Are You a Technology-Enabled Architect?

Sept. 1, 2007

By Chuck Wilson

Nearly everyone has encountered a last-minute project that requires a complete redesign. Often referred to as "value engineering" to soften the blow, these situations typically arise due to a misunderstanding of total cost versus ownership with technology. This is not anyone's fault. So why does it occur? There is no standard method of developing a technology budget during the schematic design phase.

A comprehensive technology plan is not easy to design, much less quote. Technology estimates are different than the "per square foot" estimate used for other building materials. The biggest reason: User-defined applications can create wild pricing swings. Videoconferencing is an example. When you ask an NSCA member about the costs videoconferencing will add to their building technology plan, the answer is always, "Well, that depends ..."

Perhaps that response frustrates you, but it's just as true in security, AV systems, and almost everything we do. The good, better, and best pricing models in our industry can have seemingly ridiculous price implications. As the technology consultant or design-build contractor falls back on the "it depends" answer, so, too, have the architect and construction manager become adept at responding, "Just give me a number, I won't hold you to it."

Neither party is doing the other any favors. The rhetorical exchange simply buys more time to determine the building owner's true expectations. My best advice: Use CSI MasterFormatTM 04 as a tool to have a start-to-finish conversation between everyone, including the project technology experts, who should be included at the start of the conversation. At the very least, this allows you to begin a dialogue about every topic, including aspects you may have overlooked at the start of a prior job.    

Much uncertainty regarding cost models is based on how quickly technology changes. Technology considered state-of-the-art last year may no longer be available from the manufacturer. Unlike traditional building materials, the pricing model for technology changes constantly. Further, many construction services provide building design professionals with accurate pricing estimates based on raw materials, availability, and labor in the traditional brick-and-mortar-type construction materials.

NSCA offers you a great resource. Our industry has more than 100 professional independent design and consulting firms ready to help. These companies do as much or as little as you specify. For example, if you need advice, design services, or client interview support, their scope will focus on those specifics. Or, if you prefer, they can create a turnkey package including procurement, project management, and even final system commissioning and performance verification.

Building strong relationships with area systems integrators allows you to access good advice on pricing models. These companies know how one subtle request from a building owner's IT or AV department can change the whole system design and, therefore, the project budget. There is no substitute for experience and most of our members can show you their battle scars.

Until construction cost service providers include systems technology in their estimating software, use NSCA members and our thousands of technology professionals to help you ensure client satisfaction from the start. The reasons for doing so are clear: You can prevent sticker shock for your clients and provide proper design and installation from the onset. For a complete listing, visit

Chuck Wilson ([email protected]) is the executive director of the National Systems Contractors Association (NSCA).

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