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

Writing AV Specifications

Adapting the CSI construction specification model to work for AV systems.

By Tim Cape, CTS-D

The MasterFormat has been the default structure for building design specifications for decades and has worked well for the traditional building trades. But when it comes to pro AV, the structure of the new MasterFormat 04 approved this year by the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI, still isn't as friendly to our systems as it is to traditional bricks-and-mortar systems.

A number of AV industry professionals (including me and other representatives from the International Communications Industries Association and the National Systems Contractors Association) contributed, commented, and participated in working with CSI to hammer out the AV and related sections. Although we still didn't get what we really wanted in the specifications structure (nor did some other trades), the end result is a workable one.

Specifications are important from the designer's standpoint in three important ways: they document the standards and goals for the system installation, play an important part (along with the system drawings) in allowing bidders to start on an even playing field during the bidding process, and ultimately become the binding contract between the owner and integrator in the installation phase of the project.

Sections and Parts

In the new and the old MasterFormat, there are separate sections for materials such as reinforcing steel, wood paneling, metal stud framing, acoustical panel ceilings, doors, operable partitions, and — of course — bricks and mortar. There are equipment sections for HVAC fans, pumps and piping, electrical transformers, and door chimes as well as non-building equipment sections such as laundry equipment, copiers, and kitchen appliances. You'll also find more system-oriented sections for items such as elevators and escalators, which are still relatively easy to specify as a unit from a system level.

Three parts are generally used within each section. "Part 1 - General" includes administrative elements of the section such as submittal requirements, warranty requirements, delivery, storage requirements, etc. "Part 3 - Execution" details preparation for installation, how the item is to be installed and tested, and defines the item's quality issues. However, "Part 2 - Products" (sometimes titled "Materials"), is often the most problematic for pro AV systems. For most construction subsystems, (including electrical, mechanical, and plumbing) as well as many low-voltage systems, the list of materials or products in any given section is relatively short. It may be one item, a list of similar items, or performance information referring to a schedule of products located on the drawings.

In the early development of the new MasterFormat, CSI worked with schemes that would have required us to provide a complete section with Parts 1, 2, and 3 for each product. While this may work for components and systems with a short materials list, pro AV becomes more of a challenge under this scheme because we may have hundreds of products specified within a single system. The final MasterFormat 04 includes a section for Integrated Audio-Video Systems and Equipment (24 41 16) for AV, plus a couple of other related sections. Subsections were also added for several individual space types such as conference rooms, classrooms, and auditoriums. Although these may not be useful to many specification writers, specifications can be written based on the main section alone without specifying systems by room or room type as listed in the MasterFormat.

Adapting AV

In the early days, as pro AV integration started to develop and become part of the building industry, AV consultants had to adapt to the way bricks-and-mortar drawings and specifications were prepared in the construction industry. One issue that has been problematic is the listing of materials and equipment quantities. The general approach in the traditional architectural and engineering disciplines is to show something only once in a set of documents, and equipment quantities aren't listed at all.

For example, if gypsum wallboard can be counted on a drawing, the architect doesn't list quantities of material. Instead, the contractor does a take-off of how long and high the walls are and calculates the square footage of gypsum board and other materials required. In this case, the contractor can do the take-off fairly easily using the drawings, and then update the figure only when formal addenda or change orders are issued.

To adapt to this traditional model of writing specifications for AV, the first change we had to make to the traditional spec-writing structure was to have one section per system or space, instead of one section for each individual product. Another approach we used was to have one section for everything, because the "Part 1 — General" and "Part 3 — Execution" information very often would generally apply across the entire system. But this solution created another problem because pro AV systems often include 100 to 200 products. Even if we list 100 products and their specifications and alternatives in Part 2, the contractor bidding on the system must examine the product list for the product specifications, and then look at the drawings to get the configurations and the quantities of each item. Unfortunately, this isn't easy. Different consultants organize their drawings differently, and sometimes a repeated system or component shown once on the drawings may actually represent many more units of that item.

This causes a lot of problems for bid projects, particularly ones that are large and complex. Consultants who have been working on a project for a year or two would give bidding contractors perhaps two to four weeks (sometimes less) to develop bids and expect a bidding contractor to review, understand, and price the whole system in that short amount of time. While this may put an extra burden on the contractor, the argument is made that the contractor will need to understand the system to bid it, and forcing integrators to dig deeply into the bid documents to determine quantities will make that possible.

To quantify or not to quantify

However, the reality is different in most cases. If the integrator takes the time to go through a large, complex bid set, the integrator may still not get the job. On top of that, it's likely that a competing integrator who is overloaded or inexperienced will miss something in developing a bid and get the job simply because it was unintentionally underbid. Another problem is that the distribution of bids may be very wide because of the way various integrators interpreted the quantities.

So, what's the solution? Provide a list of equipment quantities in the bid documents. Because every project needs to be budgeted before it's bid and the consultant needs to develop a list with equipment quantities anyway, why not publish the list with the bid? In my experience, including such a list can significantly improve the bid process. It provides a much tighter bid distribution in the pricing and reduces the chance that an integrator will severely under- or overbid the job.

But what happens if the quantities in the list are incorrect or if there's a conflict with the drawings? The quantity list makes the course of action much clearer if it's noted as the prevailing information source. This is generally preferred to the haggling that can result over the way items may have been represented in the drawings.

With or without a list of quantities, we'll continue to work with MasterFormat and some of its limitations in writing specifications for pro AV systems. The good news is that with a little creativity, we can adapt it to work for us in this age of technology-rich facilities.



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