By Jon Melchin
Now more than ever, audiovisual and presentation technologies are becoming fundamental business tools. These technologies are as important as plumbing, lighting, HVAC, and other services within the building. Communication media is evolving rapidly and technology is converging with design in today’s new builds.
AV equipment is found everywhere people learn, work, and meet, and all of this equipment requires different connectivity. In many environments, AV, communication, control, and information technologies are critical to business. AV systems are building components, and designers need to consider occupant health, safety, and welfare. Early conceptual planning should reflect designs that create safe, secure environments where people and productivity can thrive.
Unfortunately, AV systems are often not taken into consideration by the client until after the walls go up, making retrofits expensive. Architects can offer a tremendous service to their clients 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. Savvy builders are recognizing the importance of technology as a way to promote environmentally responsible, profitable, and healthy places to work and learn.
The layout of AV systems 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 AV consultants. An early technology strategy can generate ideas and get dialogs flowing. Working together, a plan needs to be prepared to determine:
- Equipment needed.
- The space and infrastructure required to accommodate it.
- Future modification.
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, or the redesign of the furniture layout, as well as the interruption of other interior work.
In a well-designed business environment, there shouldn’t be any exposed cabling or clutter. AV systems should be safe, with components that do not create any hazard in workstations, classrooms, conference rooms, or pedestrian routes. ADA requirements need to be considered, as well as spaces that allow people to move about with safety and ease.
Wireless technology is growing fast, and someday we may be completely wireless, but currently there are limitations. Display screens, microphones, loudspeakers, and other AV products require some form of cabling. Telephones, computers, and AV control panels all need to be connected. This essential equipment also requires power. IT specialists have their own list of requirements; many of these are different than the AV needs, but IT professionals must be involved in any part of the project where IT shares infrastructure with AV.
AV systems can be complex and may have architectural challenges with structural or decorative elements, so the design should accommodate this. New technologies continue to emerge, and systems often are upgraded with new products or changes in application requirements. Designers should also 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 need to be properly made.
Electrical issues also are important. Faulty wiring and the mismanagement of cabling can result in a fire hazard. High and low voltages often coexist, 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. Jurisdiction requirements differ from city to city. UL approval is usually required for a Certificate of Occupancy.AV systems require careful planning. Establishing a technology strategy early can generate ideas and get dialogs flowing.
As important as the devices themselves is the management of cabling. This is integral to the performance of the system and the effectiveness of the work, learning, or meeting space. Today’s cable requirements must handle a variety of communications capabilities while maintaining an unobtrusive appearance. There are devices that can be installed to help hide and manage these cables. Designers want audiovisual components hidden away from sight, but accessible. The 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. They often have a hinged door equipped with a lock and can be mounted at different heights, depending on the application. They come in a variety of styles, shapes, and sizes, and are usually made of metal. As electrical components continue to shrink, different products will be installed in these boxes, including digital controllers, amplifiers, signal processing units, and even small display devices. These boxes are very popular in schools.
Raised access floors often have cabling systems underneath for IT, lighting, and AV systems: Therefore, the layout of the space above can be rearranged as needed. In most cases, floor boxes are installed early on in the construction phase of a project. Floor boxes allow cabling and connectors from different systems to be located conveniently in the floor.
Floor boxes come in different sizes and depths and usually include partitions to allow for different signal types to be separated. There are many floor boxes that allow for power and IT connectivity, but only a few address AV requirements. A floor box should have a UL approval, including a recent UL standard that requires a floor box to be watertight in a carpet-over-concrete installation, commonly known as a “scrub rating.” This is a big concern in high-traffic areas such as schools, auditoriums, convention centers, and churches where frequent cleaning from a wet vacuum is needed. Moisture inside a floor box can ruin the electrical components, cause a short circuit, or create a health hazard.
The covers of floor boxes are often customized to match the room aesthetics. They may allow for carpet, tile, or wood inlay. The floor box covers should offer safe foot traffic and be able to withstand carts to roll over them with ease. Well-designed floor boxes are flush with the floor, inconspicuous, easy to open, and durable - an all-metal construction is highly recommended.
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. Usually, the lectern is equipped with AV tools such as control panels, computer interfaces, microphones, and document cameras. The lectern also offers a means of cable management within.
A common AV requirement is the presentation from a laptop computer. It’s usually necessary to use a computer interface device to properly boost and buffer the signal from the laptop so that the image quality is good, especially if the signal needs to travel a long distance to the display device. Presenters want to be able to hook up their laptops using the components in the lectern, again hidden away, but accessible.
Today’s office furniture is being designed to accommodate the increasing need for IT and AV technologies at work, school, or meeting places. Furniture manufacturers have found the need for workstations to manage cabling for telephones, computers, audio and videoconferencing equipment, and other multimedia communications. This need has fueled a rise in “smart” desks and tables. Design professionals can now offer their clients furniture with clean, functioning worksurfaces 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 different ways that connectors and devices are mounted into furniture. A clean look is important and the devices should be closed when not in use. There are three basic types: pockets, flush-mount tilt-ups, and pop-ups. They come in a variety of styles, shapes, and sizes, some more elegant than others. Selection is based on the aesthetics of the furniture, the room, and the technology being used. Care should be taken to ensure the table pocket supports beneath the furniture don’t present a hazard to a participant’s knees or legs. Also, the covers of the table boxes should be secure so that fingers and hands are not caught or pinched.
Table pockets are embedded into the worksurface with a hinged cover that flips up. Inside, there are cables that can be passed through, or fixed connectors, for AV, IT, and data and power needs. These boxes are fairly simple in design and often furniture companies customize these. They can also be purchased separately and installed into existing furniture as a modification. There’s usually a lot of room in these boxes for hiding cabling and power supplies to create a clutter-free work area.
A tilt-up is a flush-mounted, smaller type of table pocket that uses a lid that tilts up and back for easy access. The cover usually extends just about an inch off the table surface when in the open position. The box is often used when many individual access points are required, such as on a boardroom table or training space.
Pop-ups are unique because they are completely hidden within the furniture and the box pops out of the worksurface when in use, either by a spring-loaded or motorized mechanism, often with the use of a touch-screen control panel. These tend to be a bit more expensive and elaborate than the other types. Sometimes they will have connectors on both sides of the box, which is useful on conference tables where participants are facing one another.
Usually, the layout of the connectors in table boxes consists of separate, modular components for power, IT, AV, and data. This allows for easy, simple access and also the capability for modification in the future. Every connector should be neatly labeled with a silkscreen.
There are a wide variety of other types of furniture devices. Some are simple, such as grommets, mouse holes, brushes, or other worksurface portals. Others are more specialized, including mounts for microphones, cameras, or monitors. As new technologies emerge, new mounting devices accommodate them. Some are developed for a specific need but later become commonplace and spawn new products and solutions.
Careful attention should be given to the routing of cabling through furniture. It’s necessary to protect the cabling passing through rough surfaces or through angles and doors. Protective hardware elements can protect the cabling. Location of the devices and cable pathways may interfere with structural or decorative elements within the furniture so accommodations must be made for power supplies, interfaces, and other components. Ventilation is also important. Devices shouldn’t be completely closed, and in some cases, fans are required.
When selecting furniture and designing its placement in a space, the design team can provide real value to the client by coordinating both technology and layout needs in the early stages of design. A well-planned approach will result in an environment that is safe, aesthetically pleasing, structurally sound, and highly functional.
Jon Melchin, CSI, is the architectural development manager for 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 10 years of experience in the audiovisual industry. He also conducts a presentation that earns one AIA/CES learning unit.
AV Technology Promotes Health, Safety, and Welfare
Over the past decade, significant developments in AV technology have greatly improved occupational health and safety. There are many products that can be designed into an AV system to create productive, safe, 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 are available. Fire alarms 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 a healthy, safe, productive environment. Additionally, acoustical treatments such as sound masking 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 sound masking. This is also important in medical facilities where patient confidentiality is at risk. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) has recommended sound masking as a method of ensuring 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 AV 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.
AV systems can also contribute to the well-being of building occupants by addressing “green” issues. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has identified design standards that can allow AV systems to contribute to a project’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification points. Energy conservation is one area in which AV systems can qualify. Plasma screens and LCD displays are more energy efficient than the old CRT-based devices. These flat screens can be flush-mounted on a wall, saving space as well.
Building designers have seen other benefits of these technologies. For example, higher efficiency means less heat load, meaning smaller HVAC equipment, using less power and space. LEED allows credit for “innovative design,” and many cutting-edge AV technologies qualify. Credits are also applied for products that are lead-free or are made with recycled material. LEED also has a category for “alternative transportation,” including videoconferencing and distance learning technologies that allow people to meet and learn without traveling.
“Green” buildings give architects choices to produce safe, healthy, efficient, and productive work and learning environments.