Designing a building, either from the ground up or as a major renovation project, is an ambitious and complex undertaking. Technology infrastructure (also known as “low-voltage”) is just one element of these complex projects, but it’s an element that’s not often on the owner’s or design team’s mind at the forefront.
That needs to change. Network performance affects every aspect of business today, and telecommunications cabling and network systems must increasingly be considered part of the base building design scope to ensure the system works on day one and can grow and evolve over the life of the building.
In this piece, we talk with TEECOM Principal, Executive Vice President Larry Anderson about when to engage a technology consultant, including the pitfalls of waiting too long and how bringing on a consultant at the right phase can actually save the project money.
Technology: Critical Path Items
Larry identifies the three areas where technology design impacts architectural design, and vice versa:
- The location and size of Telecom Rooms (TR);
- Planning the Distributed Antenna System (DAS);
- Planning for Emergency Communications Systems (ECS).
1: Telecom Rooms (TR)
Telecom rooms, also known as IDF rooms, are secure spaces allocated in a building to house telecommunications cabling and termination facilities and/or network equipment. These rooms serve as distribution points for horizontal cabling to equipment in areas throughout the building.
Size: The size of a TR is dictated by the dimensions of the building area it will serve, the equipment it will contain, growth and flexibility, and other factors.
Location: The location of a TR is constrained by the maximum length of copper horizontal cabling for voice, data, and video, which is 295 linear feet from the TR to the communications outlet.
Larry says: Historically, TRs have been undersized. We’ve worked on projects where we were brought in very late in the design process, and the architect had made some assumptions and carved out some spaces in the building for the TRs.
Once we joined the team, we realized the spaces were too small, and the air conditioning planned for the spaces was not adequate. After calculating the space requirements of the room we determined that we needed one additional equipment rack in each TR. It was too late in the design to carve out this space, so we came up with a less-than-ideal workaround, increasing the height of the equipment racks from 7 feet tall to 9 feet tall. We gained the rack space that we needed, but the owner’s IT group now needs to use a ladder in the TRs to gain access to the top two feet.
This same client required a 1,000-foot server room. They had coordinated the mechanical requirements with the mechanical engineer before we joined the project. Unfortunately, there was a misunderstanding about the redundancy requirements for the mechanical system, and the owner did not get what they wanted. If we had been part of the early programming discussions, we could have translated the owner’s requirements more clearly to the mechanical engineer and eliminated this shortcoming.
If we’re brought on early enough — at the programming phase, ideally — we can sit down with the architect and go through a series of “what-if” exercises. If we need, say, one telecom room per floor, but the location that’s most ideal doesn’t work with the architect’s vision, we could split it up and do two smaller rooms per floor. We can work with the architect while being the owner’s eyes and ears early in the project to identify and resolve issues.
Another thing to think about: Server rooms are really heavy, so you want your technology consultant to coordinate with the structural engineer so the the structure can be designed to support the additional load. Late in the game it could mean a change order.
2: Distributed Antenna System (DAS)
A DAS is a network of distributed antenna-equipped radio units placed throughout a building to amplify the cellular carrier signals. These antennae are physically connected to a central controller which is in turn connected to the wireless carrier’s base station.
Size: It is important to plan space for this system early on because the room to support the headend and carrier equipment can be quite large and very difficult to carve out later in the design.
Location: The performance of the DAS is dependent on how well the placement of cables and antennae is coordinated with the building’s layout.
Larry says: The Distributed Antenna System is what distributes cellular service into your building. No one wants poor reception. Designing an antenna system within a building depends on parameters such as outside signal strength and building layout. Are building elements planned that might impact signal strength? Wireless signals are impacted by concrete and steel walls, radio frequency interference, electrical interference, and even things like large fish tanks. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, we had to compensate for the impact a monumental steel sculpture would have on wireless services.
Another consideration is aesthetics. The earlier we’re brought onto the design team, the better the IT systems will be integrated into the architecture. The later we’re brought in, the more these systems are add-ons — and they’ll look like it. Integrated DAS, on the other hand, can be practically invisible.
3: Emergency Services Communications Systems (ESCS)
An Emergency Services Communications System enables first responder radios to work in a building. National Fire Protection Association codes require these systems to be operational inside of a building during an emergency.
Larry says: Integrating an Emergency Services Communications System is perhaps the most compelling reason to hire a technology consultant at the schematic design phase or earlier. We worked on one project where the design team didn’t understand that they needed an ESCS, and they had issued drawings for a core & shell permit before we joined. The submittal got kicked back by the Authorities Having Jurisdiction, saying, “Where’s your ESCS?” That was a costly setback for the owner.
Engaging Technology Design Earlier Saves Time and Money
“The latest I’d feel comfortable being brought into a project would be late Schematic Design,” says Larry. “In the Design Development stage a lot of these issues start rearing their head.”
Larry also cautions owners and architects not to rely on existing standards. “On some projects the standards are so old that when we’re brought on we discover they don’t meet the new requirements of IT,” he says.
The earlier the consultant is engaged, the more they can contribute to cost savings and design success, including helping to develop the right IT budget for the project from day one
“We can help by looking at the architect’s site plan or space plan, and tell them early on, ‘This is going to be an issue.’ Later in the design you can’t change that,” Larry says.
These conversations may cost the owner or design team an hour or two in the early phases, but they can save thousands in change orders as the design progresses.
In part two of this piece, we’ll talk about the best time to engage audiovisual and security systems design consultants.