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Three’s Not a Crowd

Strengthening Ties Between Architects, Consultants, and Integrators
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The relationship between architects, AV consultants, and AV integrators is often described as “love/hate,” but most agree that the traditional project model is problematic. When integrators are brought on board near the end of construction, it’s unlikely that the technology deployment will be as successful as it might have been had everyone come together earlier in the process. Some argue that the situation has started to improve, and that the COVID-19 crisis is accelerating the evolution of the relationship between the disciplines.

Alexander Mayo, Arup

Alexander Mayo

“With COVID, there is so much uncertainty that we have to all look back at our best practices and think about if they are actually the best practices for now, if they will be sustainable for the future, and if they will apply at all,” said Alexander Mayo, audiovisual and acoustic consultant at Arup, a multidisciplinary design and engineering firm. “There’s an opportunity for us, as everyone’s figuring out what the best way forward is in terms of design—whether it comes down to the actual building design, or the technology design, or the user experience design—to learn together, and also bring forward solutions and work as a team.”

“COVID has given us a very unique opportunity,” said Kay Sargent, senior principal and director of workplace at HOK, an architecture, design, engineering, and planning firm headquartered in St. Louis, MO. “We have been waiting for years [for the industry] to ask, ‘What is it going to take to make people realize we have the ability to create far better experiences?’ We need the AV/IT integrators, the architects and designers, and the furniture and product designers to all come together to create that solution because it’s a combination of all of them.” These parallel paths need to merge, she argues, in order for spaces to be relevant for the times. “We need to create compelling environments and spaces that are in sync with what people need today.”

Geek speak—the tendency for technologists to talk about their systems in a way no one else can understand—remains one obstacle to smooth relations between architects and integrators. Sargent also stresses that systems aren’t always deployed with the end user—and what she calls their “digital fitness”—in mind.

Kay Sargent

Kay Sargent (Image credit: HOK)

“People are putting really incredible, top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art technology out there, which seems great, but if nobody knows how to use it and it’s far beyond [the user’s] ability or their needs, it goes to waste,” she said. “We need to do a better job of understanding what the real need is, speaking a language that everybody understands, and giving solutions that are practical and appropriate.”

At the same time, designers need to recognize that AV and IT cannot be applied after the fact. “It is something that needs to be considered early on to ensure that we’re creating environments that will be successful.”

“We all need to work together better,” said Sean Reid, owner of Madison, WI, consulting firm Astroman AV and a former integrator. As an example, he noted that deployed systems often don’t take into account the generation gaps between users: a millennial, he argues, uses technology differently than a Gen Xer or a baby boomer. “How we approach design needs to change for everybody. ADA compliance is still a major issue that affects assistive listening systems, the height of touchpanels, signage height, and even occupancy sensors. And now we have to think about COVID. There are organizations with 100 huddle rooms on a campus that they can’t use because they’re only 6 x 10 [in size] and you can’t fit people in them safely anymore So what do you do?”

Mayo suggests that AV integrators who embrace the digital tools that architects and consultants use may carve a path toward earlier project involvement. He cites the BIM (Building Information Modeling) process as an example: “The traditional skills that an integrator brings to a project are typically the fine-detail integration of the specified systems. I think there’s an opportunity for integrators to start working in that same 3D information-rich environment.” He said that not only can this facilitate coordination in the field and decrease last-minute scrambling to get things done, it also has the potential to streamline workflow. “I think it would allow integrators to come onto projects earlier and start to work with the rest of the design team, and bring that traditional knowledge into the 3D environment so we have all of that information in a BIM model.”

On a broader scale, Sargent challenges members of all three disciplines to ask themselves this question: “Are any of us so confident that our customers are perfectly satisfied with the way we deliver buildings, and space, and AV and IT, and that there isn’t potentially a better way to do it? I don’t think so,” she said. But arriving there requires overcoming competing incentives and acknowledging that it’s necessary for architects, consultants, and integrators to support each other. “We need to think about how to create better, more holistic solutions for our clients, and how to incentivize teams to all really come together and be available.”