06.06.17

Project Design: A guide to the design process

woman working on project design of house

Following on from last month’s column on equipment consistency processes, this month I want to explore the ins and outs of the project design process.

In all fields of design, the design process is the key to a successful project with a positive outcome. Regardless of whether you have a written design process, every project you work on, successful or not, will follow a similar pattern.

First comes the Enquiry; this is where the client makes you aware of their desire to potentially hire you for their project.

This is normally followed with an Initial Meeting, be it at the project site in question or not. This is where you get to sound out the client to see if they are a serious customer and what their needs are. It's worth considering here that it is also the clients chance to sound you out as a serious contender for their project.

The outcome of this meeting will then be translated into an Initial Proposal. Where you put your interpretation of the client’s needs and desires back to them with some ball-park numbers to check their validity and ensure you have understood what they want. Perhaps more importantly from the clients’ perspective, that the numbers can be made to work. This is a critical point where people can get put off by large numbers. This is so critical that everyone seems to have their own way of dealing with it. Ranging from putting in a very basic bid with the intention to sell up once the project is won, to detailing every last nut and bolt so the client can see how the numbers quickly add up. There is no right or wrong here but most successful companies will have a number of different strategies to cope with this which they can tailor to suit each client. What is key is that you present this live to the client, be it in a face to face meeting, virtual meeting or just simply over the telephone with screen or document sharing.

Once the budget and the basic requirements are set the Final Proposal and Functional Specification can be developed. This is where we can use some value engineering to give the client the functionality they want without breaking the bank. We can also develop the specification to give the client a good understanding of exactly what the system we are proposing will deliver from a functionality perspective. This is another key point where we are saying to the client for that amount of money, your system will deliver x functionality.

After we have an agreed specification we can begin preparing some drawings and get the projects timeline into our project management process. Normally the first thing that is required on a job are the Wiring Plans. These will begin with Positional Drawings detailing the equipment positions as discussed with the client so far. Once these have been reviewed and agreed by all the project stakeholders, we can begin thinking about what cables we need to run to which devices and from which equipment cabinets, to create the Wiring Plans and Cable Schedule. Finally, we need to detail out any devices that are wall mounted and provide dimensions of the equipment cabinets in a set of Elevation Drawings. In our business we call this the Site-Pack as it includes all the information needed to successfully install all the wiring and get all the equipment back boxes and electrical outlets in the right places on site.

Once the installation of the cabling on site is planned and under control we normally now have a gap to the physical equipment installation which will be a number of months or in some cases, years. This is the period where most of the Change Requests on the project will take place. These changes need to be managed properly and detailed back to the client and other project stakeholders with the costs involved and any revisions required to drawings.

Around two to three months before the planned equipment installation we should start thinking about creating detailed Rack Drawings and Connectivity Schematics. The rack drawings should come first as these will impact the way the schematics are laid out and give a good starting point avoiding the 'blank page' syndrome when starting work on schematic drawings. There are some great white papers from Middle Atlantic on their website about thermal design and it’s always worth considering some rack build training. If you’re based in the UK, look out for courses by Nick Pidgeon he is the leading expert on rack design and build. Rack building is an art and it’s important to get it right as it’s at the very heart of the system.

Connectivity Schematics can be laid out in a system by system format, with a separate page for audio, video, networking, control, lighting, shades and power, or in a room by room format with a separate page for each room in the property. Both of these methods have different pros and cons which I won’t go into here, but I will say that for small to medium-sized jobs the former works very well whereas with very large jobs the latter is the better approach. In our business we bundle the rack drawings and connectivity schematics into something we call an Engineering-Pack which provides all the information your engineers need to build the project.

Next up is the Equipment Installation, where all the drawing and planning is used to deliver the system on site. If things have been planned and drawn thoroughly there should be very few surprises or problems during installation. As the equipment is installed it’s important to note any deviations from the drawings that have been made on site as these can then be used to create the As Built, Record Drawings.

Once the drawings have been updated to reflect exactly how the equipment has been installed and the Operations and Maintenance Manual has been produced the system is ready to be handed over and enjoyed for years to come by the client. But don't leave it here, the project is complete but our job is not. We should now implement a Maintenance Contract to provide ongoing support and maintenance for the system. This is really important as it’s a great way to monetise something that you will have to provide anyway; all clients and systems will need some degree of support once installed.

Even if you give the first year away, once the client starts paying every month or every year you'll soon see the benefits in your bottom line.

Keith Jones studied Product Design at Central St. Martins where he graduated in 1996. Since then Keith worked in numerous high end audio outlets, culminating in owning and running his own AV installation company from 2001-2008. After a career break he started Jones designs in August 2009 which has recently morphed into a Ltd. company called designflow, with his business partner Kelly Ashforth. designflow aims to increase awareness of design in AV and help installers win jobs and create proper documentation for them