of the integrator or consultant — except when they agree to a potential no-win situation from the beginning. Ultimately, consultants and owners need good integrators to work with in order to implement both consultant-led design projects and design-build projects with mutual respect and col1aboration. The trick is to hire the right firm for the right job at the right time, under the right circumstances, which can often be as difficult as it sounds

There are many valid options available to owners and architects. Integrator design-build, consultant led design-bid-build, and collaborative independent consultant/integrator design-build arrangements can all work successfully. But how you start the trip and travel the road is important. It's also important to realize the responsibility in planning falls on those doing the hiring - the owners and architects. Here are two simple suggestions:

  1. Keep the slate clean. For design-bid-build, talk to independent consultants. For design-build, talk to integrators. Some situations are more appropriate for each path — use creative solutions when the need arises.

  2. Ask questions. Make sure you know who's truly an independent consultant and who isn't. Unfortunately, it may not always be easy to make that distinction. When talking to potential consultants, ask about their relationships with manufacturers and integrators, and talk to colleagues with experience in pro AV projects.

Although pro AV providers are part of the construction industry, we haven't quite reached their proficiency in project contracting. In the bricks and mortar world, it all seems clear. There are architects and general contractors. There are mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineers, and also mechanical, electrical, and plumbing contractors. There's design-bid-build and design-build. Everyone seems to know how to contract for those services under individual circumstances. So why not for pro AV?



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