Leaving a legacy: The challenges of heritage projects

Tower of David

Heritage projects are challenging, including from a business perspective. Tim Kridel explores the tradecraft and technologies for wowing clients and making money.

Adding modern AV systems to historic buildings can be a feather in the cap—and a pain in the ass. There’s no shortage of vendor and integrator case studies about adding AV to heritage buildings such as cathedrals and hotels. They provide ample details about the technological challenges and how they were overcome, but they rarely get into the financial headaches. 

“The majority of projects have lost us money,” says Raj Patel, Vanti director. “A lot of them are the kind where you do the job, and it will be a great case study and a great reference site because it’s a landmark. But it’s not always a great money-making project because they’re every high risk.” 

A major reason for that risk is obvious: You never really know what’s lurking inside century-old walls to stop a wireless signal or fished cable dead in its tracks.

That’s one example of how schedules and budgets can get thrown off track, a possibility that clients need to be aware of from the very beginning. “You have to educate the client that this is a risk project,” Patel says.

For vendors, the heritage market can be a lucrative niche. “Often these are quite high-value projects,” says Mark Wadsworth, Digital Projection vice president of global marketing. “It’s not one or two projectors.”

And although energy efficiency usually is associated with new construction, it can be an opportunity on heritage projects, too. 

“In these times of growing awareness of the impact on the environment, another important requirement is attention to energy consumption and active control and optimisation,” says Christophe Malsot, Crestron EMEA director of hospitality and residential. “Intelligent and connected devices, smart sensors and controllers, supported by the development of new business models for energy services, help manage the energy consumption actively, creating new opportunities for heritage building too.”

Teamwork helps 

As with new construction, heritage projects stand a better chance of being smooth and profitable when AV is involved from the beginning, rather than after architectural designs are finalised and budgets spoken for.

“Timing is key for heritage projects,” Malsot says. “If talks about the AV integration are included from the start of the project—during discussions with architects, investors and general contractors—chances of a successful end result are big especially when the budget is reasonable and the chosen solution is the best available on the market. 

“Technology should be part of the complete ecosystem. That must take the bigger picture into account in order to provide a perfect user experience.”

Some vendors and integrators say that heritage clients often work directly with AV firms rather than through an intermediary such as a general contractor or architect.
“Generally AV is directly procured because it’s become more specialised,” Patel says. “Direct procurement is generally the favoured approach, particularly in the UK.”

Working with other trades often helps because it’s an opportunity to leverage their tricks and techniques. And whether they’re borrowed from other trades or learned first-hand, the more tricks an integrator has, the faster it can develop a solution to a challenge—and thus stay on schedule and budget.

Take the example of a UK university’s ceremonial hall with a Grade 1 listing whose recent AV upgrades include sound and lighting systems. The person responsible for conservation and repair at this school spoke anonymously because his employer hadn’t approved the interview.

All cabling had to be hidden to avoid detracting from the building’s architectural features. Wi-Fi and other wireless technologies helped by providing connectivity for devices such as touch panels. Some cabling was able to be hidden in existing containment routes. The challenge was finding ways to hide the rest.

““Due to the layout and timber-framed construction of much of the building, with assistance from suitably skilled trades persons, most of the new cabling could be concealed beneath the timber floor boards and within the timber panelling,” the person says. “This required carpenters/joiners to carefully ease off and later re-fix some sections of skirting boards, causing negligible damage.

“Where practical, the hidden cables were supported by tying or clamping them to the structure, rather than nailing or screwing, avoiding any permanent damage. But some nail-fixing was unavoidable.”

Some structures weren’t strong enough to support the weight of a display, and strengthening them wasn’t an option. 

“A self-standing screen/display panel was considered the only feasible option, allowing the screen to be removed and stored when not required,” the person says. 

The new sound system used several types of speakers, including ultra-slimline line array speakers. 

“Whilst surface-mounted in various locations, their very compact design and aluminium covers, colour-matched to blend in with adjacent painted woodwork, renders them almost invisible,” the person says. “As with many building projects, the end product includes some degree of compromise, but the completed installation has been well received by the building users and members of the public.

“I was very satisfied with the outcome, knowing we had succeeded without undue or irreparable intervention to the fabric of the building.”

New life for old cables 

Sometimes it’s possible to re-use legacy cabling to get signals around. For example, at ISE 2019, Kramer demoed technology that sends 1080 over two wires of any quality. 

“[Suppose] there’s an old set of speakers, and they want a TV now, and there’s an old bit of cabling plastered into the wall, or an old maid’s cable,” 

Patel says. “I could technically sneak some HD video down it to a screen somewhere. 

“A lot depends on regions and codes. In some countries, you can’t just use any old cable for that because [it has to be] conduit grade. But in the UK, you can get away with that.”

Re-using legacy cable can make sense in environments where the walls are too thick for wireless or where Wi-Fi spectrum is so packed that it’s tough to find a reliable channel.

“We recently did an old manor house,” Patel says. “We used Crestron NVX to get video around the place because it uses Power over Ethernet (PoE). The client had Cat 5e cabling when they did an overhaul of the building 15 years ago or whenever. It’s no good for HDBaseT or anything else now, but we can still get 4Kvideo down it and power the boxes.”

When legacy cabling can’t be re-used, often its runs can. For example, the conduit or chases that carry telephone lines to each hotel room could be emptied out to carry Cat 6 cable instead.


 The telephone wall plates then could be replaced with ones that have built-in Wi-Fi access points (APs),such as Samsung’s WEA412H.That sets up the opportunity to use Wi-Fi to connect other AV devices in each hotel room Depending on what the walls are made of, it might also be possible to cover an adjacent room or two, minimising the time and expense of pulling Cat 6 to each room.

“It may not be the easiest of pull throughs, but once you’ve got the AP in there, then you’re getting two rooms covered with one AP,” says Chris Fulton, Future Software CEO.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way 

Emerging AV and IT technologies could provide additional tools for meeting heritage requirements.

For example, the new 802.3bt PoE standard supports up to 90W.That could be helpful if it eliminates the need for mains power to certain devices—and the unsightly conduit that comes with it. 

Meanwhile, displays are continually becoming more energy efficient, such as with organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology. This trend dovetails with 802.3bt. For example, a display that’s too big to power with legacy PoE might be possible in the future thanks to 802.3bt and OLED.

Another example is Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax. “We’ll see a lot of equipment coming out in the next 16-18 months,” Fulton says. “That offers some interesting capabilities because of the throughout and the latency. But it comes with the challenge of the higher frequency, which means walls become a real challenge.”

Some vendors are fundamentally rethinking traditional product designs in ways that benefit heritage AV projects. For instance, projectors are an ideal way to get around the problem of hanging displays on elderly, fragile walls and then getting power to them. The catch is that projectors aren’t exactly light.

“If you wanted 40,000 lumens, you could be looking at 200 kg, a six-man lift and three-phase electricity—an absolute nightmare to move around and install,” Wadsworth says. 

“That’s why at InfoComm 2019, Digital Projection demoed the Satellite Module Laser System, which separates the light source from the projector head. The two units are linked by fibre optic cable and can be up to 100m apart. That means the light source—and all of its noise, heat and heavy-duty power cabling—now can hide away in an AV rack in a better suited part of the building. 

In the process, the projector head gets smaller and around 90% lighter, thus enabling installation in locations that couldn’t support a combined unit.

“It’s a bit bigger than a shoebox and can still produce 40,000-60,000 lumens,” Wadsworth says.

“In these times of growing awareness of the impact on the environment, another important requirement is attention to energy consumption and active control and optimisation.” - Christophe Malsot, Crestron

“It makes it really easy to install super-bright projectors in very tight spaces in historical buildings, ships and other places where AV is an afterthought or has to be retrofitted..” 

Shine a light on history  

The increasing popularity of digital illumination for heritage and other applications recently prompted video mapping specialist WHATSIT to launch IntensCity, a company dedicated to that space. Director general Pierre-Yves Toulot describes it as “a new architectural lighting concept built around next-generation projectors.”

“It will also make them interactive by easily connecting them to sensors or information collected through social networks or other web apps,” he says.

“IntensCity is aimed at site managers who will be able to easily use this new technology in installation and maintenance. Designers and architects will be able to appropriate this new source of lighting by using IntensCity as a simulation tool to stimulate their creativity and create different lighting scenarios, but also as a real-time diffusion tool to perfectly adjust the designs thus created.”

IntensCity is a response to several challenges, including meeting light-pollution restrictions. “The ability of video projection to frame areas perfectly allows each photon projected on the façade to be controlled and to avoid any overflow into the sky, for example,” Toulot says. 

Digital illumination projects often are done as part of events, such as a building’s 200-year anniversary. But the majority are permanent installations. 

“Most of the time, it tends to be fixed installs,” Wadsworth says. “We don’t really do a lot of one-off events or anniversaries.”

One long-term installation is at the Tower of David in Jerusalem. “They have great footfall as it is as a museum and an historic building,” Wadsworth says. “But they wanted to put on what they called ‘a night spectacular,’ which is projection mapping all over the walls telling the story. That’s gotten them almost at building capacity every day it’s open throughout the past few years.”