The 80:20 Rule of A/V Integration


In 1906, the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto observed that 80% of the peas he harvested from his garden came from 20% of the pea plants. Over time, this “80:20 rule” has been applied as a sort of universal law to all types of situations: 20% of customers provide 80% of the revenue, 20% of employees get 80% of the work done, 20% of the vendors supply 80% of the equipment budget, etc.

We have also found an inversion of this rule to apply in the world of A/V integration. Proper planning during the first 20% of a construction project’s design-build cycle can eliminate 80% of the problems down the road.

In this case, proper planning requires that the A/V design and integration company be brought into the process during the earliest design stages. That’s because two of the more important issues that need to be addressed during the early part of an A/V project are infrastructure requirements, such as conduits and raceways, power, HVAC, equipment space,  etc., and architectural impact, including the physical location of various technologies and their impact on an overall design.

For most projects to go smoothly, it is imperative that the A/V design and integration company establish an efficient communication process with the architect and general contractor early in the design phase so that infrastructure requirements and architectural impact issues can be addressed and resolved efficiently. The presence pf the A/V integrator also helps to ensure that audio and video components are perceived as architectural elements that must be considered as architects determine finishes, mounting methods, and even display size and placement

Conversely, waiting until much later to address these issues — such as when an A/V system is actually being installed — can result in cabling having to be run with a jackhammer and Sawzall. In these situations, the A/V company finds itself in the unhappy position of retrofitting a new building and scrambling to squeeze square pegs into round raceways. Ramifications often include rewriting the project scope, revising shop drawings or, in the worst cases, encountering long punch lists and unresolved issues during the final stage of the project.

When sound and video systems are poorly integrated into a building’s space — or integrated at great expense after the fact — it is often due to two problems: No communication process was established in the early days of a project, and the architect and general contractor lack a real understanding of the systems. The more basic problem is one of perception: While HVAC, plumbing, lighting, and communications systems are accepted as fundamental elements of every building’s infrastructure, audio and video systems are still often perceived as non-integral accessories, much like a desktop computer or a piece of furniture. While this can be true of some stand-alone systems for conference rooms or offices, tenants increasingly see integrated A/V systems as fundamental elements of a facility’s basic infrastructure. Many owners and developers also want these systems in their facilities but may neglect to clearly define the scope or to specify the integration of each piece of hardware.

From the architect’s perspective, any device that is going to be in full view of the public needs to be addressed in the building’s design, not as a tenant-specified add-on. Thus it is not only wise but incumbent upon architects and general contractors to insist that A/V integrators be included in planning early on.

An excellent example of a properly managed project was the renovation of Washington National Cathedral in Washington D.C., the sixth-largest cathedral in the world. SPL Integrated Solutions’ contribution to the project was the design and installation of new audio and video systems.

We were presented with the challenge — and a rare opportunity — to engineer and install a large sound reinforcement system in a national historic landmark. We were fortunate to be partnered with an experienced A/V consultant with whom we had a good working relationship. But more importantly, we were brought into the project during the early design stage, enabling us to form a relationship with the client and the architect that resulted in an extremely productive flow of communication and ideas.

Our primary challenge was to deliver a sound system that clearly communicated the spoken word to the congregation in an acoustical space with eight seconds of reverberation. Throughout the project, we worked very closely with the consultant and the Cathedral’s audio engineer to meet the specified technical requirements. At the same time, the Cathedral organization was insistent that the system would in no way detract aesthetically from the space. In addition to being very sensitive to the notion of loudspeakers installed on stone surfaces, they also limited the options available for routing cable through exposed areas of the church.

At the project’s infancy, we were introduced to the Cathedral stonemason, whose responsibility was to physically attach the loudspeakers to the stonework. He provided valuable input on how speakers would have to adhere to the stone surfaces, and we, in turn, incorporated that input into our speaker rigging and bracket designs. To hide speaker wiring throughout the building, the mason painstakingly buried the wires behind the grout work and within various nooks and crannies on the stone surfaces. From the very beginning, it was clear to us that it was going to be impossible to fulfill the needs of the Cathedral without his guidance and help.

The greater challenge, though, involved suspending the main 20-foot-tall speaker clusters from two of the four mammoth piers at the Great Crossing of the Cathedral’s nave. Our first priority was to ensure that we provided a safe structure, which required us to install large rectangular speaker frames on the rounded and irregular surfaces of the columns. Second, we needed to design the frames such that they allowed for loudspeaker aiming and for servicing access. Complicating matters, the Cathedral requested chamfers be added to the front of the rectangular structure to give it a more rounded shape. We worked with the Cathedral to incorporate this element without compromising the design. Finally, the loudspeaker arrays and the speakers themselves were painted “chapel gray” to match the color of the Indiana limestone, and a contractor that specialized in fabric coverings was brought in to wrap the entire array with a gray, acoustically transparent cloth. The Cathedral’s input was crucial in choosing the paint and fabric colors.

Integrating these structures into their surroundings required intense planning and engineering. Without efficient communication that resulted in full collaboration with the Cathedral organization, the project surely would not have gone as smoothly as it did. In addition, we were freed during the big push at the end of the project to concentrate mainly on technical issues. The result was a highly intelligible sound system that blended remarkably well with its surroundings.

Unexpected issues and delays are always going to be part of any large A/V project, but our experience with the National Cathedral served as an example of how early involvement of the A/V design and integration contractor can significantly reduce surprises and misunderstandings – and all the expenses and headaches that arise from them. .

Justo Gutierrez and Ed Sullivan, Sr. are a project engineer and a design engineer, respectively, with SPL Integrated Solutions, an NSCA member company.

Modernizing a landmark such as the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. required imaginative solutions for mounting speakers and displays and for concealing the cabling that connects them to production and control technologies.