How virtual renderings can save AV pros thousands

BIM’s virtual renderings help AV firms work more efficiently and effectively, including with other trades. Tim Kridel explores how – and some of the challenges, such as cost.

A picture is worth a thousand words. With BIM, it can be worth a thousand euros – and more.

Building information modelling (BIM)provides architects, general contractors and other trades –including AV firms – with a framework of software and processes for designing and experiencing a space digitally. The 3D BIM environment makes it easier to understand the complex relationships between all of the elements in that space, such as HVAC ducts, architectural features, seating, cable trays and loudspeakers. 

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“Designing a building in 3D helps identify and avoid common issues and mistakes that might add cost to a project later in the construction phase,” says Mark Grassi, principal consultant at NV5. “Having a light switch exactly where your touch panel needs to be, a fire strobe behind a projection screen, or a pendant light right in front of the projection screen are just a few of the things that should no longer be an issue when using BIM in the proper way.”
"We’re looking at the next step.Can we produce a model for an FOH engineer at a Broadway show where he can look at the sound system we’ve designed and experience that? - Chris Moore, Theatre Projects
Stouenborg used BIM to ensure that Meyer Sound Constellation components wouldn’t wind up in places that were already home to sprinkler heads and HVAC vents. “Without building it digitally before, we wouldn’t be able to do it because it requires high precision in the placement of speakers and mics with 1 cm of tolerance,” says Anders Jørgensen, project manager and consultant.

On another project, Stouenborg used BIM with VR glasses to walk around a space. The ceiling looked too high, and the architect agreed. “We lowered the ceiling and saved $1 million [€844,000] because then the walls didn’t have to carry as much weight,” Jørgensen says. 

A seat at the table

AV firms often lament that they’re brought in late to new construction and major remodels– after building designs have been finalised and most of the budget spoken for. Using BIM could get them a seat at the table early on, alongside the architect, general contractor, the client and other key stakeholders.

“Now AV people can get in earlier because it’s easier to visualise their solutions from the beginning,” says Niels Treldal, Cowi digital development director.

“Using industry design software for BIM, such as Revit, allows the consultant to be relevant in the design industry and get hired by the right person at the right time,” Grassi says. “Typically, this means being part of a design team at the early stages of the project. This is easier for a consultant to do, as they market and work directly with architects on a regular basis.

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Theatre Projects does all of its sketches and conceptual work in Rhino and SketchUp. 
“The BIM environment lets us immediately jump into to the sandbox with everybody,” says Chris Moore, senior consultant.

“I don’t have to wait for the architect to show me where to put speakers. I can jump in there day one and get those speakers in the model and share that information with the architect.

“That immediately claims space and informs them of what’s happening. If I say I need to put speakers here, here and here, ‘speakers’ mean very different things to AV pros than to architects [in terms of] the perception of what they’re getting.”
"Whenever we do a project, we have to create at least half of the models ourselves." - Anders Jørgensen, Stouenborg
In one performance arts centre project, the architect insisted on having side box seating close to the loudspeaker arrays. The AV firm Jaffe Holden was told to “figure something out,” so it put the arrays in a 3D model for the next meeting.

“That got the conversation started. It’s really, really useful– and not just to hammer home a point – to do some proper coordination before starting construction. The less time and effort we spend on change orders, the more money we’re making.” BIM can also be used to understand audience and staff experiences in a variety of acoustical setups to help choose the optimal one.

“We’re looking at the next step,” Moore says. “Can we produce a model for an FOH engineer at a Broadway show where he can look at the sound system we’ve designed and experience that?

Cost and learning curves are hurdles 

But if BIM is so great, why doesn’t every AV vendor, consultant and integrator use it? One reason is cost. 

“For a big project – let’s say $1million in AV – it will cost us around $25,000 [€21,000] to put all of our updates inside the model,” Jørgensen says. 

There’s also the expense of hiring or training staff. “There is a huge learning curve to work in a program like Revit,” says NV5's Grassi.

“A firm has to build custom families, perhaps author a custom API to work within their workflow, develop whole new approaches to designs.

“Unfortunately, there isn’t typically much cost savings directly to the firm. There is to the overall project, however. With time, consistency and standardisation, the libraries that can be developed within Revit will certainly save time/money. It is a large upfront investment, however.”

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Depending on how it’s used, BIM can also require high-horsepower computers.
“The promise of BIM is that you have this wonderful database attached to drawings that you can embed information in,” says Jaffe Holden’s Hemphill. “The reality is often that the more information you embed, the slower the model becomes, and it almost becomes useless as your design is well thought out. So, there’s a balance that has to be struck – at least at this point, until there are faster computers.”

The amount of detail sometimes depends on whether the client wants to use the design long after construction is finished. Sometimes it becomes a living document that’s updated as systems are modified or replaced over the years – not only AV, but also HVAC and electrical.

In other respects, BIM is getting easier to use than three or four years ago. “You needed to take your BIM model, translate it into another software [program], do some editing there and get a visualisation where you can walkaround or whatever you want to do,” says Cowi’s Treldal. “Now, it’s really, really easy to get users involved and fast.”
The growing availability and sophistication of VR glasses also helps.

“There’s very slow adoption of VR in the construction industry,” Treldal says. “The graphics weren’t good enough and so on. Now the graphics are much better. It’s much faster generation of the visualisations. That means the user experience is going to be much closer to the client.

BIM can also be helpful for AV firms that cater to clients looking for LEED certifications and other green designs – or just ensuring that the HVAC system is sized properly.
“Every one of our pieces of equipment in Revit has a heat load associated with it, so the mechanical engineer can do a heat load on the room based on our BIM objects,” says Theatre Projects’ Moore. “That’s insanely valuable.”

As precise as it is, BIM can be useful even when many aspects have to be painted in broadstrokes. For example, arenas and stadiums take several years to go from design through construction to opening. AV technology can change a lot in that time, so the design aspect has to include some flexibility.

“When we start these major projects, future proofing is discussed when designing the display,” says Don Szczepaniak, president and CEO of Prismview, a Samsung Electronics company. “We focus on energy consumption, weight and brightness. We typically share with the client where we think we will be in the next few years [and] if we think there will be any changes.

“The changes that are made are typically related to energy consumption or reducing the weight. Since future proofing is such a big consideration for these installs, the life cycle of the product version is longer—with it being on average four to five years before there is a new major development.

Room for improvement

The cost of using BIM, and its usefulness, also depends on how well AV vendors support it. Some are better than others when it comes to making their products available for download, including at sites such as “It’s a problem,” Jørgensen says. “Whenever we do a project, we have to create at least half of the models ourselves.” 

Theatre Projects concurs. “I don’t think that, as a whole, the AV industry has done a very good job of getting themselves into the BIM world,” Moore says.

“If I download a Meyer Revit family versus a JBL Revit family versus an EAW Revit family, those families are intrinsically different: the data included in them, how they were built, how they get inserted into the model, all these different options. Nobody has done the legwork as a community to make that more consistent. 

“AVIXA put out shared parameters. But there’s no agreement on if a manufacturer is going to develop a speaker family, what’s included in it. So we end up blowing up other people’s Revit families and rebuilding them with the information we need. Nine times out of 10, we build our own.”

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As BIM adoption grows, so will the pressure on vendors to make their full portfolio available. 

“I think it will be a business differentiator very soon, ”Treldal says. “If you don’t have that, you will miss out on some of the market because we want to engage our clients much more in the early stages. There we need to show them the final design.”

“We committed to BIM quite a few years ago in terms of getting our products into the system so people could download them,” says John Monitto, Meyer Sound director of business development. “[That’s] because more and more consultants working with architects are requiring it to put these products into buildings.”

Vendors also can track downloads to gauge demand, including by product type. 

“We’ve been seeing a continual uptick in the amount of activity,” says Monitto, whose company gets a weekly digest of the products downloaded by architects and consultants. 

Like consultants, vendors also have to spend time and money to support BIM, such as turning a product into a BIM object. For example, Meyer Sound initially did everything internally. Now it outsources much of that work to a third party.

Some AV pros say they’d like to see more standardisation in terms of how architects and other firms work with BIM. For example, at any given time, Jaffe Holden is working with 20-plus architects. It prefers BIM 360, which is like Google Docs for virtual design.

This kind of real-time, cloud collaboration environment helps avoid problems and expenses. One example is spending a week on a project, only to find that someone else lowered a ceiling or moved a wall, triggering a round of changes.

“We think that moving forward, that’s the way that everybody should do it,” Hemphill says. “We’ve gone so far as to buy our own BIM 360 package so we can offer to host a whole project if the architects can't. It’s a much more efficient way to work.

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