Pro AV Logo Originally published as a Consultant's Connection
column in Pro AV Magazine
  February 2006

Peer Reviews In Pro AV

Peer reviews are relatively rare in pro AV, but it's time to become more proactive.

By Tim Cape, CTS-D

IN THE pro AV industry, the words “peer review” can strike fear into the hearts of both consultants and integrators. This is primarily due to the fact that at this point, peer reviews in pro AV are typically only called for when there's a problem on a project, rather than as a normal part of the process. In other industries around us, however, peer reviews are much more common.

The bricks and mortar architectural disciplines and our IT brethren are often involved in peer reviews on large projects, and those projects benefit from them. A peer review may be requested by the owner, the construction manager, or even the design team itself on a building project. In IT, a peer review is often included as a part of an enterprise IT process whereby the internal design team brings in peers — either from within the company or outside it — to provide feedback on the system design approach proposed and its suitability for the user's needs.

Peer reviews can also be conducted on a smaller scale within a pro AV design or integration firm. This is most often the case in larger firms where several teams are working on separate projects, although smaller firms that have a few people working on different projects can also conduct peer reviews of each other.

One project manager or team can review the design of a colleague before sending the design to the client. It takes discipline and time, but internal peer reviews can be a great boon to project quality control. They can also serve as a great teaching and learning exercise for both the reviewer and the person whose work is being reviewed.

Quality from diversity

In the pro AV industry, we come from a lot of different technical backgrounds. There are acousticians who migrated into audio and video, audio people who took on video (sometimes reluctantly), and video people who now have to deal with audio on AV projects. Given this variety — not to mention the data networking, control, lighting, interior design, electrical engineering, and other expertise necessary for a fully functional AV design — it's no wonder that some designs may appear strong in one area but weak in another.

The internal peer review can help identify and bridge these gaps. The video guys can learn from the audio designers' input and vice versa. Ideally, the peer reviewer has a wide range of experience in order to effectively evaluate all aspects of the project, but almost any second set of objective eyes reviewing a design before it's set into motion can be helpful.

Another benefit of an internal peer review is that the reviewer — not just the subject of the review —might learn a few things. It can also help a smaller company develop and maintain standards, at least within its own firm.

More than just systems

As we all know, pro AV can have a huge impact on a building. Electrical systems, mechanical systems, interior design, space allocations, room layouts, and ceiling heights are all affected before the AV systems designs come into the picture. But this doesn't just have a design impact, it also has a monetary and functional effect.

On a large, technologically dense building, the AV system may cost millions of dollars, while the building costs hundreds of millions of dollars. But a more-than-trivial part of the bricks and mortar cost may be generated by the AV systems' requirements. For the AV systems to be functional, the building has to provide design and infrastructure support. If it doesn't, the AV systems won't function well (or at all), losing sight of the ultimate goal of meeting the user's needs, perhaps along with a lot of money.

With an AV peer review, this relationship between the AV design and the building creates a potential side benefit for the building owner and construction manager: They can potentially get a feel for how the design team as a whole has addressed the technology in the building design beyond just the systems design.

Selecting a peer

With all of the benefits they offer, why aren't more peer reviews conducted before an AV project runs into the ditch? There are a number of reasons. First, most AV designers and firms don't want to be reviewed. It also costs more time and money during the design phase, and the owner may not have included that cost up front in the project budget. Lastly, AV pros just aren't used to these reviews.

It can also be argued that the bulk of pro AV integration projects aren't of an adequate size to greatly benefit from these reviews. Peer reviews of projects valued at less than $500,000 may not be as cost effective and beneficial as with projects worth $1.5 million or more.

The cost for a reviewer will generally fall to the owner when the peer review is included in the scope of the project to begin with. But if it comes later as a result of questionable performance, the architect generally pays for the reviewer's services.

Another issue is that owners, construction managers, and architects often don't know who should perform the peer review. There's also the dearth of AV application standards that would aid in a reviewer's objectivity. Because of this, it's important to select a reviewer who has the knowledge, experience, and objectivity to perform an adequate review.

When searching for a peer reviewer, be sure to choose a true peer — a professional who has hefty experience and works in the same vertical market, if possible, but preferably not someone who's a direct competitor. Owners, architects, and construction managers can ask their own peers to suggest someone who could potentially provide an AV review. It can also be useful to ask the firm to be reviewed whom it would recommend. The reviewed designer can be a viable source of information at the beginning of a project with a pre-planned peer review, but perhaps not so much after the wheels have already come off the wagon.

As a general rule, it's best to stick with consultants reviewing consultants. Integrators can review other integrators for design-build projects, but given the competition on large projects nationwide, it may be better to have a consultant provide reviews of design-build designs in many cases.

It's also important to know the individual or individuals who will be doing the peer review, instead of relying solely on the firm's reputation as a whole. Individuals' backgrounds and experience may vary greatly within a given firm, so it's important to qualify the individuals up front as much as possible.

Sometimes knowing is enough

Part of the effect of a peer review — particularly when it's anticipated as part of the process from the beginning — is that the owner of the final system is likely to get a better product. Designers who know that a peer will be looking at their work will probably take extra care to make good marks on the review. And that can only be better for the design, the project, and the owner.



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