Understanding What Architects Want

Understanding What Architects Want: Marketing is one thing, but the design is crucial.

Although we frequently debate the pros and cons of the design and installation process, whether it be design/bid/build or design/build, I suspect all would agree that the relationship with the architect is an important facet of all successful projects and understanding what architects want is the key.

There are many design/build firms out there referring to themselves as AV consultants in order to appeal to the architectural community. However, I have seen little interest on the part of architects at going this route to fill the role of the AV consultant. At times, when a client mandates the use of a given firm for that role, the architect obviously responds to that wish. However, when the decision is up to them, they frequently defer to going the independent consultant route. This should come as no great surprise, because every other design specialty is developing and delivering biddable documents as an unbiased third-party entity.

Being flexible

Perhaps the biggest hurdle AV designers struggle with is the inability to be flexible. Like us, the architect absolutely wants a system that will function well and be free of problems. However, there are many other systems in addition to AV that have to be coordinated and accommodated. At times, this requires the AV designer to be willing to concede certain requirements in the interest of the overall project’s goals.

Too often we stumble with the desire to be dogmatic in defending the environment that would be ideal for the AV system. I’m not implying that we become cavalier but, rather, that we be willing to budge and show the architect that it’s not just about us but about the larger project. Displaying this mindset will gain favor instantly with the architect and other design team members.

What Architects Want
Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash

Quality of documentation is a significant factor that should not be underestimated. Although there are quite a few AV-specific CAD programs on the market, the architectural community has standardized on AutoCAD.  In some specialized markets, architects are also using Microstation at the instruction of clients. When drawings are delivered to an architect in a different program from the one he’s using, they must undergo a conversion process, which typically is anything but flawless and adds yet another level of complexity.

The newest kid on the block software-wise is Revit. Unlike AutoCAD and Microstation, Revit technically is not a CAD program but is, rather, what is referred to as Building Information Modeling or BIM. It’s a new program from AutoDesk, the makers of AutoCAD, and promises to fundamentally change the way in which buildings are designed and documented. Having a good understanding of this platform will set firms apart as we go further down this road.

Drawing-wise, going the extra mile means things such as properly coordinating the AV drawing sheet index with the architect, striving to use the same font styles and sizes, using correct architectural symbols (often as directed by the National CAD Standard and AIA), properly arranging the hierarchy of drawings by correctly using XREFs, etc., and making sure dates and other information have been coordinated in the title block properly.

The other key side of design documentation is the written specification. Unfortunately, there are many so-called AV designers out there who have limited or no knowledge of CSI and Master Format. Without understanding the core composition of specifications, I see no way in which a clear and tight specification can be written properly.

One of the fundamental tenants of CSI is, “Say it once, and say it in the right place.” There are more AV specs than not that repeat material already covered, either in Division 1 or in the General and Supplemental Conditions. This is done most often out of convenience, and failing to confirm with the architect what is actually in those sections. Although this may seem like a trivial detail, it sets both the AV designer and the architect up for contractual loopholes and inconsistencies that will be exploited later.

As AV designers, we frequently get overlooked, especially in the early stages of design. For some issues, the early stages are the most critical for coordination. Things such as space planning and room adjacencies are key issues that have to be addressed early on.  As AV designers, we have to be proactive in getting the time we require with the appropriate individuals to help participate in those key decisions.

The architect has many other coordination issues with other trades, so the less focus that has to be spent on AV, the better.  The AV designer shouldn’t wait for the architect to line up coordination sessions with other key design team members, but should be proactive in seeking those individuals out and coordinating on his own. Such initiative will be viewed favorably by the architect, because it decreases his workload.

Understanding What Architects Want

Fundamentally, the architect expects competent designs. However, the way in which the competency of the design is typically judged is by whether it met the client’s expectations or caused headaches during construction and post occupancy. If it was successful on all of those points, the architect will feel that the design was strong.

The key thing to remember is that, if you want to work with architects, then you have to come to the table with that level of professionalism and a strong knowledge of the architectural process and the expected quality of deliverables. Too often, as an industry, we place too much emphasis on getting in front of architects to market ourselves, and then fail in the true marketing opportunity: the delivery of the design.

Written by Tony Warner, President of Phase Shift Consulting

Originally Published in Sound & Communication