In an effort to have their voices heard at an earlier stage in the construction process, systems integration firms are becoming more proactive than they were in the past at marketing their services to architects and general contractors-those with the power to engage their services from the get-go.
"Up until about seven years ago, it's been only the larger firms that have had working relationships with architects and general contractors," observed Jeanne Stiernberg, principal consultant at Stiernberg Consulting in Sherman Oaks, CA. "However, systems contractors whose origins are in telecommunications, and even to a lesser extent security/life safety, have been 'thought of' earlier in the design process than have AV contractors or integrators. In the past five years, systems contractors have done more outreach to architects/engineers and other construction professionals."
Thanks to these initiatives and those of various industry associations, the architectural and general contracting communities are becoming increasingly aware of the role of the systems integrator. "Associations have reached out to construction professionals at their organizational level," Stiernberg noted. For example, the National Systems Contractors Association (NSCA) has formed an alliance with the Construction Specification Institute. "In addition, associations have helped raise awareness among their memberships to reach out at the local level, too. The associations have given their members tools to do this via training and resource materials."
Systems integrators have also stepped up their relations with the design community. "As they do this, the design consultants can make the contractors they trust aware of projects to bid on," Stiernberg said.
However, building these relationships isn't easy. The conventional rules of the construction game generally don't allow for a direct line of communication between systems integrators and architects. "In the traditional design/bid/build model, the design team is developing documentation that ensures that whoever wins the bid builds the facility to meet the design intent of the architect, which, in theory and hopefully practice, reflects the desires of the owner," said David Labuskes, vice president and director of the special systems design group at RTKL Associates in Baltimore, MD. "If you are working within that structure, there is a separation between the designer and the builder. It is unlikely that the designer will approach the builder to participate on their side of the sandbox, because the motivations begin to be potentially suspect."
For example, this situation can breed a conflict of interest. "If I allow this contractor to contribute in the design and then allow this contractor to bid, what level of fairness have I created for the other contractors?" Labuskes illustrated. "If I allow the contractor to influence the design, how do I know that the contractor is not influencing the design to his or her benefit, rather than my client's benefit?"
The influx of design/build projects, however, is creating a shift in how things are done. "In many cases, owners are pushing the architect and design side of the equation over and onto the build side of the equation," Labuskes noted. "In a perfect world, if everyone trusted each other and there was no litigation, you would hope that the architects and contractors would all sit down at the same table. They get as close as they can to that with the design/build contracting structure by making the design/build team responsible for all of it."
Systems integration firms that are expanding their options by addressing this segment of the industry should reposition themselves. "They could start a part of their firm that is dedicated to consulting." Labuskes suggested. "They would then acknowledge the fact that when they are working with the architects, they are going to be doing design consulting, and that they are going to get design consulting fees instead of contracting fees. In many cases, this will disallow them from bidding on the project."
Or, Labuskes continued, they could target design/build projects outright.
"Another way of doing it is to interview the marketplace-whether it's a regional or local firm-identify architects in that area and then approach them to find out what their design/build experience is," he said. "Then they should talk to the architects about how they could work with them on those types of projects."
As part of the same initiative systems integrators should be cultivating their relationships with general contractors. "They should be approaching the general contractors, saying that they want to participate with them not just on their bid projects, but that they can bring two hats to the table on a design/build contract," Labuskes advised. "They could create a situation where, because of their design capabilities and because of their relationships with architects, they are the go-to people on design/build projects, but not for bid projects."
Those systems integrators that are up to the challenge must present themselves as a trusted resource to both architects and general contractors, just as they would to clients and any other segment of the construction industry. "They must consider everything they do as reflecting and building their brand," Stiernberg advised. "All their communications, including proposal documents, need to reflect the highest quality. They also must 'walk the walk' of these groups and position themselves as a resource." Stiernberg notes that an introduction from a technical consultant can be useful, since it eliminates the necessity for cold calling.
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