in May 2004
Convergence: Users, Furniture, Infrastructure
By Joseph Bocchiaro III,
It’s not all in the hardware and wiring.
the more challenging aspects of IT/AV systems design is
the incorporation of device connectivity into furniture
and architectural millwork, and the connection of this furniture
to building wiring. The growing need to connect notebook
computers and network appliances in different situations
has led manufacturers to develop hardware components specifically
for this purpose. Although welcome additions to the AV designer’s
repertoire, they create a new class of challenges for construction
coordination, between IT (Information Technology), AV (audiovisual),
MW (Millwork), EC (Electrical Contractor) and GC (General
Prior to their development, connectors
for computers, document cameras, control panels and other
AV devices were incorporated into custom housings and pockets.
IT component manufacturers, already producing floor and
wall connection solutions, began focusing on furniture housings.
The large marketplace for such devices precluded any types
of connectors other than power and voice/data (information
outlet) jacks. Adding AV connectors to these specialized
interfaces has been particularly problematic. This is where
the IT/AV “rubber” meets the MW/EC/GC “road.”
During the last 10 years,
commercial furniture manufacturers have learned that they
need to accommodate technology in a variety of environments.
It began in corporate offices, where workstations required
cabling for telephones, monitors and personal computers.
The need was particularly acute in the corporate conference
setting, where large tables require frequent connection
of computer, telephony, and AV equipment. Furniture manufacturers
began to produce desks and tables known as “smart”
furniture, although there are not actually any active or
“smart” components involved.
Some furniture manufacturers
have recognized the need for customization of the “smart”
connections, and allow for the integration of various IT
and power connectors, as well as customizable AV spaces.
Some have developed their own systems, while others have
incorporated commercially available devices. Some of those
fit within larger families of components that may include
connections to partition walls or raised floor systems.
Architects and interior designers have been eager to adopt
“smart” furniture solutions, although often
without understanding the special considerations that must
be given to them. In their defense, however, it is largely
the architectural community that has demanded attention
to cable management and aesthetically pleasing technology
The design team has many options
besides available stock furniture equipped with connectivity
devices. Numerous manufacturers of stand-alone components
(standard or custom-made) are ready to install into furniture.
Use of these components can transform ordinary furniture
into “smart” furniture! Furniture specifiers
should be aware of issues when selecting furniture to be
electronically equipped. In particular, if furniture is
to be stacked, folded or stored, the configuration of the
infrastructure and cabling must be planned carefully.
Furniture IT/AV infrastructure
components come in many shapes and sizes. The least expensive
are flush-mount plates with exposed connectors. Table pocket
components embed these plates into the furniture, with one
or two “pocket,” “bomb bay” or other
doors for access. Brushes, “mouse holes” or
indentations in the covers prevent cable abrasion and pinching.
More complex devices include boxes that manually or electrically
“pop” up from the table, boxes that “flip”
up on one hinged side and boxes that rotate, with a finished
surface opposite the connectorized side. Whatever the form
factor, these devices present the user with a surface area
housing connectors, and a means of routing cabling to cable
management beneath the work surface.
The most important consideration
in table connectivity components is whether they provide
a means for integrators to customize them, or must be configured
and assembled at the factory. Also important: Is the device
modular enough so installers can work on their own distinct
area without disturbing other trades’ work?
Another distinction is whether
connectors and related mounting hardware are standard, readily
available or project-specific, or whether they are unique
to the device manufacturer. Modularity and physical separation
within each category—electrical, IT, telephony and
AV—are also desirable. These points are critical to
the sequencing of trades’ work on the project site;
devices must be installed and ready for a variety of sub-installation
Secondary to the devices themselves,
but equally important, is management of the cabling from
the device to the floor, wall or to another furniture component.
Some manufacturers equip their furniture interface products
with standard or simple connection points, such that each
trade can install cabling as necessary for the project.
Others supply the products with fixed or custom-length cables,
often with connectorized ends.
This distinction is important
because the cables’ termination points may vary from
room to room, or may change during the course of the project.
Some cables may have to be pulled in their entirety from
an equipment cabinet or patch panel, for example, and terminated
in a fixed-furniture situation at the furniture interface.
Other cables may require connectors
for presentation to a floor or wallbox. Still others may
require frequent connection and disconnection to floor or
wallboxes in different locations, necessitating flexibility
in the direction and length of the cabling.
Regardless, cables must be managed beneath and within the
furniture the device is affixed to. They must be secure
and free from excess slack that users can accidentally pull
with shoes, knees or hands. Complete design includes cabling
raceways built into the furniture itself, particularly in
table legs, that can hide cable bundles all the way to the
floor- or wallbox connection point. Easy access to the entire
cabling path is important for maintenance and capabilities
In locations that are not
seen by participants, such as the underside of large conference
tables, this often is best handled with hooks or standard
cable raceway products. Holes in wood between millwork architectural
components should be finished with grommets or other escutcheons
designed to prevent cable abrasion. Pathways and raceways
should be separated with respect to signal type, to match
the configuration of the furniture interface.
Work surfaces often contain
excess cable, power supplies, transient suppressors, signal
converters and other sloppy elements. The use of grommets,
slots with brushes and other hardware can allow users to
set up and organize the surface easily. This can make a
great difference in extended meetings where numerous laptop
computers, audio conference equipment, coffee pots, paperwork
and other objects share the table. Often a combination of
furniture interfaces, grommets or on-table raceways is desirable
to both connect and hide cabling.
TABLE BOX INFRASTRUCTURE DEVICE.
A related critical and difficult
coordination task for IT/AV/EC/GC professionals is the location
of wallboxes and floorboxes. Often these infrastructure
devices are positioned in a space prior to the detailed
design of furniture locations. Changes in furniture layouts
at a later date can be disastrous in cases where complete
misalignments occur, such as when AV credenzas or desks
are located on a different wall in a room!
Furniture with intelligently
designed cable pathways can be located perfectly above a
floorbox or at a wall location such that no cables are seen
whatsoever, or misaligned in such a way that cables become
unsightly tripping hazards. This can be accomplished only
when design- and construction-team coordination is managed
Rooms with reconfigurable
furniture locations are particularly problematic. Common
practice involves aligning floorbox locations beneath as
many anticipated furniture layouts as possible. This is
accomplished by layering the furniture plans and looking
for intersections. Furniture that allows for internal rerouting
of cabling can accommodate floor or wallboxes near different
table legs or pedestals.
Design of the connector layout
within floor and wallboxes can minimize the plugging and
unplugging of cables. Use of “pigtails” in these
cases usually is avoided because of the risk of damaging
cabling that is a part of the permanent room installation.
Usually, connectors on plates within boxes are preferred.
More robust cables and connectors are also used, often of
the military-style multipin variety. In some cases where
cables may present tripping hazards, connectors can be selected
or modified to allow them to be unplugged easily. Often,
audio XLR connectors are modified in this way, with their
latches removed. Attention is also paid to the orientation
of the cable with respect to the connection point, often
requiring right-angle, swivel or other special connectors.
The Different Trades
The design, logistics and
contracts involved in installing furniture infrastructure
are as important as the devices and mechanics themselves.
Architects, interior designers and systems designers should
be aware of the project schedule, labor conditions and special
site conditions for the project before selecting furniture
Often, furniture with an integral
connection system is selected before the technology team
has discerned pro- ject parameters, and it may be difficult
to adapt later. Although well-meaning interior designers
may select furniture because of its technology features,
the particular furniture infrastructure might be inappropriate
or inadequate for the client’s requirements.
Once a system is selected and incorporated into the design,
it is important that the purpose and special nature of these
devices is communicated to the construction team. Many issues
will arise, beginning with physical locations in the furniture,
all the way to how cabling is managed from the furniture
to the room. Although this issue may seem relatively trivial
to the overall project, it should be discussed in both technology
and architectural meetings, because so many trades are involved.
These issues must be tracked on both project minutes and
project schedules. Following are some of the concerns unique
to each of these trades.
The design of IT infrastructure
in a building should follow very specific standards, yet
be flexible enough to accommodate the space’s users
and their technology needs. Designers select specific infrastructure
components and cables for a variety of reasons, and attempt
to standardize particular aspects of the hardware implementation.
These building standards may include using a particular
number of jacks on each wallplate, a particular number of
patch points in each data closet cabinet, color-coded cables
for different signal purposes, a combination of copper and
For example, a specific manufac-
turer’s components might be used throughout the entire
project, in the interest of “certifying” the
bandwidth of each of the point-to-point cable runs. Most
such system features are invisible to the casual observer,
yet can strongly affect network performance. All must be
accommodated by every infrastructure component, including
Often, furniture infrastructure
components are disliked by IT pros because of the challenges
they present. Typically, they are specified by professionals
other than IT, and the IT designers and integrators are
expected, usually naively, to adapt to them.
A better approach is to use infrastructure components that
can be configured with exactly the devices desired by IT
designers. At the least, consistency of design, including
patch point and sequencing standards, can be maintained
from user endpoint to IDF (intermediate data frame) through
MDF (main data frame). Ideally, system certification can
One frequent IT professional’s
objection to furniture components is that they essentially
represent an “extension cord” to the building
infrastructure. Because the total cable distance between
active network components is fixed by industry standard,
bandwidth and distance certification should be tested at
the furniture endpoint, not just at the wall- or floorplate
endpoint. Nowhere is the need for high-quality components
more important than in furniture infrastructure, because
this represents a common point of failure for the system.
AV designers have their own
unique requirements for furniture connections. First, the
connection points in the furniture likely will differ from
location to location, if only in a small way. This is because
all AV equipment does not use the same connector, and because
different pieces of equipment typically are located at different
points. Second, some AV signals are more sensitive to interference
from adjacent cables than others, with microphone signals
perhaps the most sensitive. This crosstalk could include
leakage from improperly terminated connectors, or simply
from close proximity to other cables (especially cables
running in parallel).
Third, AV connections must
be labeled clearly to avoid confusion. Connection plates
must have adequate room for this labeling. Finally, many
AV connectors are deep and require space behind the plate
not only for the connector but for the bend radius of the
cable. This is true particularly for high-bandwidth coaxial
AV designers aim for systems
with a minimum of connection points; each is a potential
point of failure. Designers are also aware of the difficulties
in adding new features to systems not prepared for them,
requiring cable pulling and often the complete disassembly
of connector plates. Value engineering processes on AV projects
often mandate that some of the flexibility features be removed,
but these decisions should be made carefully to avoid future
complications and costs.
Furniture with built-in cable
management components presumably takes into account many
of the described concepts. But when existing or new furniture
is adapted with these infrastructure devices, the millworker
could face myriad challenges. First, the location of the
device might interfere with structural or decorative elements
of the furniture. Second, the cable management components
beneath the surface might require channeling and cutting
to install raceways. Third, the legs or bases of the furniture
might require that access holes and hatches be cut to allow
users to connect to floorboxes below. Accommodations for
a variety of power supplies, interfaces and cable excess
must be made.
Millworkers always prefer
that any furniture modifications be made in their shops.
This can be accomplished only with good project coordination.
When standard furniture is used, or when furniture is modified
in the field, the project team is open to mistakes, noise
and dust, and labor issues.
Responsibility for cutting
holes, routing edges, installing trim, etc., should be left
to professionals with the proper tools and expertise. If
this means that millworkers are contracted separately just
for this work, then these arrangements should be made. Damaged
finishes, compromised structural integrity and mismatched
hardware have both functional and aesthetic ramifications
for the project.
Electrical codes vary from
country to country, but are fairly consistent in the United
States. The NEC, or National Electrical Code, must be conformed
to in order for the facility to receive a certificate of
occupancy (CO). This critical document is issued only after
an official inspection of the jobsite. Any electrical devices
of an unusual nature, particularly those described here
certainly will be scrutinized during inspections. Electrical
engineers should be consulted to ensure that the power cabling
from the ceiling or wall, all the way through the furniture
and to powered devices, is configured properly.
The juxtaposition of high-
and low-voltage cabling is a common concern. In some jurisdictions,
power cabling must be enclosed completely in rigid or flexible
conduit. Rubber cord that can be construed as an extension
cord often is not allowed. The furniture infrastructure
device usually must be UL (Underwriter’s Laboratories)
approved to pass fire codes. This issue is resolved in some
devices by specifying only that the electrical contractor
install a UL-approved standard electrical junction box.
In any case, care should be taken to install the correct
gauge wire corresponding to the circuit-breaker amperage
In all cases, the high-voltage and
low-voltage cabling must be separated from each other physically.
This can be as simple as installing a steel or rated plastic
barrier between the cables and any terminations, but these
barriers must pass inspection. In extreme cases, some electrical
codes mandate that the low-voltage cabling in any devices
that mix high and low voltages be rated for high voltage,
typically 600V. This requirement should be understood before
installation, because most AV cabling is not rated appropriately.
In some cases, the cable will pass through a plenum air
space, and both high- and low-voltage cabling will have
to be plenum-rated, with a jacket made of Teflon or a similar
Construction Coordination Issues
From this discussion, it is evident
that the coordination of AV/IT furniture infrastructure
devices must be tightly managed. It is appropriate that
this be done by the general contractor because the final
responsibility for the project typically lies with this
entity. Because the “smart” furniture interacts
with floors and ceilings, the general contractor must plan
for these device locations as well.
Often, structural elements
such as floor ducts, beams, rebar, etc., dictate the relocation
of devices. It may not be possible at all to install these
devices into buildings constructed with prestressed concrete
because the structural integrity of the slabs cannot be
compromised. Relocation of the floor or wall interfaces
could trigger a redesign of the furniture locations, which
could in turn affect the design of the AV system!
Use of furniture infrastructure
devices for AV, IT and power connectivity is a convenient
approach toward managing the multiplicity of cables required
for AV-enabled spaces. But coordinating the installation
of these devices requires a collaborative effort between
members of both the design and construction teams on any
project. Poor planning can result in excessive construction
delays, and can affect many other trades such as carpet
installers, painters and furniture movers. Proper planning
can result in a highly functional, beautiful project, with
hidden technology, proper equipment operation and satisfied
Joseph Bocchiaroo III, CTS-D,
is a Principal Consultant with Electro-Media Design, Ltd.,
and manages the EMD Western New York office. Previously
he was the AV Group Manager of a major NYC IT consulting
firm. He is the Chair of the ICIA's ICAT (Council of Independent
Consultants in AV Technology), a member of AECT (Association
for Educational Communications and Technology), and a member
of the Sound & Communications Technical Council.