I have worked in this industry my entire teenage and adult life. I started at my father’s mechanical contracting business from age 15, then, as a college graduate I worked for a large regional mechanical contractor for 6+ years. For the last 27 years, I’ve operated my own mechanical contracting business. It is a highly technical and challenging business, especially in the new construction arena where it “takes a village” of subcontractors and vendors working under the umbrella of a builder — the general contractor — to deliver a finished product.
What makes this so difficult? When I think about all the issues we deal with every day in construction, I think it boils down to one thing — communication. Many projects that we work on are delivered through some kind of team approach. Many times, the owner selects a construction manager early on in the drawings’ development to work with the architect and engineers who are also selected by the owner. This is an opportunity for collaboration between the design and construction sides of the project.
We were awarded a hospital renovation project involving one half of one wing (split down the middle) on the third floor, and part of the scope is reworking some restrooms underneath. When we got ready to start and pointed out that we needed to get access to the ceilings underneath, no one knew that was necessary for us to do our work. And on the HVAC, much of the supply and return duct was routed over areas that were not in the scope of the project, resulting in us having to determine in the field alternate routes for the ductwork to avoid removal and replacement of ceilings in occupied areas.
The contractor, architect and engineer were all picked by the owner to work on the project together from the beginning. So I have to ask myself: why is this just coming to light? Why did the team not discuss where things were being routed? What had to be done to accomplish the work as designed, etc.? My on-site foreman had an interesting perspective on this. He said it is the job superintendent’s role to clear the way for the subs to work. The superintendent should be reviewing the scope of the job for each trade and determining if there is any hindrance that prevents a sub from doing their work. I never thought about it like that, but there is a lot of wisdom in that line of thinking.
Internally, we fail to communicate as well. I have been to numerous talks and seminars where we discussed how to effectively start a job — bringing in the foreman or superintendent who is going to do the project, reviewing the approach of the job from the estimator’s perspective, and letting the field manager spend some time reviewing the drawings and hopefully finding any issues that can be addressed early on to avoid delays later. In my company, we have beat this drum hard — developing check lists to go over, what documents to have ready, etc. We get it right about half the time, often failing on smaller projects. On those, we do a 15-minute review; give the foreman plans, specs and submittals; then send them to the job to receive material and start work.
Our foremen are a casualty of this process too. They are craftsmen in their trade — plumbing and/or HVAC — but many of the issues that they run into they cannot “see” on paper. In reviewing the steel drawings to see if a duct that crosses a beam will fit above the ceiling height one might ask: is there a chase wall for fixture carriers to fit? Is the wall wide enough to put that 4-inch pipe in? Yes, some of this can be identified with doing coordination or BIM drawings, but this is something that has to be done early in a project, not when you are awarded the job and the footings have already begun, and steel fabrication is in progress.
Owners also contribute to making the construction process difficult. Many times on larger projects, portions of the work are awarded early, such as grading and/or foundations. Then there is a delay while the rest of the design drawings are finalized, priced and awarded. Now everyone has to hit the ground running to meet the construction schedule. This shortens the time that the coordination effort can occur. If we had this extra time to get all our submittals done and spend time reviewing the drawings, doing BIM coordination and prefabrication, just think how smooth the project could run.
With the technology that we have today and the speed of which projects develop from design to construction, the design-bid-build delivery method does not work well any longer. Collaboration between disciplines is not encouraged with this delivery method (“I was here first” mentality). The earlier MEP trades and other major subs can be brought into the project, the more opportunity for success there is and fewer issues incurred during construction. This builds a team spirit where all trades work together to solve problems, trading off in various ways to help the overall job.
I think that we must approach every project with timely communication as our first and foremost priority. The traditional delivery method is not going away any time soon, so make it a point to immerse yourself in the project as early as you can. Yes, we are pulled in a number of different directions daily, and this can be difficult. But the dividends that can be reaped from a project running smoother with fewer delays should outweigh the time spent doing this. And you never know, your proactive approach might get enough attention that on the next project you may rise above your competition by being selected to do the work on something other than the low price.
Chip Greene is president of Greene & Associates Inc., a mechanical contracting firm based in Macon, Georgia. He has over 30 years of experience working on commercial HVAC and plumbing projects. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.