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Early Engagement | Client & Technology Relationships | UK

Early engagement marries the needs of the client with the technology

At what stage should AV consultants be brought into a construction project?

Early engagement marries the needs of the client with the technology

This and other controversial issues were discussed at our latest roundtable. George Cole listened to the industry experts.

Our latest roundtable, which had representatives from the fields of architecture, project management, development and AV consultancy, discussed a variety of contentious issues – including the RIBA stages. We started by exploring the issue of timing – are consultants being brought into projects at the right time? “The RIBA stages are pretty much broken when it comes to technology,” states Christian Bozeat, managing director, Macom UK. “We are brought into the process too late to be able to provide that help and education, both from an architect’s and a client’s perspective. You cannot change the processes you need to do in a construction process to help the client leverage the technology.”

Andrew Talbot, design director, M Moser Architects believes the landscape is changing, albeit with some room for improvement: “Ten years ago, at the end of the design, we would overlay where the AV or IT goes. Now, it’s totally different. We had a partners’ meeting recently where we discussed timelines for the digital, social and physical. With all due respect to AV consultants, we get you in too late, because technology is fundamental to how you create the workspace.”

Bozeat adds that the client element is crucial: “Clients have to start the process of understanding their technology needs and what they want to do with the technology moving forward.” Talbot agrees that a more proactive approach is required: “We have got to move away from being order takers to providing leadership.”


Paul Rushbrooke, senior consultant, PTS Consulting notes: “We are usually pulled in around (RIBA) stage three, but the boat has sailed by then.” Stephen Barker, director – multimedia engineering, Cordless Consultants says that technology has moved from being a screen on a wall and a projector on a table to becoming part of the building fabric: “We are talking to architects who clearly understand that technology is part of delivering a successful workspace for the client, but some clients don’t see this, so they get us on stage three, when some of it is literally set in stone and it’s too late. So we start at a disadvantage, because we have not had the opportunity to play a bigger role.”

“There’s another elephant in the room,” says Bozeat, “and that’s the difference between an AV consultant and an SI. They (SIs) are not consultants and they are not designers, and the industry doesn’t understand the difference between the two.”

Simon Truby, senior audio/visual designer/project manager, CBI, states that the relationship between architect and consultant is critical, but adds that: “Bringing it forward in the process isn’t going to necessarily solve the issue because we are still being reactionary, in terms of driving the architect’s design and the DNA of the client.”

He also suggests that there’s a need to be proactive, upskilling the architect to understand the technologies that are out there, and where the industry is moving. “That’s a big piece and manufacturers need to be involved.”

Vince Simpson, director of design & build fit out, CBRE, notes: “Project managers also have a big relationship when they are engaged, and that is to guide the client and to try and understand what the client is trying to achieve. Then, it’s about making the right recommendations on the consultants and spec, whether that is acoustics, or AV or whatever. I feel that the PM world is failing in this bit as well.”

J Parrish, principal, Aecom, says: “The key thing is that this issue covers every possible variation. If you’re doing a concert hall, the acoustician is fundamental to where it is in the city and the form of the building. If you’re doing a small stand in a field, then you don’t need an acoustician at the beginning. The key thing for those dealing with the process – which tends to be an architect – is that they need to know when to bring in the particular disciplines and what aspects they cover.”

He adds that advocating more multidisciplinary design will hopefully result in getting the right input and at the right time.

“But it’s not just day one of the fit-out – it’s day one potentially of the building selection and that’s missed a lot of the time,” says Ian Strickland, partner, Charcoal Blue. “The building selected may not be the right building you need from a technology point of view.”

Mark Murphy, associate director, Vanguardia Consulting, says: “Early engagement is totally the key. The design process is not linear, and we need to engage early in this non-linear process, and be prepared use our experience, skills and product expertise and design about things that are never going to get built. I’m doing this to show the client and architect models that will help them make decisions.”

Barker notes: “We are involved very early, but it’s going to be four or more years before the building is built and technology is going to change. You have to make sure that you consider alternatives, because anything can happen.”

Jerry Mason, AV consultant, Mix Consulting, adds: “Consultants tend to get engaged further down the line, so you’re getting a second-hand brief. Technology is not just changing the screen in the meeting room, but driving different ways of working. To do consultancy, we need to get in there first, ideally we’re getting in there before anyone else.”

“What we’re talking about is process,” says Frank Sheehan, CEO, HyperSphere, “and there is no set process. If you’re lucky enough to have a client who understands the technology and the impact it’s going to have on the building, he will bring that consultant in at the beginning.”

Parrish says: “We have got to be pragmatic about this – all projects are different and there’s the fee. You have to pick an efficient design process and this will inevitably require different things to come in at different times. The client will not generally pay extra fees earlier than they have to. So between us all, we have to get the right understanding of what you have to have at each part of the process.”

Parrish adds that there is another reason for not involving consultants at too early a stage. “The last thing you do when you assemble a team is have everyone on day one, because ninety nine per cent of them will be adding nothing to it. What you want is a team that starts small and then grows. The fewer people, the better the project.”

But Rushbrooke wonders if a review process could be built into the RIBA stages, so that at least consultants have some influence early on in the process?

“I would advocate that at all times,” says Parrish, “but it’s very difficult to formalise, because you need some flexibility.”

Bozeat questions whether it is more expensive to engage consultants earlier in the process. “It is more costly to do a detailed design or a performance specification. That cost isn’t understood yet and I don’t think we have been able to get that across to the architectural team.”

“I would like to see a detailed design from the AV guy,” says Andrew McLean, director TP Bennett, “but it does come down to cost and I’m the one who has to go back and say ‘you need to have that if you want to have this.’”

Truby notes: “It comes back to how a team is built-up. The general feeling is that it’s moving like a train, and the more people that are on that train, the less you can challenge. So you tend to get a secondary brief and when you challenge it, it becomes a huge issue, because you’re challenging the work people have done already, and people don’t like that. We are never going to be in at ground zero, but if we can give you enough enablers, that can make a difference.”

Budgeting and RIBA

The roundtable also explored the issue of setting budgets and how the fee and construction budget affect each other. “The cost of doing a full specification isn’t that much more, so it should almost be a fixed cost of our professional fees, and it could be about the services the client requires, against the construction budget, which is about the physical,” states Truby.

Bozeat wonders if the increased productivity AV can bring to the workplace ever figures in budget calculations. Simpson notes that: “Unfortunately, people prefer to spend money on what they can see and touch, and we’re not at the point of changing that attitude.” Truby asks if consultants could provide more information to show clients that if they invest in the right services and change management, then that feeds into the technology: “Is there then a bigger return-on-investment that would change the way they approach the expenditure?”

“I can tell you exactly how much it will cost you if that meeting and meeting room don’t start on time across your entire portfolio, and it is millions,” says Bozeat. “You’re doing a Capex budget alongside what is going on in the background, which is IT projects as BAU,” notes Truby. “How does the strategy with building projects coincide with those?” Sheehan says: “It varies so much, depending on how the project is managed and its complexity. Sometimes, there’s a bonus incentive to finish a project early and under budget. So the PM and PE are under the gun from the off, to save money and save time. So if an AV guy comes along and suggests a change, that’s a change order. This money doesn’t come out the main pot, it’s added on to the proponent’s budget. Unless there’s something in concrete right at the beginning, nothing will change, because it has to be part of the process.”

We also looked at the RIBA stages and when people are engaged in it. “Typically we get engaged at stage two, when you have floor plans,” says Mason. “Let’s remember that as an architect, you will come across projects that don’t fit directly with what RIBA has specified,” states Parrish, “it has to adapt to suit the different ways that construction is procured.” Truby asks, “Do we write a set of deliverables that line-up with the stages? You can almost have a shopping list, which means, as a project manager or an architect, you know what you can agree upfront when you’re buying services.” “I think the answer is yes,” says Simpson, “but some of the commercial fit-out projects and RIBA don’t match-up, but they understand the language, so if I say we’re going to go out on a stage three, they know what I need for that stage. They map their processes across to that.”

Mason adds: “The problem is the timeline. There’s nothing wrong with starting with the concept design and gradually layering that with detailed design. It’s getting the timelines aligned. Depending on the project, the amount of time you’ve got between stage three and stage four varies quite a lot. You may have to go out to tender with a full design, without having all the information to do that full design.”

Parrish wonders whether the industry will reach ‘technology peak,’ with technology gradually being reduced in the workspace. “The pendulum has swung,” says Richard Smith, associate director, Recursive AV, “a few years ago, it swung massively into ‘technology is a bigger part of everybody’s life’, so there was a lot of assumption that what we had in the home could be put into the boardroom and it would all work.”

The roundtable focused a lot on how clients, architects and project managers can adapt their working practices to engage earlier with AV consultants, but Parrish had a challenge for the consultants: “If you look at design professionals and clients, there’s a big move to use BIM in projects. I just wonder how the AV industry relates to that and gives input that is compatible with this?” Quite a few around the table replied that they had Revit software in their toolkit (although not everyone could open a drawing in Revit), and one company even has an architect on its staff for better engagement between architects and consultants.

Bozeat summed up the general feeling: “What you have got is a project manager, cost consultant, architect and technology consultant. We have to place ourselves higher up that hierarchy, elevating our position as consultants and the importance of consultants, as being key to the construction process.”

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Posted: 18th October 2019

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