Architects take a 'space first' approach


The relationship between AV and architecture has not always run smoothly. Why is this, will it change, and what can we do to make things better in the future? Paul Milligan finds out.

Architecture is all about  feel, design and ‘the  space’, AV is about technology, function and ‘the show’. These two schools of thought  and  working  processes can  come  to  loggerheads,  and  because  of this,  the  relationship  between  architects and AV consultants and integrators hasn’t  always been the most harmonious one. As technology becomes ever more ingrained in our working lives, architects and integrators/consultants have to work together more than ever before. Is the relationship as fractious as it is sometimes painted to be, or are there signs things are improving?

Paul Andrew, director from Blend Technology Consultants,  says:  “Architects  generally appreciate  that  AV  has  become  increasingly important  in a  lot  of  these  projects.  When consultants  and  integrators  approach  projects in  a  collaborative  and  facilitative  way  and  go to  the  architect  with  good  information the relationship  works  well,  and  they  are  generally very  responsive.”  Julian  Phillips, executive vice president at integrator Whitlock isn’t as positive however: “The relationship hasn’t moved on. We still have a disconnected process, from a space design perspective. Architects are taking a ‘space first’  design  principle  and  often,  technology  is still considered to be the bit you tag on at the end.”

No one we spoke to reported any serious acrimony between integrators/consultants and architects and Felix Robinson, VP of enterprise accounts  at  integrator  AVI-SPL,  was  typical of those we canvassed: “Conflict isn’t how I would describe the relationship. The architect wants to satisfy the owners’ desire for  both design and schedule.  If  that  process  proceeds  and  doesn’t come  to  a final  decision early enough in the project it will compress the schedule so that at the point the integrator gets involved they will have a very challenging process ahead of them.”

If integrators and consultants are only brought into  the  project  late  on,  it  creates  a  raft  of problems. Sometimes the architect’s involvement is three or four steps back from this point, and the  integrator  isn’t  able  to  talk  directly  to  the architect,  as  those  tasked  with  delivering  the building (building contractors) are now in charge.

So what are the common architectural issues you come up  against  as  an  AV  integrator  or consultant? “Architects love glass,” says Phillips.“Part of the way to create the illusion of space is to use glass partitions, and glass is no friend of video or audio.” Robinson also hit on a similar theme,  sometimes  architecture  works  directly against the AV being installed: “The acoustical environment can radically affect the success of a technology system involved. Large format video is a light source, so when the content is bright and startling, it can also emit light in different ways  that  can  reflect  from surfaces.” 

Cabling was  also  a  major  issue  between  architects  and AV he added, “When technology is involved in a building everything is not wireless, and there’s quite  a  bit  of  structured  cabling  involved,  so conduit  pathways  need  to  be  accommodated, and  that  can  be  very  challenging.  We  are often  working  through  a  raised  floor,  which is a space below the floor which allows cables to be passed along it. That is a very practical way to  provide  access,  but  not  many  architects  are going  to  provide  that  willingly,  when  that  14- or  18-in  space  is  sometimes  needed  for  other architectural elements.”

Blend’s Andrew feels the major challenge is down to the way the project is structured, and it’s here that the issue of getting involved  early  on  in  the  project  rears  its  head again: “Things like furniture, joinery etc are not considered until quite late on in the project, so sometimes that can be an issue in terms of how AV is co-ordinated. The other one is the push-and-pull between the architect’s aesthetic vision and the needs to integrate the type of technology you have chosen.”

Julian Phillips feels it is down to the consultants, who are often involved in the project before the integrator,  to  be  more  forceful.  “There’s  also another  challenge,  and  this  is  where  some  of the more traditional AV consultants aren’t being aggressive  enough,  when  AV  is  required,  how  are you going to design the infrastructure that is best able to position AV functionality into the meeting space without necessarily having to have the technology in the meeting space?

"One of the trends  we  are  seeing,  take  Biamp’s  networked audio  or  Crestron’s  DigitalMedia  for  example, we now have the ability to build a technology farm you can centrally locate in a building, and provide that functionality to the meeting space without having to put a rack or any significant infrastructure  into  the  room.  This  is  a  perfect example  of  why  the  technology  people  should talk  to  the  architects  at  the  beginning  of  the process, because they could save significant space and maximise the utilisation of the space by not having  to  build  AV  closets  or  credenza  spaces. Getting into those meetings early isn’t just so we as integrators can sell more kit, it can actually save  the organisation significant amounts of money  by  advising  on  how  we  can  better  use space and still create a better outcome when the technology is concerned.”

Architects  are  the  ones  with  the  ‘vision’  in a  new  build  project,  and  as mentioned  before are involved in projects much earlier than those dealing  with  AV.  With  that  in  mind  will  the desire of those in charge of technology always play second fiddle to the architectural aesthetic? The  answer  is  a  resounding yes according  to  Robinson.  “It  will,  by the nature of the food chain, because the  architect  is  the  creative  part  of this  process, and  the integrators  or consultants are often the practical part of that team.”

Robinson  notes  that  3D  modelling is  an  essential  part  of  his  company’s engineering process. It wasn’t too long ago  that  BIM  (Building  Information Modelling) was being touted as playing a huge part in the future of AV, but things  have  gone  a  bit  quiet  in  the last 12 months. “I think we are in an interim phase with BIM,” says Andrew.

“It’s being used in some projects but doesn’t  seem  to  be  used  across  the board.  It’s  being  used  as  a  planning tool  for  architectural  and  mechanical and electrical special coordination and less for the nuts and bolts of AV and technology.  I do believe  momentum is  moving  towards  BIM,  once  the construction  industry  fully  gets  into gear with BIM,  then  the AV industry will have to follow suite.”  AVI-SPL has  embraced  BIM  says  Robinson.

“Modelling the environment becomes the  goal  to  visualise  everything,  so you can have everything considered in finalising the design.” One  aspect  that  was  much  talked about in 2015 in the AV industry was the rise of the huddle space, and this could play a big part in the relationship between  architects  and  AV.  Why?

Because it will force architects to think differently says Phillips. “If you are an architect you have to break away from thinking  ‘I  just  have  office  space  and I have meeting rooms’. It’s a different consideration:  ‘I  have  environments where  I  want  to  encourage  people  to come together and collaborate.’ That is the language that businesses are using right  now.” 

Andrew  thinks  the  rise  of the huddle space will play a major factor in architecture and AV becoming much more  intertwined.  “There  is  a  much  closer  tie  now  with  AV  technology in spaces  that  aren’t  just  traditional meeting  rooms.  That  means  that  you need  to  spend  a  lot  more  time  with the architect to make sure those places are  designed  well.”  That  change  may also be aided by architect’s clients says Robinson.  “Changes  to  architectural design  can  sometimes  be  inspired by  clients  demanding  technology  is included in the design of the building, which is important for our role.”