How Well Do Your Low-Voltage System Vendors Understand Each Other’s Domains?

Matthew Harper

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Jul 28, 2022

When was the last time you mapped a project’s scope gap, scope creep or scope overlap back to how you engaged your low-voltage system vendors? If you’re an architect or consulting engineer of commercial and residential integrated technologies, I want to bring your attention to an issue that may be of importance to you.

By way of background, I’ve spent much of my career as an engineer and consultant, advising teams of commercial architects, engineers and construction managers on low voltage integrations. I’m talking about systems such as integrated security, audio-visual, telecommunications, wireless access, intercom paging and distributed antenna. At this point, I’m seeing the market shift and encouraging our clients to recognize this change and immediately incorporate it into their architectural design and engineering work.

Who’s Looking at the Bigger Picture?

For many years, there has been a tendency among vendors, contractors, and subcontractors in the design and construction world to remain siloed in their respective lanes and not consider how their work on a project integrates with that of other professionals. There isn’t anyone looking at the big picture and connecting the dots.

This can have disastrous consequences for you when your project suddenly goes over budget by hundreds of thousands of dollars or when part of your project needs to be redesigned and retrofitted to specifications that weren’t originally considered. That’s comparable to buying a stack of home security electronic systems - like surveillance cameras, automated lighting, notification and access control systems - installing them, and then finding out they don’t fully communicate with one another or work at maximum capability.

Why has this lack of integration lingered for so long? One reason is that architects and engineers too often engage vendors and other specialists based on relationships (i.e., people they know and have worked with before) or other factors like seniority and expertise within their respective domains (i.e., specialists in the narrowest sense of the word).

Three Scope-Related Challenges

When your vendor workforce is siloed, three problems tend to cause cost overruns, poor efficiencies and serious design flaws.

  • Scope Gap: Unaddressed requirements that are not a part of any vendor’s contract. This results in diminished quality of work.
  • Scope Creep: A slow accumulation of additional features or functions to a project that wasn’t in the original design plan. This results in costs that exceed the original budget.
  • Scope Overlap: When multiple contractors or subcontractors appear to be responsible for the same component of a project. This creates confusion about accountability and drives up costs because the client is now paying multiple contractors or subcontractors to do redundant work.

Case in Point: A Hospital Project Goes South

Take the construction of a new hospital, for example. The hospital’s parent organization contracts with Company A to set up the hospital’s telecommunications, including telephone, internet and IT. But then the hospital’s parent organization contracts with Company B, a telecommunications entity, to lay the physical lines. Complicating matters, alarm systems must be tied into the electrical and fiber that need installation and maintenance. So, the parent organization contracts with a security company to hardwire the fire and security alarms.

But who is responsible for what? This is a classic example of scope overlap. Is Company A or Company B hardwiring the alarm systems? No one is coordinating. The fire alarms need copper to communicate with the emergency responders, and IT will need fiberoptics. Is there a standard that needs to be met? Again, no one is coordinating. Because everyone is siloed within their own areas of expertise, no one finds out until it’s too late to avoid cost overruns and construction delays.

It's now 8 a.m. and the general contractor opens the project management meeting ready to begin commissioning the hospital project on schedule. There is, however, one small problem. Due to the scope overlap, no one connected the hospital’s fiberoptic network to the outside lines, and the alarm systems aren’t connected to emergency responders. The hospital can’t operate. Now the hospital parent organization’s C-suite is on the line wanting to know exactly what happened to cost them time and extra money.

How Could This Have Been Avoided?

One generalist project manager or small management team could have prevented this mishap. Project managers are there to manage subject matter experts, not be the subject matter experts. They are there to manage all the interlocking pieces between contractors and subcontractors, according to the well-defined scope of each piece of the project. Ultimately, by leveraging their experience in multiple domains across the building trades, they can work collaboratively with the engineer, general contractor, and subcontractors to strictly define responsibilities and scope before groundbreaking.

Next time you choose a project manager, take these three steps:

  1. Ask about their methodology. Ensure that it is strategy-driven and oriented to end users. Although a hospital and a prison may have similar needs for fiberoptic infrastructure, the design must be determined by how the infrastructure will be used and by whom.
  2. Make sure the project manager recognizes the value of having each subcontractor or vendor understand the project as a whole, including its objectives and constraints.
  3. Ensure the project manager is prepared to make certain that each subcontractor or vendor is willing and able to work collaboratively with other subcontractors in their adjacent domains to prevent missteps and missed work.

You’d be surprised how many architectural and engineering companies aren’t doing this. One thing I can tell you: Jensen Hughes’ clients are enjoying the benefits of an integrated approach to low-voltage system design for residential and commercial projects. Learn more about how our security design consultants can support the integration and installation of security systems in your organization.

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About the author

Matthew Harper
Matt is a Senior Technology Consultant and Registered Communication Distribution Designer with over 30 years of experience employed in all aspects of the Construction project cycle.