Purchasing an audio/video system is a major capital improvement project for a church of any size, but what is the best approach for choosing a sound/video contractor for your church?
Design/build is one of the most common approaches for purchasing an audio/video system that has a budget of under $50,000. It is commonly used in churches where the audio/video system is the only capital improvement project taking place at that time (meaning no remodeling or new construction). The concept is to invite several qualified sound contractors to propose designs for the audio and/or video system for your church. We recommend not asking more than three different contractors, as the more contractors from whom you get proposals, the more confusing the project can get.
The first step is to form a committee or task force that will be in charge of meeting and hearing the presentations from each company. This committee should consist of church members that will be using the audio/video system. This could include the Pastor, music director, choir director, Sunday school director, sound operator(s) etc. It is also a good idea to have at least one member of the church council (preferable the treasurer) in the group. Try to keep to a reasonable number (under 10 members) as they will need to meet 6-8 times during this process and with too many people, it can be tough to fit meeting dates into busy schedules.
The first task for this committee will be to determine and write down a set of goals for the new audio and/or video system. These goals can include: clear and intelligible sound at every seat in the sanctuary, use of high quality lapel and handheld microphones, sending sound to the nursery and fellowship hall, etc. Included in this set of goals should be an overview of how you worship, including the types of instruments you use for contemporary worship (if you have or will be forming a contemporary worship group), where the choir or music group is placed, if you need tape or compact disc recording, if you broadcast to a radio station, etc.
You should also decide at this meeting the budget for this project. (How you determine a budget can be another complete article for this magazine.) If you don’t know, ask each contractor if they can give you an idea as to what price range they feel the project might fall under. Some contractors will not do projects under a certain dollar amount. This is why I recommend the committee start with a ball-park range so you do not waste your time or theirs. Try to make your lists as detailed as you can but, if possible, limit it to one type-written sheet.
The next task will be to invite sound/video contractors in to design your audio and/or video system. Choosing a contractor can be tough. You could start by looking in your local yellow pages under sound contractor or sound systems. Next, try and find local facilities (other churches, auditoriums, etc.) that have recently installed audio and/or video systems. Call these facilities and ask what it was like to work with the contractor they chose.
In some areas of the country you can only find 2-3 contractors who can do the work. If your list is over three contractors, our suggestion is to do phone interviews with all of them to narrow the list down to no more than three. I recently talked to a sound contractor who received a bid because the church had called four other contractors and found they were so busy they could not meet the time line the church required and/or the budget they had.
Once you have chosen the contractors you want to receive bids from, invite them individually to your church (never bring them in as a group). It will be important when you call them to ask if they do design/build projects, as some do not. Also, ask them if they will charge you for the design. Some companies require payment for giving a bid, because of the time that it takes to design the system. The church committee should decide if they would be willing to pay for a design from any company.
Next, try to meet all these sound contractors within a two week time period. All members of your committee should be present when each contractor visits the church. Have blueprints of your facility available (if they exist), and give each contractor your list of goals and ways you worship. It is important that you provide the same information to each contractor. If one contractor asks more questions and requests more detail, then give it to them. Answering their questions about your facility and the ways you worship could turn out to be positive to the committee. You will probably find several reasons for choosing your contractor.
Each company will then design an audio and/or video system, a process that could take a minimum of 4-6 weeks. Have each company contact you when they are finished and arrange to hear their presentations as close together as possible. The presentations could take a minimum of 1-2 hours and I do not recommend that you hear more than two on a single evening, due to time constraints and the confusion that can take place between each company’s proposals.
The biggest disadvantage in the design/build approach is that each design could be substantially different. The committee should be prepared, as each sound contractor will probably have a different approach for the best placement of speakers, types of equipment, number of inputs, cost, etc.
It is important that you understand what each contractor is providing you in their proposal and the information should be clearly laid out in the documents they leave with the committee. For example, does the quoted price cover all installations? Will the sound contractors do the installation themselves or do they subcontract the work? What outside costs will the church incur (electrical, providing a lift, building a mixer desk, etc.)? How much training is included in the proposal? Is the proposal simply an estimate or an exact cost of the system? What kind of system warranty is offered and how are warranty issues handled? Is equipment such as microphones, compact disc players, etc. included in the main equipment, or are they in an ‘options’ section? I also recommend each contractor provide you a list of several projects they have done in your area; roughly in the same price range as your project.
After you have heard each contractor’s presentation, the committee should meet again, as soon after the last contractor’s presentation as possible. Call the references that each contractor provided and ask them what it was like to work with the contractor.
Review the bids. Remember, each contractor’s costs and design approach can be substantially different. Final cost should be only one small criterion in choosing your contractor. Remember that your audio and/or video system will probably be in your church at least 15 years, so this is a very important decision that you will be making.
The committee should have a set of criteria that will help choose your contractor. For example, does the proposed design meet the criteria that you laid out? Is the design detailed oriented (do the speakers cover any stained glass windows, is the rack placement reasonable for getting electricity to, etc.), Do you trust the contractor? Does the contractor have a good reputation? What did the references say about each contractor? Is the contractor within budget or given a reason why they are not? Which design offers the most flexibility? What tools did the contractor use in the design of the audio system (computer design programs are now available to help with designs). What do you think is the best design?
If the committee is having problems making their choice, then I recommend visiting a facility where each finalist has installed systems. Listen to the audio system. Look at the work that was done. This many times can help with a final decision. Ask the person showing you the audio system if they are happy with it and with the contractor they chose?
Once the committee has a recommendation for a contractor, you will more than likely have to present your findings to either the church council or the congregation. Type a report that explains the process the committee went through in choosing the recommended company. This report should be brief, but it needs to provide enough information to show that your committee took the task of choosing a company very seriously. I have found good preparation and documentation makes the process of the council or congregation’s acceptance of the committee’s recommendation much easier.
Once a contractor is chosen, call them and let them know they have been awarded the bid. You will need details that can include: Is a down payment required? When do they feel they can install the system? What does the church need to get ready before installation? Who is the contact person at the company for installation questions?
The design/build approach is very commonly used for existing buildings and occasionally, in new building construction (especially when the budget is under $50,000), often having little or no up-front design costs. It is very time consuming for church volunteers due to the number of meetings needed and can make choosing a contractor more difficult, as each design will probably have different equipment and different design concepts. But, it may also find you a very qualified sound and/or video company who can provide you with a system that your congregation can enjoy for many years.
In the next issue, we’ll explain the benefits and shortfalls of hiring a consultant to write a specification for your particular system.