AV classroom and academic building project pitfalls
Last-minute scrambling and high stress levels associated with audiovisual installations are all too common for AV professionals. Such projects require fragile equipment and a dependence on building, system and event design—but audiovisual teams are rarely involved in early design discussions for AV classroom and academic building projects. As a result, these professionals are often required to develop creative, on-the-spot solutions to challenges to satisfy their audiences and keep the show going.
Here’s a look at why several installations didn’t go quite as planned—and how the teams moved forward.
Problem: Content management surprise
Late in the design phase for a new building at The University of Kansas School of Business, officials decided to add a large video wall in the entryway after a major donor requested a “showpiece.” Designers scrambled to incorporate a 32- by 9-foot screen for the building’s entryway into plans.
When Michael Brock was hired as the school’s video producer, the new building was nearing completion. He began making plans to develop video content for the grand opening. But Brock says, “Nobody could tell me how content actually got on the screen.” An AV company and tech infrastructure designer had worked on the project, but had not considered what content management system could be used to deliver the content.
Brock finally got a three-page spec sheet detailing what was needed. He and his team were still programming equipment the morning of the grand opening and “troubleshooting right up until the ribbon-cutting,” he says. Donors who wanted early walk-throughs saw content on the display only because Brock had laptops hooked up to the wall.
• Lessons learned: Rather than allowing various teams to work in silos on the same project, representatives from the AV company, members of the infrastructure design team and other involved parties should always discuss a project together, Brock says. Every new installation requires a central leader who can ensure that all bases are covered.
Problem: Lack of testing
In 2018 at The University of Texas at Austin, the new McCombs School of Business facility was behind schedule.
With about six weeks until the building was set to open, AV work was around 30% complete, says Jörg Becker, director of media services. The contractor scrambled to get a basic working system together by the deadline, but the AV system in the auditorium had not been tested by the grand opening.
The result: A distinguished speaker delivered a presentation on stage with unintelligible audio.
“Our sound person basically took the amplification down to none as the speaker could be understood better without it,” Becker says. “In short, it was a disaster.”
Months later, Becker’s team was asked to record a lecture in a classroom in the new building using the same AV system. “Since it was still young, some things had never been used,” Becker says.
Everything seemed to be going well—until the speaker paused, took a glass of water off the lectern and took a long sip. In the recording booth, the speaker’s voice could still be heard. “Looking closer and listening, we realized that the voice had nothing to do with the lecture,” Becker says. “The installer had cross-connected two rooms, so we were recording a speaker in another room.”
• Lessons learned: Given enough time, an AV team can test a system thoroughly and adjust it so it works correctly. “If the installer schedules six weeks to install the system, we cannot do it in two, no matter how much overtime you would like to pay us,” Becker says. Now, he insists his team have representation at initial planning meetings and all the way through to construction. “AV employees are often not included by architects, although we are a very integral part of most classroom and conference room builds,” he says.
Becker recommends that campus AV teams plan out all details of the systems for a new building, and complete them in the shop while construction is underway. Once on-site, he says, “all that is left is debugging or dealing with environmental issues, such as light controls.”
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Problem: Power outage
As several donors and county and state representatives awaited the groundbreaking ceremony for a new science, engineering and technology building at Howard Community College in Maryland, the public address system went dark. While the AV team was using an uninterruptible power supply (UPS), “the battery was old and draining faster than we needed,” says Brandon Yerrid, director of AV services and design.
5 keys to avoiding AV technology disasters
1. Stay up to date on industry trends. AV professionals must be able to anticipate product development because of the typically long wait time between planning and deployment.
2. Create a schedule. Work with project leaders to determine their exact needs and expectations, and then develop a detailed schedule for the AV work.
3. Develop an opinion of probable cost (OPC). AV designers and engineers should be able to generate this estimate and deliver within 10%.
4. Plan for adjustments. Coordinating a large-scale AV project in the field is always slightly different from planning it on paper. Keeping clear records of design intent helps in identifying places to adjust if either the schedule or OPC begins to vary from expectations.
5. Be part of the big picture. AV installations are an important part of any event or project, so design teams must be present and active throughout the development and user feedback stages.
Source: Brandon Yerrid, director of AV services and design, Howard Community College, Maryland
His team managed to turn the system on and off intermittently to conserve the battery and make it through the ceremony. Afterward, they discovered the problem: They were running power from more than 50 feet away, and the extension cords were too small in gauge. As the resistance built up in the wire, the ground-fault circuit interrupter on the outdoor power source would trip, disabling the outlet.
• Lessons learned: A practical (and obvious) solution for long power runs outdoors is to use wiring with the correct gauge, Yerrid says. “It is also a best practice to operate your boards and equipment for high-profile events using a UPS, and to check the age of that battery.”
Problem: Construction coordination
In a small conference room in The University of Texas’ new business school building, the AV team requested a 1¼-inch conduit to a monitor on the wall. Because the cable needed to be pulled with the connector to the monitor, field termination was not possible, Becker says. But when it came time to install the monitor, the AV team found a ¾-inch pipe instead.
“We learned that the electrician decided that instead of a 1¼-inch conduit, he would pull two ¾-inch conduits,” Becker says. “That works for cables, but not in this case. Consequently, instead of finishing this room quickly, the wall had to be opened, Sheetrocked and painted again.”
• Lessons learned: With a new building or a redesigned space, it’s important to have drawings and to read and reread the plans during revisions. “Don’t assume because you moved an outlet in the drawing two weeks ago, it will remain there in all the revisions,” Becker says.
He recommends walking the site regularly during all phases of construction. For instance, make sure the electrician locates pathways where they were requested and provides them at the correct height.
“Make the project manager understand that with every problem they encounter,” Becker adds, “you may be affected and they need to share with you.”
Nancy Mann Jackson, an Alabama-based writer, is a frequent contributor to UB.