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Conventional wisdom tells us that engineers design and contractors build. This strict division of responsibilities, however, has not consistently resulted in reliable outcomes that owners demand and deserve. There is a solution. One that is easier said than done: engineer and contractor collaboration.
The design documents, while not dictating means and methods, provide the plan for building the project. But does it seem wise to exclude the builder’s voice in the design? Furthermore, when contractors include the engineer in phasing and problem-solving for construction issues, new solutions are generated and better answers are developed.
I welcome collaboration. But having the desire to collaborate is only the first step. What structure should the collaboration take? I have been fortunate to have worked on almost every permutation imaginable, and with each one, I walked away with a new set of lessons learned. I will introduce the more common collaboration structures, common pitfalls to avoid, and best practices that I have observed.
Common collaboration structures
These collaboration structures have varying legal ramifications that are beyond the scope of this article. In all instances, compliance with state board of professional engineering rules is assumed.
Delegated Design: This is the formal shifting of design responsibilities for specific and limited portions of the design to the contractor.
A primary reason for delegated design is to allow the contractor the flexibility to implement proprietary systems and preferred means and methods without requiring the engineer to design for each possible scenario.
Delegated design scope may include structural steel connection details, fire suppression systems, sheet metal duct design, and hydronic expansion and contraction. The contractor employs a design professional for the limited scope to be submitted to the engineer for confirmation of compliance and consistency with the broader project.
Value Engineering: VE comes into play when the bid comes in over budget – a problem that plagues our industry. The contractor is requested to propose ways to lower the project cost after the design is complete.
Early in my career, working at a subcontractor, proposing VE made me extremely uncomfortable. Who was I to think I could sit at my desk for a couple hours in isolation from the design process and propose a better way to a design team that had been working on the project for several months or even years?
I now understand that contractors focus on factors in which engineers are not as well-versed. Contractors can often discover value-added modifications. The modifications are offered for consideration by the design team to be evaluated against the project requirements.
Light Design-Assist: My definition of design-assist is when the contractor is brought on board prior to the completion of the design to influence the design in some way.
Design-assist covers a very broad spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, light design-assist has the contractor providing budgeting and constructability reviews to guide the progression towards the project requirements. Division of responsibility is easier to understand. The contractor participates in idea generation and evaluation, but the engineer is solely responsible for incorporation into the design and drawing production.
Heavy Design-Assist: On the other end of the spectrum, heavy design-assist can engage the contractor’s virtual design and construction teams to create the permit drawings under the authority of the engineer.
Heavy design-assist can feel much like design-build, but is characterized by the engineer providing the concept, performance criteria, review and sealing of the documents. The contractor may lay out entire systems according to the engineer’s performance specification. Division of responsibility can be become ambiguous. A clear delineation of responsibilities is key to success using this approach.
Design-Build: Design-build is an approach in which a single entity is contracted for both engineering and construction responsibilities.
While all collaboration structures are a step in the right direction and have a place in our industry, design-build offers the greatest opportunity for collaboration and streamlined workflows. Design-build requires a high level of trust between the owner and the design-build entity. Design-build is most successful with sophisticated team members who are focused on and challenged by providing owner value.
Conquering three pitfalls
Now that we understand the various collaboration structures, let’s review three common pitfalls to avoid and best practices to which design teams should aspire:
• The most fundamental pitfall is a lack of alignment between the general contractor, architect, engineer and subcontractors regarding the collaboration structure.
Request for proposals may contain conflicting statements and may not have been vetted by all parties. Often, gaining alignment prior to award of the project is simply not feasible due to communication limitations. In these instances, the contractor defines the scope for how each team member can best serve the project based on their interpretation.
Ensuring alignment should be the first order of business once the project is awarded. Many years ago, I called an engineer to request a commercial kitchen drawing package that was to be issued that day. The engineer responded with, “I thought you were providing the kitchen design.” This is an extreme case, but there are numerous opportunities for items to fall through the cracks.
A best practice is to create a detailed responsibility matrix spreadsheet with primary and secondary owners. The matrix should include calculations, energy modeling, system modeling, model annotations, specifications, details and construction administration.
• The next pitfall is a lack of transparency by any team member about their expertise or manpower.
Substandard work products and late deliverables are the root cause of many team conflicts. A best practice is to be open and transparent about your team’s expertise and manpower. The project team can proactively evaluate availability of alternative resources or plan for deliverable schedule changes. The responsibility matrix is a living document that must be revisited and updated accordingly.
Successful professionals have experiences that allow the use of heuristics (rules of thumb) to make highly effective immediate judgments. Keep in mind that overreliance on heuristics is a common pitfall. The benefit of collaboration is that professionals with diverse backgrounds solve multidisciplinary problems. When two professionals come to different conclusions based on their gut reaction, conflict can arise.
A best practice is to stay curious when another professional questions something we hold to be true. We should view this as a learning opportunity, and let the facts decide the decision even when it breaks our paradigms.
Collaboration often occurs by proposing and debating ideas in real-time. For design professionals and contractors not accustomed to exposing their thought processes to the team, this can be uncomfortable and even intimidating. Some respond to this anxiety by becoming inflexible and defiant. Unable to articulate and defend their ideas, they dig-in to the safety net of how they have always done things. (I am guilty as charged.)
Reaching out to these team members outside of the big room to have one-on-one discussions for mutual education and alignment ensures that all voices are heard in a productive way.
• A pitfall of otherwise highly collaborative teams is the disregard of process and documentation. Without formal documentation, all parties are not provided access to crucial information and team member turnover results in substantial information loss.
I am a proponent of a two-step process where informal discussions are followed up with formal documentation. Collaboration is not an excuse for not following processes.
Collaboration offers the greatest leverage in solving many of our industry’s problems. Engineers and contractors have different backgrounds and experiences, but we are united in a common goal. Teams make better decisions than any single individual on a team. With foresight, communication and planning, we can work together to provide owner value. Providing value is how we all earn profit.Justin Bowker, P.E. has been part of the engineering team at TDIndustries since 2001. He became the manager of this team in 2009 and vice president in 2016. Under his leadership, the team challenges itself to harness technical approaches to provide focused value to the owner on design/assist and design/build projects.