Design/build is becoming the project delivery system of choice for many customers because it offers several advantages over traditional design-bid-build project delivery. Customers credit design/ build with providing shorter construction schedules, reduced project costs, improved project quality, and single-point responsibility, which improves design-installation coordination and reduces disputes.

These advantages exist for voice/data/video (VDV) systems just as they do for power distribution systems and the other architectural, structural, and mechanical systems that go into a modern building.

However, unlike power distribution systems and other building systems, VDV systems have traditionally been provided using a performance specification that is basically design/build. Because VDV systems are often manufactured and supplied as a system, they are ideal candidates for design/build project delivery.

What is different about VDV systems?

Voice/data/video (VDV) systems for commercial, industrial, and institutional facilities include fire alarm, security, data networks, and many other complex communication and control systems. The hardware and software are often manufacturer specific and systems have to be designed, installed, and tested to the system manufacturer’s requirements.

As a result, it is very difficult for designers to specify these systems in the same way that they specify power distribution systems. The equipment, conductors, and other components that comprise the power distribution system are very standardized, typically have the same basic characteristics and are built and tested to the same standards.

VDV systems, on the other hand, are much more manufacturer specific and each manufacturer’s system is different, even though components may provide the same function. As a result, VDV components often cannot be mixed and matched, especially in networked life safety, security, building automation, and other similar systems. These VDV systems are typically specified as systems and not by components, as are power distribution systems.

Where it is possible to install any listed manufacturer’s safety switch on a power distribution system, it is not possible to install any manufacturer’s smoke detector on an integrated fire alarm system. Therefore, not to exclude any acceptable manufacturer from the bid process, most VDV systems are specified with performance specifications.

Performance specifications

In a design/build project, the owner typically has a “criteria professional” develop its criteria. This can be either an owner employee or an outside designer. Design/build project requirements are typically referred to as a “criteria package.”

The Design-Build Institute of America defines “criteria package” in its Design-Build Manual of Practice as “the facility program, design criteria, performance specifications and other project-specific technical material sufficient to provide the basis for best value proposals.”

For VDV systems, this “criteria package” is traditionally the performance specification. The “criteria professional” can be any number of people, including the project’s consulting engineer, outside specialty VDV consultant, or internal professional in the owner’s information systems (IS), communications, security, or other VDV-related department.

Typically, power distribution systems are specified using descriptive specifications where the equipment, materials, and the installation method are specified, but not the performance of the system. The responsibility for overall system performance using descriptive specifications rests with the designer, not the installer. Prescriptive specifications are very specific about what equipment and materials are to be used and how they are to be installed.

Performance specifications specify how the VDV system is to operate and leave the choice of equipment and materials and how they are to be installed to the electrical contracting firm. The electrical contracting firm designs the VDV system, procures the necessary equipment and materials, installs the VDV system, and then tests the system to verify that it meets the customer’s specified requirements.

VDV system technology is advancing more rapidly than a traditional design-bid-build can easily accommodate. By the time a detailed design is completed, bid, and installation starts, the underlying VDV system technology may have advanced, new equipment may be commercially available, or system performance may have improved.

To change at this point would require a formal change order, additional costs, and time on everyone’s part. VDV design/build avoids this problem by specifying required system performance without tying the contractor to specific equipment, materials, or operation that may be superseded by better technology. This allows the electrical contracting firm to select the best technology to meet the owner’s needs and expectations.

Another advantage of performance specifying or design/build is that it fosters innovation and allows the firms submitting bids or proposals to use their knowledge and experience to provide the best system. Instead of a prescriptive specification that locks firms submitting a proposal into a particular manufacturer or system, a performance specification allows firms to seek out and partner with manufacturers, suppliers, specialty contractors, and design consultants to develop an innovative proposal to meet the customer’s needs.

Successful VDV design/build proposals

Successful design/build proposals are a team effort. VDV systems are installed and operate as a system, not as individual components. Therefore, the electrical contracting firm should partner with the system manufacturer, its suppliers, VDV specialty contractors, and design consultants to ensure that the customer gets the right system at the right price and meets needs and expectations.

System and equipment manufacturers can be particularly helpful in assembling a bid or proposal. Not only do they best know their system and its capabilities, but they also know how their system’s features compare with those of competitors and what new developments are on the horizon.

Know your customer and competition

Traditionally, your customer has been the customer’s facility management group for power distribution system work. With VDV systems, you will often have a different customer, such as information technology (IT), information services (IS), telecommunications, or another department within the customer’s organization that is responsible for the VDV system that you are providing.

These individuals are typically very familiar with the technology but not with the construction process, means and methods, or contract provisions. They are typically used to using purchase orders to procure work rather than construction agreements that have a changes clause and other provisions that are unique to the construction industry.

Also, they may select according to best value rather than best price, which is typical in the construction industry. Make sure you understand how the successful proposal will be selected and what criteria will be used to make that selection so your team can put together a proposal that addresses the selection criteria.
You may also find your competitors unfamiliar with the construction process or installation requirements such as the National Electrical Code (NEC).

Know who your competitor is. Nonelectrical contracting firm competitors may underprice you because their installation practices are of a lower standard. Further, electrical inspectors often scrutinize electrical contracting firms’ VDV installations because they expect them to know better and therefore hold them to a higher standard. You should not reduce the quality of your installation and you certainly cannot compromise its safety to remain competitive.

Rather, you must educate your customer about the value a high-quality installation provides. This is the most effective way of putting all proposal presenters on equal footing.

Educate your customer

You need to educate your customer about the value a neat and workmanlike installation provides throughout the life of the system and the need to meet all applicable building codes including the NEC. Unlike power distribution systems where either the lights come on or they don’t, VDV system performance can vary widely and can be impacted by installation quality.

Beyond system performance, a neat installation pays dividends throughout the life of the VDV system for the customer. Use of raceway and tray systems to support cables, selection of the right cable for the application, proper training of cables to maintain minimum bending radii, proper cable terminations, legible marking of cables and equipment, and good system documentation will improve system performance and expedite moves, adds, and changes (MACs).

A high-quality installation will also assist in system maintenance and help minimize downtime when problems do occur.

VDV equals design/build

Due to their very nature, VDV systems are best procured by the customer through a performance specification, which is essentially the design/build process. VDV systems serving the same function such as fire alarm systems are often unique in their design, operation, and features. The fact that they are tested and listed as a system makes them ideal for a performance specification. Companies that are just now entering the VDV market need to understand the design/build process to be successful.

Acknowledgement

This article is the result of ongoing research into VDV market entry and project management by electrical contracting firms sponsored by the Electrical Contracting Foundation, Inc. The author would like to thank the foundation for its continuing support.

GLAVINICH is Chair and Associate Professor of Architectural Engineering at The University of Kansas. He can be reached at (785) 864-3435 or tglavinich@ukans.edu.