The Art of the Site Survey

The Art of the Site SurveyOnce, as a new AV project manager, I found myself helping the warehouse manager unload the equipment at my biggest project. These were some big displays; we had to tilt them carefully to get them into the service elevator.

“What happens if the displays don’t fit in the elevator?” I said to my companion. 

He gave me a long, slow side-eye. “It’s the project manager’s job to make sure the equipment gets where it needs to be installed.” 

Oh. The buck stops here — this was my chicken to get across the road.

That chicken starts as the egg of communication between the customer, salesperson and the design engineer. When the project is being conceived, the customer will come to the AV integrator to start the process. The salesperson most likely has a relationship with this customer and could already have an idea of the kind of system they are looking for. These initial conversations and expectations are passed on to the design engineer. 

The designer will dig deeper. What is the intent? How will this room be put to use? A good engineer will know how to ask the customer questions to understand their vision and what this room needs to do. The preliminary needs assessment happens prior to the site walk so the designer can begin the design outlining the scope of this AV system.

This will not be the first AV system for the customer. Almost always, they already have systems in use, so the new install needs to match what they already use. New features or designs will need to have a familiar on-ramp so the customer can make use of them. The designer gets to determine if this will be a copy of what they already have or add something extra.

With the initial functionality sketched out, the designer gets ready for the site walk. The facility can often provide architectural drawings as a starting point. If the site cannot be accessed, a designer might use photos and the help of an onsite person to get a virtual site walk.

For each installation, the site conditions and materials will influence the choices. Is one wall in the room all glass? That affects the placement of displays, cameras and microphones. Displays and cameras must be mounted safely out of the path of swinging doors and be free from hanging obstructions. Room dimensions — including ceiling height — must be captured accurately. Photographs will show the type of ceilings in the rooms. Is there a special kind of millwork or cabinetry that has to be worked out? All these have to be incorporated into the final design.

Along with the physical space for an install, the IT network and security requirements are equally important. The designer will ask the customer’s IT team about their specifications. The design will need to mesh with their IT infrastructure so that the system can function smoothly once it is installed. Ask all the right questions to be sure there are no surprises later on in the process.

The design and the BOM are included in the contract between the customer and the AV integrator. As an AV PM, I use them and the survey photos as my starting point. The design and its intended functionality will be reviewed and adjusted throughout the project. The project manager has to stay aware of any changes the customer or the facility requires. Plans can be changed along the way. I’ve had IDF network racks moved from a closet in the same room to three stories away. Then I had to confer with the designer to make sure the wiring and signal strength was adjusted to keep everything working.

I will not forget my early lesson: all the materials have to get to the installation location. 

As the PM, I will confirm the whole way and walk through the whole path — sometimes physically and sometimes in my mind. I have been told (more than once) that there are no elevators at a site. I called a huddle with the install team and did an assessment. Considering the weight of the equipment being installed on the fourth floor, how many people will need to be scheduled to carry everything up? When the team knows what to expect, it is not a crisis.

Although it is the designer’s task to ensure the correct dimensions of the millwork with the equipment, this is something to check and double-check. Then check again. Millwork is very expensive and time-consuming to change. The installers will need to have enough room to lift the display onto the mount and have room for service. Take the time to pay attention and avoid a mistake.

The information gathered from a site walk sets the foundation for a successful installation. The installation team and commissioners can be prepared with the correct information to save time and money. Many different customer stakeholders have an opportunity to share essential information and feel their concerns are heard. The soft relationship with the customer and the hard reality of moving materials are both served with a careful and thorough site survey.