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AV Design Fees Vs. Scope Of Work

Architectural scopes of work are relatively standardized and their fee ranges are generally accepted. Shouldn't it be the same for AV?

THE AV CONSULTING BUSINESS grew out of the acoustical consulting industry and the fledgling AV electronics industry of the ‘70s and ‘80s. There were no models to go by — we just went out, designed systems, and got paid for it any way we could. Many consultants realized early on what it took to design a complete AV system (although others didn't). We had to find out what the users wanted and turn that into an electronic system design. Not only that, we had to work with the facility design. Besides the electronic systems, there were acoustics, lighting, electrical, mechanical, interiors, and even structural designs to be developed and coordinated — all driven by AV.

To get these jobs, consultants have to determine a scope of services, which means determining what there is to do, and estimating the hours it will take to do it. And it's not just design tasks. There are project management tasks, meetings upon meetings, and then the monitoring of building construction and AV system assembly and installation. And don't forget system checkout and user training. If we can figure all of that out, we then have to tell the architect and owner what it's going to cost, followed by the inevitable gasp of disbelief.

Consultants are AV architects

I often tell people who don't know what independent AV consultants do that I work like an architect, designing systems and following through with a contractor who installs the work. Of course, architects are familiar with this as a bricks-and-mortar process, as are the building owners who hire them. But when it comes to AV, architects and building owners sometimes find the fees and AV system costs that go along with the process hard to understand and accept.

Besides a desire to save money, the architects' and owners' misconceptions about AV design fees begin with the fact that architects usually get a fee in the range of 6 to 10 percent of the building construction cost. Some of that fee then goes to their sub-consultants, such as mechanical (HVAC), electrical, plumbing (or MEP) and structural, plus low-voltage consultants, such as data/telecom, fire/life safety, and AV. Of those, AV design usually has the highest percentage design fee of any other consultant, often ranging from 8 to 12 percent or more of the AV construction cost for larger projects. Why does AV design cost more than other trade designs? And why are the proposed fees sometimes so different between consultants?

It's more than just systems

While most other consultants, particularly the standard bricks-and-mortar (MEP) consultants, have a traditional role in architecture, AV is only recently getting to be part of the “tradition.” Architects know how to integrate MEP designs and generally know what to expect. These traditional consultants have their own requirements for integrating their systems into the building, and some of them have a big impact on the architecture —especially HVAC. They need space for equipment and ductwork, and they need electrical service. But even the mechanical consultant doesn't have much to say about the room shape, size, finishes, or how the room looks. They're required to accommodate the architecture in the user spaces.

The other low-voltage consultants have even less to say about the building design. Sure, the data/telecom guys need some pathways and distribution rooms, but once the cable is terminated in the user's wall plate, the rest of the room is of no concern to them. Other low-voltage designs have even less impact, such as sound masking or fire and life safety.

The AV consultant, on the other hand, has something to say about almost everything in the building: the room shape, ceiling height (maybe even affecting the building height), the room finishes, the room layout, the furniture, the lighting system, the electrical service, and on and on. All of these things relate to AV function in the room, and we're driving much of the rest of the team's design when it comes to AV-oriented spaces. Often we're not just designing our own systems, but also providing criteria, coordinating, or fully designing other aspects of the building — far beyond the AV electronics that will eventually be installed. More work means more time, which translates into a higher fee.

Scoping it out

So doing what needs to be done takes a lot of work and increases the fee, but what about the actual scope of work we're contracted to perform? This is another major variable in determining a design fee. It's one that can be problematic in competition between AV design firms, and even more problematic when AV design firms are (incorrectly) pitted against AV integration firms by the owner or architect for pure design contracts.

If the owner or architect doesn't spell out what the scope of services should be, the competing firms' proposals will include the services they think are most appropriate, which may not be comparable among firms. (Note: Any design contract should first be based on qualifications, and then negotiated for fee. But unfortunately, the fee is sometimes the only parameter considered in the selection process.)

So, whether or not the architect or owner spells it out, what scope of work is “enough?” Currently, we don't have a standard for this. The closest thing we have so far is in the “Audiovisual Best Practices” book published by InfoComm International. For many years, the RSMeans cost data books have included reference architectural fee ranges (in percentage of construction cost) for different types of projects with adjustments for project locale — all based on assumed scopes of architectural work. But this isn't the case with AV design.

For any given AV project, we can say that if we're contracted to design a system, the system electronics design is a required task. For the system to be installable, there's a certain amount of space, conduit, power, and data connections required to be determined. Mountable equipment needs a place for mounting, which requires coordination. But what happens beyond this minimum set of “required” tasks?

In a consultant-led project, can an AV system be designed and installed without including design and/or coordination services for acoustics and lighting? Yes, although poor acoustics and lighting may make the system inadequate or unusable. Can an AV system be installed without consultant monitoring during the installation phase? Yes, but the contractor may not be willing or able to install the system in working order. Can checkout, commissioning, and training be left to the contractor and owner without consultant involvement? Yes, but the system may not be optimized, fully functional, or even usable at the end of the process.

As a design consultant, I believe that taking on a traditional consultant-led design project means taking on construction and installation monitoring, as well as the checkout, commissioning, and training. This is simply because a design on paper alone doesn't guarantee anything; it's the follow-up (by both consultant and integrator) during installation and checkout that make the system work. These services should always be a part of the consultant's scope of work, duly required, noted, and compared by the architect and/or owner when requesting proposals on any project. The architects have well-established scopes of work, so why shouldn't we?

Tim Cape is a contributing editor for Pro AV, the principal consultant for Atlanta-based technology consulting firm Technitect LLC, and co-author of “Audiovisual Best Practices,” published by InfoComm International. He's the current chairman of InfoComm's ICAT consultant's council, and an instructor and presenter in AV technology design and management. Contact him at tim@technitect.com.



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