Key to success: Design documentation

Let’s start with a statement and a question: “Design documentation is a critical piece of any successful smart building or home technology system. As critical as the central rack and equipment or the client and end user, without which there would be no system at all.” The question is simple and probably what most readers already have in mind: Why is design so critical?

The benefits of a well-designed and properly documented system are numerous:

The first and perhaps most obvious we can borrow from Mr. Benjamin Franklin; “Failure to plan is planning to fail”.

The second is another no brainer: Easier installation. Any system that has been thoroughly planned out and documented by a designer will have had all of the difficult issues of the site and the integration worked out before any wires are run. The installation will be much easier than attempting it without design or planning, allowing all parties involved to have a better understanding of what is required.

This neatly leads on to the third benefit: A well-designed, properly documented system will require less project management. If a project manager is to work efficiently, providing them with a complete set of design documentation to work with has to be the enabler to this efficiency. Again the difficulties of the site and integration have been ironed out by the design process so there will be no time wasted dealing with these issues on site during installation. Inevitably the installation phases are where the integration company is exposed to greater risk and margin crushing expense to solve issues with technology rather than designing through or around them earlier in the project.

The fourth benefit might seem less obvious but it is none the less important: Professional handover and project closure. The as built design documentation can be used as a physical tool to demonstrate to the client that the integration company has completed their work with due diligence. This makes the handover process much more professional and leads the parties to a natural point of closure, which helps the integrator prove completion and get their final payments in hand.

The fifth benefit follows on from handover: Ease of servicing. Imagine for a moment two installations one which has been well designed and properly documented, project A. And one which has had the least amount of design and drawings possible to get the job done, project B. Now fast forward a few years and assume that the installation team that installed both projects have moved on to bigger and better things. Which project will be easier to service? With project A an installer can study the drawings and get familiar with the job before attending site. With project B this can only be done on site making the installer look like they don’t know what they are doing which is never a good position to be in.

The sixth and final benefit is perhaps less obvious but actually very important to the longevity and success of an integration business: The chance to enter awards to strengthen the brand. Without design and proper documentation awards are nigh on impossible to win. Businesses with awards and accreditations are more likely to win more jobs and more prestigious work. Business savvy clients (most of them) tend to look for businesses who are proud of their reputation and celebrate their success with awards and accreditations. Therefore we should consider a well-documented system design as a powerful sales tool.

All of these points neatly leads us into another question: What goes into a well-designed and documented system?
The basic documents will consist of the following: A complete set of floor plans showing the locations of every piece of equipment going into the job and some mechanism to indicate what cables are required at each point. A set of elevation drawings showing wall mounted equipment and detailing the equipment rack layouts and thermal design. A full set of connectivity schematics showing how each part of the system is interconnected and an IP addressing scheme. These are the basics, other documents might include a functional specification, scope of works and a programming scope.

How is this design documentation drawn up? This is where education is paramount. The person responsible for designing and documenting systems should be trained in design and have some certification to show this. However nothing counts more than experience in knowing how to assemble systems, knowing the nuances of what works well together and all the elements required to make each system work reliably and perform well.

All of this leads us into the final and perhaps most poignant question here: How should integration companies charge for design?
Firstly there is a myth to be dispelled:
“How can I charge for design and not risk losing the job to another integrator who doesn’t charge for it?” This one is easy; imagine you are building a house and you have asked two architects to come up with a fee proposal and some ideas. Architect A comes back with a £50,000 fee and some initial ideas backed up by samples of jobs they have successfully completed and a long list of happy clients. Architect B comes back with just a simple statement “We will design your house for free”. Which one would you choose? Hopefully Architect A because they have reassured you that they will do a good job and have a sustainable business.
It should be no different for integration companies: A typical project process should be to meet a client, gather their requirements, draw up a ballpark quotation and then ask for a retainer or design fee (the minimum fee here should be around 5% of the quotation) to carry out a detailed design exercise on the clients behalf for a suitable system to meet their requirements. This process along with all the other steps in delivering the job should be presented to the client at the initial meeting so they know straight away what to expect from the integrator and understand from the get go when they will be expected to pay for each phase of the project.

Integration companies should not be wary of charging design fees. They should be actively encouraged to do so and proudly show off their previous design work and how successful their projects are in the process. Design should be used by integration companies as a tool to win more work and gain access to more prestigious projects over time through awards and accreditation.

Read in CEDIA communicates

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