AV Technology Promotes Sustainable Design

May 1, 2007

By Jon Melchin

The built environment has a profound impact on our natural habitat, economy, health, safety, and productivity. Sustainable design is a comprehensive approach to constructing buildings that not only are aesthetically pleasing, functional, and comfortable, but that also have well-integrated building systems and minimal negative impact on public health and the environment.

Interest in sustainable design has dramatically increased in the last 15 years and continues to grow - not only among designers, but also among building owners, contractors, consumers, and government agencies. With the success and widespread adoption of the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Rating System, sustainability is now mainstream and top of mind for savvy developers.

Improving health, safety, welfare, and productivity of a building's occupants is an important goal of green building initiatives. Achieving this goal simultaneously lowers absenteeism and improves employee job satisfaction. In addition, reducing environmental impacts, maximizing energy efficiency, and conserving natural resources are major focuses. Integrating technology and common sense into building design can improve the value of the property and attract tenants, as a building is ultimately an investment.

In the United States and worldwide, buildings are a huge source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Currently the United States has more than 80 million buildings and will construct another 38 million by 2010. Certainly, there is an obvious need for healthy buildings and the benefits of them for a more humane and productive workplace, all while maintaining and contributing to a cleaner environment for all.

The Impact of LEED
The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System is a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings.

LEED defines "green building" by establishing a common standard of measurement; promotes integrated, whole-building design practices; recognizes environmental leadership in the building industry; stimulates green competition; raises consumer awareness of green building benefits; and transforms the building market.

The well-designed sustainable building should not just be environmentally responsible, it should also incorporate products and systems that create a work or learning place where people can feel safe, healthy, and comfortable and where productivity can flourish.

Audiovisual Technologies in Green Buildings
Now more than ever, audiovisual and presentation technologies are becoming fundamental business tools. Technology is converging with design in today's new builds and AV equipment is found everywhere people learn, work, and meet. In many environments, AV, communication, control, information technologies, and certainly security are critical to business.

Over the past decade, significant developments in AV technology have greatly improved occupational health and safety. AV systems are building components, but, unfortunately, these systems and their affect on occupant health, safety, and welfare are often not taken into consideration by the client until after the walls go up, making retrofits difficult and expensive.

Architects can offer their clients a tremendous service by helping them recognize the importance of this early in the design phase, not only as a cost-saving effort, but also to achieve sustainable building performance and a return on investment. Building occupants benefit from a productive and safe environment, but a building is ultimately an investment property. There are important choices and business decisions to be made. Those decisions impact the budget so sufficient time should be allocated to early design considerations. Poor planning can result in construction delays, the rerouting of cabling within the structure, or the redesign of the furniture layout, as well as the interruption of other interior work. The sustainable building movement is still considered a revolution and is in an early stage. Achieving LEED-certified status can involve more research, planning, and cost, but the results of a more efficient and healthy structure are clear. Through the extra research and planning for sustainable design, architects expand their knowledge base and gain valuable experience that helps them advance their craft.

Design professionals can now offer clients furniture with clean, functional work surfaces that also contain one or many locations to connect power, IT, and AV devices. Often, table boxes in the furniture pop or tilt up to expose the connectors or cables. (Left, table box for single user; right, table top tilt-up box.)ALL IMAGES: FSR

System Design
The layout of an audiovisual system requires careful planning. First, there should be an understanding of how the space is going to be used. This requires attention from the client, the architect, interior designers, engineers, and other participants on the "green team." It is also helpful to use the expertise of an independent AV consultant. Such a professional can be invaluable with information on the latest technologies, trends, installation issues, and budgeting. Working with the team, the AV consultant can adopt an early "technology strategy" that can generate ideas and get dialogs flowing. A preliminary plan should be prepared to determine:

  • Equipment requirements.
  • The space and infrastructure required to accommodate it.
  • Future modification.

AV systems can be complex and may have architectural challenges with structural or decorative elements, so the design should reflect this. New technologies continue to emerge, and systems often are upgraded with new products or changes in application requirements. Also, project planning is sometimes years ahead of groundbreaking and new products are being offered into the marketplace during that time span, so there is a need to keep attuned to the latest developments and the associated costs. Designers should allow for easy quality control testing, routine checks, and other maintenance to ensure reliability of AV systems critical to life safety, such as security, emergency paging, fire alarms, and evacuation technologies. Every connection made is a potential point of failure, so terminations should be properly made.

Electrical issues are also important. Faulty wiring and the mismanagement of cabling can result in a fire hazard. High and low voltages often co-exist, and the cabling must be physically separated. The cabling in some projects passes through plenum air space and the cable itself needs to be plenum-rated with a special shielded jacket or, in some locales, must pass through conduit. Fire codes also need to be taken into consideration; however, jurisdiction requirements differ from city to city.

Wall boxes house small, active components such as volume controls, on-off switches, computer interfaces, and other electronics.

Cable and Component Management
Cable management is as important as the audio and video products themselves. It is integral to the performance of the system and the effectiveness of the work, learning, or meeting space and must handle a variety of communications capabilities while maintaining an unobtrusive appearance. AV systems should be safe, with components that do not create any hazard in workstations, classrooms, conference rooms, or pedestrian routes. ADA requirements should also be taken into consideration. In a well-designed business environment, there shouldn't be any exposed cabling or clutter. There are devices that can be installed to help hide and manage system cables.

Components and cabling can be hidden in the walls, floors, and furniture. Walls can offer a practical location for plasma screens, audio speakers, AV control panels, and microphone jacks. IT and AV cabling is often routed through the walls. Wall boxes are wall-mounted electrical devices that can be installed for cable management and for housing small, active components such as volume controls, on-off switches, computer interfaces, and other electronics. Similarly, cabling is found running through the floors, and floor boxes allow cables and connectors from different systems to be located conveniently in the floor.

AV systems are usually used in conjunction with furniture. In fact, some furniture is specifically designed with AV equipment in mind. A media lectern or podium is common in a presentation system and can be equipped with control panels, microphones, and document cameras. The lectern also offers a means of cable management within.

Today's office furniture also accommodates IT technologies. In addition to audio and videoconferencing equipment, workstations can manage cabling for telephones, computers, and other multimedia communications. Design professionals can now offer their clients furniture with clean, functional work surfaces that also contain one or many locations to connect power, IT, and AV devices. Often, table boxes in the furniture pop or tilt up to expose the connectors or cables.

The furniture design and layout should also address ergonomic and ADA issues, in addition to features that increase employee productivity and comfort. There are many types of wall, floor, and table boxes that come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and finishes for different applications, and the selection is based on the aesthetics of the room, furniture, and the technology being used.

AV systems should be safe, with components that do not create any hazard in workstations, classrooms, conference rooms, or pedestrian routes. Floor boxes are a way to manage AV cabling. The above diagram illustrates the exterior dimensions of a floor box and knockouts for cable pass-through.
view larger image

AV Technologies for Health, Safety, and Welfare
LEED certification applies to the entire built environment, not individual components or systems. Designers, however, can identify products and systems in the design process that can be submitted for LEED points. Design objectives should focus on AV technologies that will be cost-effective, boost employee productivity, and promote health and safety, all while creating a long-term value for the client.

Energy conservation is one area in which AV systems can qualify. Points are designated for products that impact energy consumption, which also trickles down to a lower heat load, meaning smaller HVAC equipment, which uses less power and takes up less space. Plasma screens and LCD display panels are more energy-efficient than the old CRT-based devices. Plus, they can be flush-mounted on the walls, saving space as well. Because of their high contrast ratio and incandescent brightness, these flat screens can be installed in areas where abundant natural light is desired for certification points. For example, they can be displayed in public areas where digital signage provides valuable information for occupants, allowing a design of open space with windows offering natural sunlight - without compromising the image clarity.

Boardrooms featuring large windows with beautiful views and cityscapes can keep the blinds open during presentations with a plasma screen installed, something not possible with a standard projector, which requires that the room is dark. Many other AV products, such as audio amplifiers, are being manufactured with high-efficiency power supplies. Over time, these energy-efficient products can save the client money through the life-cycle of the building.

LEED also allows credits for "innovative design," and many cutting-edge AV technologies could qualify. Credits are given for products that are lead-free or made with recycled material, and many audiovisual manufacturers have been using these resources for years. For example, FSR uses recycled metal in the manufacture of floor boxes and lead-free processing in the production of electronic audiovisual integration products.

The "local/regional materials" category is offered to reduce the energy consumption used in the transportation of goods to the job site. Designers could seek out AV manufacturers in the locale for applicable credits. LEED has a category for "alternative transportation," including videoconferencing and distance learning technologies that allow people to meet and learn without traveling. A member of the "green team" should monitor the certification process to identify categories, ascertain applicable credits, and look for other LEED opportunities for the project.

There are many other products that can be designed into an AV system to create productive, safe, and comfortable spaces. These solutions include public address systems and commercial sound equipment with emergency notification from virtually any telephone system or traditional microphone. A variety of these paging systems is available. Fire alarms, security cameras, digital video recorders, and voice evacuation systems also maintain safe, secure environments.

Some spaces require special attention to acoustics. Because AV systems greatly affect the acoustical properties of a room, system design and cable management solutions are integral to maintain health, safety, and productivity. In addition, acoustical treatments such as soundmasking and active noise cancellation are taken into consideration with the layout of AV components within the structure. In some business-critical areas such as banks and other financial institutions, privacy is important and room acoustics need to be addressed with soundmasking. This is also important in medical facilities where patient confidentiality is at risk. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) recommends soundmasking to ensure that patient communications with health care providers are not overheard.

Other AV technologies are designed especially with health and well-being in mind. An assisted listening device (ALD) is often used in conjunction with public address systems. ALDs help day-to-day communication for the hearing impaired. They come in a variety of styles and use different technologies depending on the application. Usually, they employ frequency modulation (FM), like miniature radio stations operating on special frequencies. A microphone transmits the voice, which is picked up by a receiver hearing aid or projected through room-mounted speakers.

Sustainable design gives architects choices to produce safe, healthy, efficient, and productive work and learning environments. Designing for a building's lifetime and concern for the environment have audiovisual technologies seeing "green."

Jon Melchin, CSI, is the architectural development manager at FSR and works exclusively in support of architects and engineers nationally, facilitating the specification of FSR products. Prior to joining FSR in early 2005, he was employed as an independent manufacturers' representative, and has more than 10 years of experience in the audiovisual industry. He frequently contributes articles to various construction industry trade publications. He also conducts a presentation that earns one AIA/CES learning unit.

ARCHI-TECH welcomes comments on the distance education program, including its content, format, and process for AIA/CES learners. 
Please contact Maureen Patterson at (319) 364-6167 or [email protected].   

Stamats Buildings Media, publisher of ARCHI-TECH, is the provider of ARCHI-TECH'S AIA/CES distance education programs.  Stamats Buildings Media's provider number is J683.

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