If I were to guess, I’ve designed around 500 systems since I started in this industry back in 2005. At my first few companies, as an installer, I was handed 1) a quote, 2) a stack of boxes, and 3) told to “figure it out.”
Design on the fly; there must have been at least a hundred of those. At the time I wasn’t a Systems Designer but through trial and error I did learn what to do and, more importantly, what to avoid. Since 2013 I now have around 350 Cloud9 Smart design projects stored. While not every design became a project, for those that did, 99 percent changed by the time the project was closed and billed.
One of the unique challenges when designing technology is that product choices don’t age well. Someone designing your kitchen can probably source the same cabinets, countertops, and flooring for years. I can’t keep the pricing on TV’s current for much longer than a month. Display models change annually. Wireless network standards shift just as quickly. Video distribution technology is a moving target.
On top of that, clients are typically very new to this technology and need a wide buffer to learn (and change their minds). Even with a highly informative design phase the entire construction process is a learning curve for a client. As they discover more, read more, talk to friends, etc, they will require changes somewhere between a tweak and a complete change of direction.
All of this shifting and evolving leads me to believe that completely bulletproof design documentation is nearly impossible in our industry. You don’t just need design documents—you need design process. That process needs to be built around the idea that all plans are subject to change. It is not over until the last piece of gear is installed, the client is trained, and the final item on the punchlist is marked as complete.
Our approach has design documentation flow with the natural evolution of the project. We may intentionally leave out unnecessary pieces of information during the early phases, and have increasing detail at the relevant milestones. While every project is different, we try to adhere to the following project phases for each milestone drawing update:
- Design Phase
- Construction Phase
- Installation Phase
- Service Phase
During the Design Phase, our number one goal is getting to know the client. We uncover the client’s needs (documenting in great detail), and establish a budget. We spend a lot of time in this initial phase, long before the client signs a project proposal from us, primarily as an opportunity to educate. We breakdown speaker fit and finish options, the pros and cons of different video and audio technologies, panelized versus traditional lighting, etc. After more than twenty hours of work, all of this leads to a fleshed out design package followed by a presentable (and accurate) proposal.
We shy away from the ultra-specific unless the client has a strong initial opinion, so as not to bog down the first design package with details we know will likely change. We don’t need to know if the keypads are going to be satin or gloss just yet. We just need to know that the client wants a keypad. We may have a 65” TV placed in the living room, but aren’t locked into an elevation drawing for a specific model. Our usual Design Phase document includes room equipment, schematics, rack drawings, AV/Lighting/Shade plans, and cable schedules. TV elevations, shade pocket drawings and head end drawings will wait until our Project Management team gets eyes on the space, to make sure the designs have considered applicable site conditions. (I can’t count the amount of times I’ve drawn a head end drawing, only to have a Project Manager tell me the room is actually several feet smaller than what the floorplans say.) Design Phase drawings are concept drawings, and incorrect information presented too early can be worse than no information at all.
At the Construction Phase we adapt the initial concepts to reality. We lean heavily on our Project Management team to splash cold water on any idea impacted by the space. The cables you wanted buried in the conference room floor cell? They are no longer trenching the floor. Adapt. The client’s friend just bought a huge new TV (that didn’t even exist in the Design Phase), and the client loves it. Figure it out. Sometimes these changes lead to big change orders while others are small internal tweaks. Either scenario results in a drawing revision to keep track of the constantly moving target.
The Installation Phase reconciles two key pieces of information: 1. Is the equipment quoted still relevant? 2. Have we captured all of the personalization that the client has requested?
We take a hard look at the products originally sold: Networking equipment, software licenses, control system processors, etc. Usually, a year or two after the first design document these items have changed. If the cost differences are within budget, we’ll prepare an internal change order. If the cost differences are egregious (or new options have hit the market), now is the right time to discuss with the client. We review these drawings and product revisions with both our Installation Team and Programming Team to make sure everybody understands the changes and reasoning behind them.
The Installation Phase is also the appropriate time to finalize the personalization of the system. We solidify color choices of keypads and touchscreens. The client signs off on the final engraving reports so the keypad buttons are programmed and ready to go on the move-in date. We hold the “User Experience Meeting” (UX Meeting) with the client, where they have an opportunity to course correct if we missed something along the way.
At the UX Meeting we typically prepare our programming file before the rack is even finished, allowing for a full system simulation demonstration. Our programmer will give them a formal training, as if the system is installed, and the client provides feedback. Room names change, password preferences are discussed, and the client has a chance to fine tune the presentation of the system that we are about to install. These changes make it back to the Engineering Team, which then updates the design documentation accordingly.
At the Service Phase we rectify what actually happened. In theory, if our installation was buttoned-up and everybody nailed their role, there won’t be much to update here. That said, not all projects run like a well-oiled machine. A conference room client doesn’t like the look of the ceiling microphones? Pivot and update the design. That 75” TV wasn’t big enough for the sports fan after all? Pivot and update the design. As all integrators know, endless is the list of wrenches that can be thrown into a project at the last minute. We use the Service Phase drawings as a way to document what happened after the dust settles. This gives the Service Team information to provide exceptional maintenance going forward, as well as provide the Sales and Engineering Teams a reference point for any future upgrades.
We try to tailor our design documents for the audience that is going to be reading the content, breaking them down into two categories: Engineering Documents and Deployment Documents.
Engineering Documents are for Engineers, Installers and Programmers. Included will be all relevant information that impacts our internal teams (room and rack drawings, point-to-point schematics, remotely managed power plans, etc). As the project progresses, this is also where we add personalization details, network information and other client site specific details. The Electrician or GC doesn’t need to know what video switch we are using, the IP address of the router, or how it is connected, so we don’t need to share the Engineering Documents with them. Confusion avoided!
Deployment Documents are tailored for everybody outside of our team that interacts with our Project Managers. This includes the Electrician, GC, Carpenter, etc. This is where we put cabling pull schedules, elevations, heat management, shade pocket drawings, and head-end drawings. The Electrician is going to be installing the back boxes for the TV’s and wiring them with high voltage, and therefore needs to have the elevation drawing showing where we want that back box. The Carpenter will make a custom cabinet that houses a small credenza rack, and therefore needs to see the rack dimensions. This is also where we include the coveted Responsibility Matrix (which party provides, installs, and configures any given item.) Without a Responsibility Matrix the other trades don’t know what to include on their proposals, which leads to change orders that can be costly to the client. The goal here is enough information for the all trades to accomplish their goals, but not so much that they won’t read it.
Our Design Process is unique to Cloud9 Smart. Not all integrators leverage other trades for the same piece of the puzzle, and their process may differ. Having a Design Process (not just a design document) is crucial for any integrator to complete successful projects and create happy clients. Ask your low voltage integrator about their design process and documentation—your project depends on it!
Personally, there is a quote a by Dwight D. Eisenhower that speaks to me in the design process: “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”