Bringing AV Design In-House

May 18, 2005
RTKL Creates Audio-Visual Specialization Team

In a move that some see as the beginning of a trend for large architectural firms, RTKL Associates Inc. formed a new in-house audio-visual design department. While several engineering firms have audio-visual departments, it is still an unusual step for an architectural firm to have a dedicated AV division.

“By having the audio-visual department in-house, we can bring our clients a greater awareness of the total environment,” says Jennifer Barnes, director of the interiors group for the Baltimore-based firm.

Founded in 1946, RTKL Associates Inc. today is a planning, architecture, design, and creative services group with an international footprint and more than 700 staff worldwide. From the state-of-the-art Florida Hospital Waterman in Tavares, FL, to the swanky Renaissance Grand in St. Louis, the firm is active in the healthcare, hospitality, government, and corporate facilities markets. And RTKL had been involved in the design and integration of audio-visual systems for several years before

creating a dedicated AV division.

Tony Warner, a veteran audio-visual systems professional, is spearheading the fledgling AV design department. It is being organized as part of RTKL’s Special Systems Design Group, headed by vice president David Labuskes, which provides comprehensive technology solutions for voice, data, audio-visual, and security systems.

“It’s great for a project that I can walk across the office and touch base with an interior designer or a mechanical engineer or an architect,” Warner says. “It brings a lot of benefits to have this type of easy coordination.”

A graduate of the Recording Arts & Sciences program at Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute, Warner is a certified technology design specialist (CTS-D) and an accredited construction document technologist (CDT). Before joining RTKL Associates, he served both as director of engineering for a commercial integrator and as a broadcast engineer in the television industry for a decade.

Barnes says that the creation of an AV department is a measure of RTKL’s commitment to offer a complete package of low-voltage systems designs to its commercial, healthcare, and government clients. “Audio-visual design is just an integral part of designing spaces,” she says. It is crucial that AV equipment be sensitively integrated into a building’s interior, she says, because the slightest variation in room design or other ambient conditions can have a significant impact on the performance of various AV equipment.

“Audio-visual design should be like a good waiter - you should barely notice the technology until you need it,” Barnes says. In the past, she says, a lack of understanding and communication between interior designers and AV consultants could lead to the awkward placement of AV equipment, poor performance, and generally inelegant solutions.

RTKL’s new department will provide comprehensive AV design, development, and engineering services across a wide range of spaces, from small conference rooms to large auditoriums to major command and control centers.

Warner says that bringing AV design services inside an architectural firm represents a milestone for AV consulting. For years, architectural firms have incorporated engineering divisions, but he says AV design was generally an orphaned cousin to the rest of the design team.

“Working with architects on a daily basis, I have gained an intimate familiarity with what works and what doesn’t work, the ingredients of a successful project,” Warner says. He believes that the cross-pollination of ideas among AV consultant, project architects, engineers, and designers can be a powerful driver of innovation and efficiency, because significant collaboration occurs when all design specialties are brought under one roof.

Though only recently organized, RTKL’s AV department has already worked on system designs for several large federal government clients, including the State Department, the House of Representatives, and the Secret Service, as well as New York State.

Thanks in part to the convergence of building control technologies in recent years, Steve Spinazzola, RTKL’s director of engineering, says that more architects and integrators are taking a holistic approach to once-disparate building systems, looking to integrate audio-visual, communications, HVAC, security, and lighting.

“The Special Systems side of the business is the fastest growing side of any design service,” Spinazzola says. “Twenty years ago, if you wanted phone service, you went to the phone company.

Today, you go to a design professional, and they design systems that are bid by multiple vendors. Now, that is what is happening in security and audio-visual.” Seven years ago, RTKL added a Telecom Design Group to its Special Systems Design Group, and just recently it expanded Special Systems to include security design.

“It used to be more of a specialty on larger projects, but now audio-visual design is a part of every project,” says Barnes. “There is a real need for integration between AV and architecture in the marketplace.”

Increasingly, corporate clients as well as government and applied technology companies, have a greater dependence on communications systems and are seeking cost-effective solutions.

“There is an industry trend toward consolidation of all things into a single-source responsibility,” says Doug McCoach, RTKL’s director of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing. The rapid evolution of electronic hardware of all sorts, he says, requires that a building’s design remain flexible. “Our guys design open systems that accommodate change, so that when the next great thing comes along, the owner isn’t stuck with having to rebuild.” The AV department, he says, is committed to scalability, which he defines as the ability for any facility to accommodate mission growth.

Among the facilities that the Special Systems group has been instrumental in helping to design was the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. Among the nation’s most frequently visited tourist stops, the Visitor Center had been subjected to numerous additions and modernizations over the years. Since RTKL strengthened security measures and updated the facility’s multimedia technologies to accommodate high-quality displays, the modernized 450-seat auditorium has been able to accommodate increasing demand for public events and congressional meetings.

McCoach says RTKL is invested in bringing a broad spectrum of services to customers. “We do anything related to buildings,” says McCoach. “Everything from macro-master planning to architecture to structure interiors to mechanical-electrical-engineering-plumbing to specialty areas, such as audio-visual and telecom.” Rather than being organized along geographic lines, the firm is divided by specialties into practice groups. The commercial group covers hospitality, retail, and mixed-use projects. The workplace group handles corporate interiors, and the healthcare group designs hospitals. The leaders of these practice groups communicate frequently and share ideas.

RTKL first began to realize the importance of a holistic approach to systems integration as it began specializing in the design of high-tech command centers. For example, with 48 workstations, the IBM ISSC Command Center in Boulder, CO, a major network operating center that monitors computer systems for clients, posed a number of design challenges.

“We tailored our lighting, seating, and our furniture selection so that it really became sort of a total design response,” says McCoach.

Furniture had to be selected to accommodate 24/7 activity, he says, while low-level ambient lighting had to be conducive to a screen-intensive work environment. The complex audio-visual system had to tie together spaces of varied purpose and needs; each screen in the command center, for instance, had a corresponding monitor in the executive briefing room, where headsets linked the staff.

Warner says that in such complex integrations of multiple technologies, competing agendas are counterproductive. And he is apparently not alone in expressing that concern. “I asked architects what they like and what they did not like about AV consultants,” Warner says. “Repeatedly they said, ‘We wish audio-visual consultants worked more as part of the team.’ Too often they felt that AV consultants were very rigid on what they wanted to put in the space, and they weren’t very receptive to modifying their design to work with other members of the team.”

The only efficient solution, he says, is to replace competing agendas with focused cooperation: “Just as we feel passionate about our equipment, so do the other design specialties,” he says. “Everybody needs to come together and decide what is absolutely necessary.”

With an ever-growing workload, Warner is already planning to expand the AV department, and he may find himself competing with other firms for the best people.

“As we go forward, I think we will see more of this model being adopted by the larger architectural firms,” he says. “Firms are seeking to bring as many services as possible under one roof.”

Warner acknowledges that some independent audio-visual consultants are skeptical of incorporating an AV consulting division into an architectural firm, but he insists, “To me it is an obvious good solution. AV design is just another aspect of the design team.”

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