Designing a network on time, on budget, on target

Consider the following hypothetical situation: Company X has just constructed 149,000 square feet of administrative office space, and staff members are moving in. But problems await. First, the building`s telecommunications cabling infrastructure was not 100% complete on move-in day, so some workstations are without telephone and computer jacks. Second, no documentation showing the cabling system design was provided to the building owner; therefore, equipment vendors must spend more time identif

Avoid move-in day telecommunications disasters by watching out for these 10 pitfalls.

Melissa Davis

All Media Group Inc.

Consider the following hypothetical situation: Company X has just constructed 149,000 square feet of administrative office space, and staff members are moving in. But problems await. First, the building`s telecommunications cabling infrastructure was not 100% complete on move-in day, so some workstations are without telephone and computer jacks. Second, no documentation showing the cabling system design was provided to the building owner; therefore, equipment vendors must spend more time identifying outlet locations. Third, changes in user requirements over the course of construction now require last-minute change orders for the installation vendor.

The result: delayed productivity, increased costs for the building owner, and more frustration for an already-stressed relocating staff.

While this might seem like an exaggerated, worst-case scenario, it is fairly common. Telecommunications cabling systems have historically been overlooked during the design and early construction phases of a building. Cabling systems are owner-specific, and building owners and facility executives often do not have the in-house expertise or resources to ensure proper design and implementation. Also, general contractors and construction managers are typically not experts in telecommunications cabling and cannot bring together in the building owner`s best interest the various impacted parties, including end-users, information system departments, cabling system designers, and architects.

The following tips can help facility executives ensure an effective telecommunications cabling system is installed in their facility.

1. System does not meet user requirements

Paying inadequate attention to the needs of the information system users during the design phase, or even worse, excluding them from initial information gathering, can spell trouble when it comes time for users to dial up or log on. Connecting phones and computers to a building`s cable infrastructure is assumed. However, connecting other building systems or devices--fax machines, clocks, security and fire alarm systems, elevators, proprietary departmental systems, and others--is often overlooked. If this happens, the cabling infrastructure will not be able to handle user needs from the start. You can head off this problem by compiling a detailed checklist of information systems/devices and provide it to each department head for input before designing the system.

This procedure doesn`t guarantee that problems won`t occur. As businesses grow and change, employees move around inter- and intra-departmentally, departments are relocated, and employee usage requirements change. The cable infrastructure should be designed to accommodate these situations, the best way of which is to plan for a universal cabling infrastructure throughout the facility: Unoccupied building spaces should have cable in place for future expansion, and each workstation should be able to support any user`s needs. For example, a workstation should be configured to support an employee from accounts payable who uses a telephone and PC connected to a local area network as well as somebody from research and development who needs a telephone, modem, and PC connected to the network and a shared printer.

2. Installed system exceeds budget

The most common cause of cost overruns occurs when a building owner or facility executive compiles an inadequate scope of work for the low-voltage contractor. A contractor`s price estimate is typically based upon a fixed, well-defined scope of work that includes specific quantities for tasks. If the scope of work doesn`t describe those tasks when contractors are quoting on the job, cost overruns will occur. Cost overruns also result from failure to outline user requirements at the design phase thoroughly.

Here is an anecdote to illustrate both of these problems: A newly constructed facility was scheduled to be occupied by the first of the month. One week before occupancy, users realized that cabling for several devices had not been provided. Time clocks, televisions, several fax machines, and printers had been overlooked. The contractor had to work overtime to provide the additional cabling to support the forgotten devices.

Other causes of construction budget overruns and additional labor costs include underestimating the cost of products required to meet user needs, building-construction delays, changes in the building structure, and the installation schedule of furniture or other vendors. Some of these problems and others can be avoided by gaining input from someone in the cabling industry who has knowledge of products, trends, and installation issues.

3. Building structure is inadequate to support the type and number of communication cables to be installed

A mismatch between the support structure and cabling infrastructure can spell disaster in delays and expenses. Architects and electrical engineering firms are often unfamiliar with Category 5 specifications and design parameters set by the Telecommunications Industry Association and Electronic Industries Alliance (tia/eia--Arlington, VA) for a building`s cable support structure such as conduits, cable trays, and equipment rooms. If designs do not conform to these specifications, the result can be riser conduits that are undersized for the amount of cable to be installed; conduits with too many bends and no junction boxes, making the cable pulls difficult and potentially damaging to the cables; cable trays and station conduits installed so that the horizontal cable lengths exceed Category 5 specification; and other problems.

4. Installed system does not conform to industry Category 5 specifications

Low-voltage contractors often do not ensure that their technicians are current on tia/eia specifications. The result can be horizontal runs that exceed limits, riser cables installed with bends that exceed acceptable bend-radii standards, incorrect grounding, incorrect or inadequate labeling, and other problems.

5. Material delivery delays project completion

Overlooking material management can be a critical mistake in keeping a project on schedule. With a large assortment of products and a wide array of color options for the modern workplace--modular furniture that may require floor receptacles or special faceplates to fit in customer knockouts, for example--communications products may require special ordering. These often take longer to arrive. Additionally, material suppliers can make mistakes, resulting in product-delivery delays. To avoid these problems, get to know the product market. Obtain detailed information regarding the specific systems furniture and floor boxes to be installed so you can research products, costs, and delivery dates. Most importantly, follow up on all orders.

6. Jacks for modular furniture and floor boxes do not fit

This problem is usually a direct result of not adequately researching the furniture manufacturer and the exact specifications of the receptacle in the furniture panels. Coordinate closely with the furniture vendor to accurately define the communications product to be used--well before ordering.

7. Excessive change orders cause last-minute chaos

As users move into their work spaces, they often request that jacks be relocated, added, or deleted. These requests, in turn, often require that additional backbone cable be installed--meaning more work for the installer and more cost to the building owner. Many last-minute change orders can be avoided by establishing and enforcing cutoff dates for moving, adding, and changing jacks.

Another way to minimize the effect of change orders at the end of the project is to perform a review of the construction when it is half and three-quarters of the way complete. Typically, departmental reviews are performed when a building is designed and when completed. In this age of technology, user needs change frequently during the course of building construction. Stay in touch with the various departments during the construction to ensure that oversights or changes are addressed before it`s too late. Regardless of how much planning and review are done during a building project, some last-minute changes are usually unavoidable.

A third way to keep costs to a minimum is to keep a tight rein on the low-voltage contractor. Make sure there is a provision in the contract to accommodate any necessary changes to the cable infrastructure. When changes occur, require the contractor to provide a price before performing the work. Also, attach a due date for response to your request for change-order pricing. This documentation ensures that you know what the change will cost, have approved the dollar amount for the work to be done, and have authorized the contractor to perform the work. Final project close-out will be easy if this administrative process has been followed.

8. Low-voltage contractor does not complete project in time for equipment vendors to do installations

Problems can arise when move-in dates are confused with completion dates. Often, there is minimal interaction between the low-voltage contractor and facility executive. This lack of communication causes the low-voltage contractor to work under the general contractor`s construction schedule, which may not include milestones for equipment installation. Equipment for building information systems, such as telephones, computers, printers, and fax machines, must be installed before users move in.

Establish completion dates for the low-voltage contractor before the general contractor`s completion dates for the building. Coordination among the facility executive, equipment vendors, low-voltage contractor, and general contractor will ensure that the milestones set will meet the users` move-in schedule.

9. Equipment vendors do not know where to install equipment

Even with the low-voltage contractor completing cable installation in time for equipment vendors to install equipment, the vendors may not know where to place equipment if the completed cabling infrastructure is not adequately documented and turned over to the equipment vendors to be used as their road map. Each workstation outlet must be assigned a unique identifier that is duplicated at the closet termination location so the appropriate workstation can be activated with the correct devices. To ensure that this documentation or "as-built" information is provided by the low-voltage contractor, make sure the documentation and the time frame in which it is to be provided is included contractually in the low-voltage contractor`s scope of work.

10. Documentation for installed system is incomplete

This problem may not be spotted initially, but it will be when information systems are upgraded. Finding the right jack for a computer or telephone station can be akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Here is an example: A medical clinic constructed a new building and handled the cabling through a low-voltage contractor. The contractor was not required to provide documentation. Initially, the clinic simply relocated its existing phone system from its old space to the new area, and the contractor worked with the equipment vendor to identify jack locations. Within three months, the clinic purchased a new telephone system. With no as-built information to document the system, the vendor spent 30 extra work hours identifying the jacks, which exceeded the clinic`s budget for the project.

At the end of a cabling project, the entire team--building owner, facility executive, project manager, cabling system designer, information systems leader, and anyone else involved--should meet to review the as-built documentation and ensure it is complete.

Melissa Davis, registered communications distribution designer (rcdd), is vice president of All Media Group Inc. (Orlando, FL), a consulting and project-management firm specializing in the telecommunications cabling industry.

Reprinted with permission of Building Operating Management. Illustrations by Chris Hipp.

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