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Prioritize AV Spending

WHEN SHOULD an AV project begin? When the facility project that encompasses the AV begins. That means when you choose the architect, so should you choose the AV provider.

WHEN SHOULD an AV project begin? When the facility project that encompasses the AV begins. That means when you choose the architect, so should you choose the AV provider.

But even that early on, budgets for a project have been determined and allocated, and AV could be one feature that gets shortchanged. This relatively common situation should come to light during a project's program phase, when all the users' needs are gathered, interpreted, verified and reported.

Even if AV seems adequately funded at the start, other aspects of the project, such as mechanical systems or unforeseen site problems, can become the budget busters. If this happens, AV budgets turn into a target to make up the difference in the design process.

In any case, if the money for all the AV can't be found, the owner has to decide what to do without. This sounds simple, and in some ways it is. But priorities and budgets are multilayered and multifaceted, so it takes a closer look to make the best decision about AV, just as it does for other building systems.

What's In a Number

At the architectural project level, there may be a per-square-foot budget allocated that, presumably, includes the common-base building systems: structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing. That per-square-foot number usually will include some low-voltage systems, such as fire alarms, safety, and even data telecom, since those are evenly distributed and predictable over a building's occupied area.

AV doesn't work that way. It can have very high or very low per-square-foot costs over the total building area, depending on the users' functions and needs. And the AV budget can be very high in some parts of the building, and zero elsewhere, unlike data telecom, which generally will be provided at the same level throughout most of the occupied building area.

So the first part of the AV budget is a properly estimated system cost based on established user needs, instead of an arbitrary per-square-foot cost.

Beyond the Gadgets

Budgeting for AV should include the infrastructure associated with the products. Most often, AV systems are funded based on the estimated integrator contract amount. The problem is that this doesn't include a lot of the infrastructure that may be required inside the building to allow AV to function properly — conduit, power, data telecom, lighting, increased ceiling/structural height, acoustical construction and support areas that are in addition to the basic building requirements.

So for the AV systems to fit into the building and work the way they're supposed to, the project budget and design have to accommodate the base building infrastructure, too.

How much? This is hard to assess accurately before the end of architectural design development, since the required infrastructure results from the system design and crosses several trade lines that must be designed and budgeted separately. My estimate is that properly identified and incorporated infrastructure for AV systems probably runs about 10 percent to 15 percent of the AV system costs. This can vary widely based on several factors. A $1 million AV system budget should result in an increase of the base building budget by about $100,000 to $150,000, parsed out among the other trades.

System complexity can affect infrastructure costs, but so can other project forces.

First, if AV isn't considered until the design development or construction documents phases of a building project, there may be additional architectural and electrical design fees for infrastructure. If AV isn't considered until after the construction contract amount is established, then it's change-order time, and AV infrastructure costs can skyrocket. I once worked on a $2.5 million dollar AV system that required not $250,000, but more than $1 million for infrastructure because the AV systems weren't considered until the building slabs were being poured, the entire AV infrastructure was provided in the form of change orders. <<excellent real world example!>>

The “construction manager at risk” contract is an increasingly common project configuration that makes matters worse when AV is invited after the party starts. In this case, the construction manager or architectural and construction teams establish a not-to-exceed construction cost for the owner at the end of design development. Buyer beware: Under this process, infrastructure changes and additions during the construction documents phase are sometimes considered and priced as change orders, even though construction is not under way.

Evolution of an AV Budget

When an AV budget is initially made, it's often a one-number line item and does not include infrastructure. To address the potential money crunch, it's important to cover the needs covered and set the priorities.

First, break down what the users really need vs. what they just want. Users may need to present electronic media in their boardroom; they may want to have this capability in all 30 of their 10-seat conference rooms in a new building.

Second, recognize there is base building infrastructure associated with all of the AV systems, and budget for it. Next, decide what has to go in and be functional on day one, what can come later and what's entirely expendable. Finally, stack the budget from the bottom up:

  • Infrastructure for everything that goes in now and later
  • Necessary AV systems within budget
  • Wanted AV systems if any funds are left.

This way, the future systems can be installed with the least disruption to the building and, consequently, at a lower cost.

Prioritizing AV systems is fairly simple. Put infrastructure in for everything you eventually need and want, then buy the systems you can afford at the time. To save money in the process, follow the age-old recommendation: Get AV providers involved early on a project. Then … it's just a matter of priorities.


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

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