Business

AV Design Consultants Part 1

Now that the holidays are over, let’s get down to business! Last year, I read something that really “irked” me…so much so that I want to address the issue here in the hope of starting a meaningful dialog about this issue (not the rhetoric that is being spewed forth). This is highly controversial, and I have been trying to figure out the best way to present it to our community and have decided to approach it this way: in three parts, of course!

Part 1 addresses consultants and their role (note to consultants: Be sure to read the “disclaimer” at the end). Part 2 will address integrators, and Part 3 will be the conclusion and the crux of the matter. I am not disclosing the overall issue because it’s time for another contest: If you think you know the issue I am addressing, please email me; one lucky winner will receive the winning prize, a can of peanuts from the Virginia Diner!

After spending almost 20 years working exclusively as an integrator in New York, my Atlanta tenure has been split between integration and consulting. I have worked in both areas independently, as well as in the employ of others. I am not mentioning names, and the examples I am offering are all real and, to the best of my ability, unbiased in their reporting. Some of you may recognize an example or two as I have mentioned some of these in the past.

Let me start out with something from my past in Atlanta. I was hired as a AV design engineer for a local consulting firm. After having been there for about three months, and having worked on quite a few projects, I went to the director of the AV group’s office to share some “good” news (or so I thought).

A large church project that I completed was sent out for bid. There were a few bidders, and the RFIs had just come in. There were about eight questions; I was proud of that. I spent a lot of time checking my work, making sure I was clear and to the point. I shared this with “John” and said that I hoped one day to have no RFIs. Could you imagine that? Such good work that no one had any questions!

John looked at me and said, very sternly, that if I ever sent out a project and there were no RFIs, I would be terminated immediately! Of course I thought he was joking, but he was not. In fact, he was not happy that there were so few questions; he felt that I spent too much time on this and did “too good” a job.

He explained that we need to get work out fast so we can work on other projects, and that a number of issues that need clarification and some errors are not a problem for him….that the onus is on the integrators to find these errors and/or omissions in advance, and if they do not, it is their problem.

I was shocked, and considered this a lesson. I never spoke of this matter again with a consulting firm that was employing me. I can tell you that this did not dissuade me from doing a thorough job on my projects while in their employ, and for my company, AVCS. I don’t think it is the integrator’s responsibility solely, and believe that we are part of the overall “team,” working together toward a common good, that being great work and a satisfied client.

This next issue is from an engineer who was working on shop drawings for a project the integrator he was working for had bid on. He had not seen the bid documents because it was bid by another office that was overrun with work, so it went to his office to complete.

This was a large out-of-state university with multiple rooms, the most complicated being the auditorium. There was only one line drawing that incorporated audio, video and control. The drawing was so jam-packed that you could not place a dime on the sheet without touching something. There were more than 15 errors on that drawing alone, including typos, wrong model numbers, etc. Clearly, this was a rush job, although this was from a major consulting firm that likely was paid to do a thorough job, not cut and paste.

In addition, there were no specifications for the equipment; just an Excel spreadsheet. I have seen this before; with this particular consultant, on many occasions, instead of providing complete equipment specification, they take a shortcut. In my opinion, what should be provided is a “basis of design” equipment model, detailed parameters of the equipment and two or three additional manufacturers that would be allowable to substitute (that have the same parameters as the basis of design model) without having to go through the documents required to make an equipment substitution.

Having a predetermined design with no substitution can restrict many smaller companies from bidding on a project. Smaller companies may not get the same pricing, and in order to substitute, they have to go through an often grueling process submitting documentation to make a substitution for every piece of equipment they want to change. Bottom line: This is a cost-cutting measure by the consultant to spend less time on the project.

These cost-cutting measures are not in the best interest of the owner. Limiting bidders to large integrators does not always work out. I have seen small integrators outshine larger integrators, and large integrators sometimes may not live up to your expectations. In the end, the quality of the installation depends on the project manager, lead technician and project engineer in the final stages. It’s about the individuals and their respect for themselves, the company they work for and the owner.

Would it have been so bad to spend the extra time to make three drawings (audio, video and control), and then check your work? Maybe even have someone else check it? Now there’s a concept: On a complicated project, check your work before you issue it!

Back to the topic: To this day, on a large, complicated project, I always have a fellow senior level consultant review my drawings before they are issued, to look for any issues he may find. We do this as a courtesy to each other and for the overall “good” of the project. Can you imagine that?

Segueing right into the next example: This is a “double” from the same consulting firm. I take ownership of this and will say no more because I do not want to point any fingers at any one company. During my tenure there, the AV team was growing and some “kids” were hired right out of college. If I remember, they were doing some internship work before they were hired; they had no actual AV experience, but were well schooled in engineering.

One of them showed me some of his design work a few months after he was hired for a project. I don’t remember the type of project but, when I looked at the rack elevation drawing, I saw five Crown Macro-Tech amplifiers at the top of a standard 42-space rack. These amps weigh about 45 pounds each! So, I asked if he ever handled one of these power amps or ever installed a power amplifier in a rack. The answer was no.

I don’t know about you, but I saw an issue here. I thought about this and came up with a solution. I felt that, to have employees who had never been in the field designing and locating equipment is just wrong. They have never installed equipment, pulled wire through a wall or conduit, hung a loudspeaker….Am I the only one who sees something wrong with that? I guess it depends if you are from the school of the consultant doing a complete job or putting the onus on the integrator. I see a pattern here.

So, I first approached a couple of integrators that were bidding on, and doing a good job installing our projects, and asked if they would, maybe once or twice a month, let one of our new consultants spend the day with them on an installation to see what it feels like to work in this field with something more than paper. Both companies thought it was nothing less than a great idea.

I approached my manager, explaining some of the issues and how we can do a better job, and that I have the support of integrators “A” and “B.” His response was a derogatory smirk, that we could not afford to do that (I say, can you afford not to?) and they were just too busy. Maybe I was just ahead of my time? As Zig Ziglar said, “What’s worse than training your employees and losing them? Not training them and keeping them!”

(FYI, to see some interesting statistics about training in our industry, see the Twenty-ninth Annual Survey of the Integration Business, Question #25, in Sound & Communications, July 2014, also available online at soundandcommunications.com under “Resources.”)

When I was hired, I was told that all projects must be reviewed by another engineer before they are issued. It seemed like a good idea to me (and I still do it today). However, within just a few weeks, I realized that it was just “smoke” you know where. After a few attempts of trying to follow this procedure/directive, I just gave up. I always got the same answer: They are too busy.

Here is one more “double” from a large consulting firm, related to a project engineer working for a large integrator. The setting is a successful $500,000 bid project for multiple identical rooms at a university. The bid documents upon review were pretty poor, but standing out was the power single-line drawing, which showed every power connection, and how they wanted everything installed. It would have been a great drawing had it actually been for that job: About 30% of the equipment was not even in the project! Clearly, another cut-and-paste into a drawing: Change the name, don’t check your work and collect your fee. Shameful, if you ask me.

So, with RFIs, it’s cleared up. Midway through the installation, there is a walkthrough with the AV consultant, the general contractor, the integrator’s account rep, the AV subcontractor and the project engineer. They inspect Classroom 1, with all the equipment in a podium for videoconferencing, student seating 15 feet back, ceiling loudspeakers, and a large Tandberg Plexiglass ceiling mic (no mic on the podium because the instructor will roam, and no wireless) plus a few ceiling mics over the students’ seating area. The drawings were reviewed and compared to the installation…everything is there and they move on to the second classroom. Finally, at the third classroom, the project engineer, “Dan,” says, “Hey, doesn’t anybody see what’s wrong with all these rooms? They are all wrong!”

They scoffed at him: “Everything looks great.” Dan suggested that they all look at the ceiling, that the main mic is facing the students! It should be facing the instructor to pick up his voice: If you are sharing the lesson via videoconferencing, you need a mic to cover the roaming professor so you can hear the lesson. The consultant spoke up first after looking at the drawings. That’s the way it should be; the installer, even the account rep, all agree. I have been in situations where everyone thinks you are wrong (and crazy); if you’re sure, hold your ground and don’t succumb to peer pressure.

It ended up that all nine rooms had the main mic in the room facing the students. The consultant refused to have it changed, or say it was wrong, and left, saying he would look into it.

A few days later, without an apology, in consultant, nonchalant style, a change order was written saying that all the mics had to be reinstalled, facing the instructor. So tell me, yet again, if the consultant, and almost everyone else, does not really understand the intent of the system and how it’s supposed to function, what are they getting paid for? Don’t you feel sorry for the owner, spending all this money with the Three Stooges in disguise?

Last but not least, a project engineer working for a large consulting firm observed that there would be a major issue with the functionality of a system he designed due to a directive handed down by the architect. The project engineer disclosed this to the in-house project manager and told him he was going to discuss with the owner the upcoming design changes.

He was directed not to and, after a heated argument, the director of the AV group met with both of them. In a nutshell, the engineer was almost fired and was given a clear understanding of how things are done (in the consultant world): The owner will likely never be seen or heard from again; it is the architect who hired them, and who they answer to, who will give them more work in the future.

The chain of communication is like a pyramid, with the consultant on one side, the owner on the other, and the architect at the top. You cannot “cut across” the pyramid. You go up to the appropriate level, and the info trickles down the other side to the owner, as is seen fit.

In Part 2, I will discuss integrators and their role in these issues, with Part 3 pulling this all together. I am sharing the information here for a reason. Please, all you true-to-the-heart consultants, do not be offended; I am not talking about you. It’s the others who are ruining it for the rest of us.

I know that there is a lot of negativity here, and I am sure that the positives of working with all these consultants outweighs the negatives. I invite you to share with us some examples that you may have experienced for a future “benefits of hiring a consultant” article. Send your comments, suggestions and situations to dkleeger@testa.com.

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