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Figure 1: An EASE 3D wireframe models of a new church.

Risk Management: What Churches Should Look For When Hiring A Systems Integrator

Part 1: Technical risks involving the specification, integration, and application of modern AV technology.

Every AV system project comes with risk. As consultants, we recognize there may be significant unfamiliarity and even considerable anxiety when it comes to selecting and hiring an AV contractor, or systems integrator as they’re often described today.

When private money is in play, it’s a common temptation to skip the professional consultants and choose to work directly with a design/build integrator. But buyer beware: not all systems integrators are created equally.

Paraphrasing what many have said, “I was put in charge of finding an AV contractor and I have little or no idea how to pick one, or what to look for. I’m just hoping that whoever we select knows what they’re doing and won’t rip us off.”

Sound familiar? If so, this article will provide guidelines on how integrators can and should manage and minimize the main, definable risk factors. These risks are often not recognized, understood or openly discussed before signing a contract. They should be.

Even if you plan to hire a professional AV or acoustical consultant, and send your project out for bids, many of the concepts outlined below hold true. Why? Because accepting the low-bid price is rarely the best plan. Again, why? Because even though they may “qualify” on paper, those firms that have the lowest overhead (read: least invested in providing a full spectrum of quality people, products and services) will almost always come in with the lowest bid.

We believe AV integration project risk can be distilled into these three main categories: Technical, non-technical, and intangible. Here we’ll focus on the technical aspect and will discuss the other two in subsequent articles.

Technical risks are those involving the specification, integration, and application of modern AV technology. Today, this is an ever-evolving landscape of compatible and incompatible digital formats and standards. To properly address a customer’s technical needs and risks, we believe the following elements play an important role.

Design & Engineering Team

Does the integrator employ one or more (in house) systems designers and engineers with formal degrees and/or specialized training certifications? Do they use the latest computer-aided design, modeling, and documentation tools such as AutoCAD, Revit, EASE (Figure 1, above) and Modeler, along with any other proprietary software?

The recommended approach is to fully engineer all projects. This includes 2D and 3D drawings for conduit, backbox and power layouts, rigging details, a certified structural review when applicable, single line diagrams, rack elevations, and plate and panels details.

While using the tools and techniques listed above are common practices for AV consultants, architects, and many of the better general contractors, we realize many end users have never been involved in the intimate details of a construction project and aren’t accustomed to looking at construction specifications and drawings.

The best design/build contractors strive to present their intended integration solutions in ways the general public can easily understand. Customers should be allowed to see their project on paper, or in a computer model as a wireframe, rendering, or virtual walk-though, before it’s built. This allows questions, changes, conflicts, and mistakes to be addressed and resolved early so they cause minimal disruption; resulting in a project that’s more likely to be completed on time and on budget.

During the design development phase of a project, the design team should be able and willing to prepare proof-of-concept drafts to help the client see how some critical decisions are determined. For example, explaining and drawing or modeling sight-line studies (Figure 2), or drawing projection cones to help the customer understand projection conflicts. These “schematic drawings” may or may not need to be included in the formal construction drawings, but they provide valuable information during the project development.

Figure 2: A CAD sightline study — note the balcony slope sightline problem with respect to the front platform.

Veteran Staff

As end users, consultants and integrators, we’re all challenged by the ever-changing landscape of technology. How does anyone keep up with the myriad of old and new products, formats, signal types, standards and vocabulary?

Integrators should have decades of collective audio, video, control system, and networking experience. The best integrators have a mix of young and veteran designers, engineers, project managers and installers.

When a dedicated, experienced staff is continuously exposed to, and engaged with the most advanced professional technologies and training, and enthusiastically backed by the manufacturers of such technology, the knowledge base grows exponentially. The result: there is little that’s beyond their capabilities to understand and properly integrate. Part-time, semi-pro, and home theater contractors generally won’t have sufficient, on-going exposure to pro-level hardware and software.

Specialized Training & Certifications

With today’s complex systems, product-specific training and certifications are also critically important for successful integration. Designers, project engineers, project managers, and lead technicians should hold certifications from multiple trade organizations and manufacturers. Look for corporate and individual staff certifications such as APEx, CTS, CTS-I, CTS-D, EAVA, DCME, CCP, and RCDD.

Technology Advances

As noted earlier, keeping up with modern, professional AV technology is an ongoing challenge. It’s important that your contractor has daily product exposure, with ongoing brand and format awareness. This product awareness allows them to identify and recommend alternate products, when necessary, due to equipment incompatibilities and/or discontinued or delayed product delivery schedules.

Acoustician On The Team

For a many projects, acoustic analysis and treatment may not be needed, wanted, or fit into the budget. However, when acoustical planning is required, the best integrators will have at least one acoustician who can properly evaluate, calculate, specify and oversee installation of the appropriate treatment(s).

Understanding and properly applying acoustic treatments is critical if maximizing speech clarity and overall sound quality are primary goals. EASE, Modeler, Smaart, and SysTune are some of the computer-aided design and measurement tools that qualified contractors employ.

Acoustic modeling software such as EASE and Modeler play a key roll in the correct selection and placement of loudspeakers for a room. These tools allow for the evaluation of different loudspeakers and some reasonably sophisticated, predictive acoustical testing. This early design work is done to help evaluate the audio quality and coverage (Figure 3) in a sanctuary, classroom, auditorium, theater, arena, or stadium before it’s constructed.

Figure 3: An EASE direct SPL coverage map for new church, looking at the speech range of frequencies.

Most AV integrators do not employ an acoustical engineer. It’s not mandatory they do, but almost all projects that have, or plan to have, an integrated sound system installed should have someone who’s keeping an eye on the architectural acoustics. If your contractor doesn’t have someone on staff, seriously consider hiring a professional acoustician.

Authorized Service Center

The best integrators will have an on-call service manager or department, one or more bench-level repair techs, and a 3-tiered approach when equipment service is required. While integrators may be authorized and have the ability to perform factory service on most of the equipment they sell, they may not believe it is the best use of their time and other resources to maintain a fully-stocked service department for the hundreds of products they probably need to support.

This is how the three-tiered approach may be presented:
1. Troubleshoot the problem and fix it in the field when the problem is manageable at that level.
2. Bring the unit into their local shop for evaluation and servicing when the repair involves generic parts and/or when parts are easily and quickly acquired.
3. If necessary, send the malfunctioning unit back to the manufacturer for warranty or non-warranty service.

This approach may have a few variations, such as advance replacement or loaner equipment when necessary, but in general it’s the most time- and cost-effective for all parties concerned.

First-Use Technical Staff

Once you’ve been handed the keys to a new system, the first few events are critical to the perceived value of the investment. Unless you have seasoned professionals on staff to “run the show,” it’s highly recommended that the integrator budget for and schedule the project manager, and possibly one of the lead technicians, to either operate or provide oversight for the first one or two public uses of the new system(s).

A well-integrated system can only perform as well as the skills and talent of the people who are operating the controls. Also, the contractor should include follow-up training a few months after the systems have been in service when the customer has a fresh perspective on what questions to ask.

In part 2, we’ll focus on the non-technical factors of system integration project risk.

Dan Nelson (CTS-D, RCDD) is a senior systems designer with The Sextant Group, a national technology and acoustical consulting firm, and is a member of AVIXA, ASA, SynAudCon, AES and BICSI.

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