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Working With AV System Owners

AV system providers can greatly affect a project's outcome, but the AV system owners who contractually set up the project process also share this responsibility.

I OFTEN hear stories about pro AV integration projects. Some are good, some are bad, and some are downright ugly. They come from a variety of perspectives — from the owner, the architect, the end-user, the AV consultant, and the AV integrator.

In the good ones, everyone plays their part well. In the bad ones, one or more of the project participants fail to perform from a lack of experience, knowledge, or both. Of course, it's never the teller of the story.

When projects don't go well it's sometimes the AV design and installation team that's the culprit. However, it can also be the owner and/or the architectural team causing trouble.

When the owner is the party making things difficult, it generally trickles down the food chain. The parameters of the problems are many, including the end-users' availability, the owner's AV teams' capabilities (or even existence), their place in the organization, the owner's contracting process and requirements, or even political problems within the owner's organization.

Problems can sometimes also occur in projects where the AV contract is well written, but the project is badly managed. And likewise, even the best management may not be able to compensate for a poorly structured AV contract.

Many problems stem from the owner's lack of understanding of the AV design and installation process and/or its impact on the building. This can manifest in different ways: inadequate or non-existent requests for AV providers' qualifications, inappropriate or vague requests for proposals, inadequate budgets, unrealistic project schedules, and mismatched expectations between the AV team, the end-users, and the owner's administration.

Matters are often made worse when the owner has had bad experiences, and reacts to them by creating “fixes” on the next project. But, unfortunately, this only ends up propagating poor project practices, instead of correcting them. Oftentimes the AV providers who get these jobs are also reluctant to point out to the client (who's paying their invoices) the role the client played in causing this poor outcome.

And so the cycle continues.

Fear of change (orders)

One common “bad experience” is the change order. This can occur because the AV needs weren't included in a new architectural project, and it later becomes apparent that the AV has to be acquired. Soon after, there's the realization that it will cost more than the owner has budgeted. Next, someone notices that the infrastructure wasn't designed into the building or budgeted for, which is also a change order — for redesign and construction.

And at the end of all of this, the system isn't quite what the end-user really needed because the AV wasn't addressed up front.

Clearly, measures to correct this problem on the next project need to be taken. But unfortunately, the measures can sometimes be Draconian and less than helpful, especially if the owners have never had a “good” AV project experience to use as a model.

Who really pays?

One reaction to bad experiences, particularly change order-related ones, is to ban change orders, either explicitly or implicitly. It sounds simple enough. I've heard of contracts where the up-front contract price is fixed, and change orders aren't allowed. However, the contractor is still obligated to provide what the users want — regardless of what changes may be required or how much additional control system programming is necessary.

From the owner's perspective, he thinks he's saving money and getting what he really wants. If the AV designer or contractor has to absorb another 25 or 50 percent of the project price, so be it.

The reason some owners can get away with this is that they may offer other “intangible” incentives of sorts such as future work, good referrals, or prestigious projects that look good in marketing materials. However, the owner only ends up trading one bad experience for another, and virtually guarantees a difficult project for the entire AV team.

This also provides incentive for AV providers to find a way to cut corners if the project starts to go over the established contract price or scope.

Under these kinds of contracts, AV systems integrators often walk away from projects to cut their losses and move on — or worse, go out of business. Everyone loses in this situation.

If the AV integrators stick around or come back for more work, they'll charge more to cover potential overages. Worse still, consultants and integrators who do good work and have plenty of jobs — the ones owners should be trying to hire — avoid “fixed-price” contracts, so the owner is likely to be left with inexperienced providers who don't “know better.”

A better solution

Of course there's a better way, and the good news is that some of the owners with a troubled AV past truly appreciate a better experience when it finally comes their way. But they have to be open to it.

The solution is simple. Understand the AV process as it really is. Consider AV early, know how to select qualified AV providers, make reasonable schedules, prepare fair and appropriate contracts, and manage projects with an understanding that while AV is just like other building trades in some ways, it's very different in others.

Owners with informed procurement standards for AV that are appropriately integrated into their overall facility procurement process can ultimately create a better AV system in the end — and make life better for everyone involved along the way.

Qualified AV providers, fair contracts, and knowledgeable and experienced project managers will generally mean that owners will get more for their money — without having to spend more.

Every project has adjustments that need to be made along the way. Often these changes are fairly insignificant and don't require a scope or contract change.

However, under a fair contract with a well-defined scope, significant and justified changes do warrant change order requests and add services for AV providers. And owners should be willing to approve and pay for these services.

Of course, in a well structured and managed AV project, such changes should come from unanticipated site conditions and new owner requests, rather than design and construction errors and omissions.

While AV providers and architectural designers and contractors can make projects difficult on their own, owners can greatly improve the chances of a good outcome, and a smoother process, by setting up their projects for success from the start. If they do — and follow through — consultants and integrators will be more likely to respond quickly, help out in a pinch, and do a better job overall.

Why? The owners will become one of their best customers, rather than one of their worst nightmares.

Tim Cape is a contributing editor for Pro AV, the principal consultant for Atlanta-based technology consulting firm Technitect LLC, and co-author of “AV 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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