The electrical contracting industry's focus is shifting and expanding rapidly. Design-build jobs are making up a greater portion of industry projects and more electrical contractors are working in the installation of information transport systems (ITS). But how do these segments of the industry interact, if at all?

“Usually it's a value for an existing client who is looking for a reconfiguration of an existing system or an addition,” said Steven Demcsak, communication manager, Scholes Electric & Communications, Piscataway, N.J., on design-build of ITS.

Where does the process begin? Planning and project management are key to successfully implementing design-build strategies with ITS projects. Planning starts with the customers. Project management depends on having a well-trained staff and the ability to either design in-house or work with a consultant to complete the design.

With these elements in place, electrical contractors can compete in the ITS market, because most electrical contractors create business through their existing clientele-an avenue open to any contractor. It is a win-win avenue since it is another project for contractors and viewed as an added value by customers.

Many electrical contractors are using design-build for jobs involving ITS and wireless networking technologies incorporated into homes, schools and offices. Design-build, as defined by Design Build Institute of America, is “a system of contracting under which one entity performs both architecture/engineering and construction under one single contract.”

That contract starts with conversation.

“The first thing you have to do is meet with the customer, talk and listen, to really understand his business. Once you understand that, you'll be able to help him tremendously,” said Dennis Chmielewski, manager of Malko Tech, the low-voltage division of Chicago's Malko Electric. “One [customer] might be an insurance company that needs a reliable, high-speed data network. Another customer, say, a central station monitoring company, needs monitoring and fire alarm systems that call for a design weighted for security purposes. We take everything each company tells us and then design the cabling depending on their purpose. There are fewer change orders because we know what they need.”

Some electrical contracting companies eager to increase their client list try to extend their work in ITS through general contractors who do not pursue ITS business.

“We need to make the general contractor feel comfortable when we say that we'd like to do structured cabling, and we would like to be introduced to the customer so we can go through the design process with them,” said David Rigsby, director of marketing, Morrow-Meadows Datacom Division, Los Angeles. “Earlier in our career with design-build, the general would say, 'I don't want anything to do with that technology stuff.' Now they say, 'Yeah, you can talk to our customers about that.'”

Many electrical contractors prefer design-build for ITS because of efficiency and potential cost-saving.

“You are constantly working with clients during construction,” said Todd Davis, market sales director of NetVersant Washington, Seattle. “Once you're doing the install and you've been responsible for that design you know exactly what the expectations are. When you are dealing with multiple third parties or engineering firms and you haven't been involved in the process, you are left to interpret what that engineering firm intended. When you've done all the engineering, you can make a change on the fly.”

Being able to supply that service means having trained employees. Some companies require that all field technicians be BICSI certified. Training is available to International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) members through Electrical Training Institutes and through BICSI. Some companies have BICSI ITS instructors on staff.

Since many voice/data/video (VDV) hardware and software systems are manufactured and supplied as a system-and are specified by performance as opposed to the standardized power distribution systems-vendors provide training so electrical contractors entering the field can work with manufacturers to become knowledgeable about the available systems.

“Constant vendor training to stay abreast of the latest technology is critical to our success,” said Davis. “We have an intimate knowledge of manufacturers and pride ourselves on being an objective party for our client, picking solutions that best suit our client needs. We are not hamstrung by a particular manufacturer so we don't push any agenda.”

With constant advances in technology, some vendors visit companies on a weekly basis to update them on new products or changes. Attendance at trade shows, conferences and seminars are all ways electrical contractors stay informed.

“The field is really changing. It's massive,” said Chmielewski. “Those of us in low voltage are probably the only ones that read all the magazines, just to keep up. To keep up 100 percent would need a dedicated person in the company.”

And some companies do have one.

“We have registered communications designers on staff and we can do a complete design for their network,” said Davis.

Yet having an in-house design team is not necessary to enter in the field.

“With a design-build client there is usually a consultant involved, or the client has their own IT that does the design, so that they do the design and you do the build,” said Demcsak.

“I've been doing design-build since I got started 25 years ago,” said Chmielewski. “Way back then we used to help people out. Today, when an owner calls and asks us if we would design backbone for their VDV/fiber optic needs, we say, 'Yes, we'll do it.' I'm not an electrical engineer though, so I consult with engineers and we work together on the designs.”

That is the key to design-build-to be the one with the sole responsibility to the customer.

Whether done in-house or with the help of experts, offering existing customers a design-build ITS is a valuable service to existing clients, and an opportunity to attract new ones. EC

CASEY, author of "Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors" and "Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World," can be reached at scbooks@aol.com or www.susancaseybooks.com.