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“I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of 2 million parts — all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.” — John Glenn, astronaut
As you can imagine, John did not feel warm and fuzzy knowing the lowest bidder built the rocket — or even a part of it — that he was about to trust his life in.
Being involved with a project and seeing it go to the extreme lowest bidder causes many to pause a moment and consider a few things.
• Does the contractor selected have a history of being difficult?
• Does the contractor have a history of submitting an extreme number of requests for information and change orders?
• Has the contractor been doing projects at the facility for years?
• How large of a gap between bidders was there?
These are just a few issues to consider when looking at the lowest bidder. As many of us out there can attest to, we sometimes cringe when we see how much lower the lowest bidder is from everyone else — and then to see the owner accept the bid.
Selecting a contractor based on a low bid almost guarantees you will end up with the least-qualified contractor for your project. It will cost you more in the long run — with lower quality, more paperwork and more headaches.
I have been involved with a particular project since 2012, which is still under construction to this day. The contractor selected was the lowest bidder — and not by a little, either.
The project started out with the contractor unable to field a competent medical gas crew. The one qualified individual the company had was quite good but his supporting cast was not, nor were they certified to work on medical gas systems. Come to find out the company did not want to pay the going rate, so the qualified installers would go to other cities willing to pay a reasonable rate for a qualified medical gas installer.
The medical gas contractor complained to the general contractor that it could not fill a qualified crew. The general contractor requested that the owner reduce the medical gas qualifications listed in the specifications, which was five years’ experience. We chose five years instead of the standard four years so we could get the owner a more experienced and higher-quality crew to install the medical gas systems. What they ended up with were installers having three years’ experience or less.
As we moved from the issues of a skilled crew, we entered the RFI and change order phase. While there were owner changes and engineer revisions, including errors and omissions, the contractor has submitted more than 6,000 RFIs; many were duplicates at varying times throughout the project. It hoped to catch a respondent sleeping on the job and contradict an earlier response.
The contractor played the game of inundating the project with RFIs and change orders in the hope of making more money off these errors and omissions. I know this routine as I, too, was on the contracting side of the fence in my early years; this contractor played the game well. This style of construction also has spilled over into the engineering industry, which is unfortunate. I’ll leave that issue for another time.
During my site visits, I witnessed poor workmanship on many levels, from pipe hangers to brazing of medical gas piping. I had also seen what appeared to be piping that was removed and discarded out by the Connex. Due to the level of experience, the installer had to rip out installations from time to time to correct the poor installation of its crew.
Poor brazing was witnessed on many occasions and we recommended the replacement of several sections, which was met with resistance. Eventually, the owner sided with the contractor because we were slowing the project down.
The general contractor’s certified verifier/instructor (who was to be independent) seemed to be more on the contractor’s side. I witnessed an initial pressure test (150 psi), where I was instructed not to make comments to the contractor while on site. The pressure gauges were not even the correct gauges for this particular test.
I witnessed pipe labels over pipe joints, as well as an installer on a cherry picker 13 feet in the air supposedly spraying and checking for leaks while the verifier/instructor/inspector remained on the floor level. I would have been up on the cherry picker with the installer looking at joints. It was just one operating room being tested and it was how things were being done at this facility.
Of course, I did not remain silent. I leaned over to the owner’s plumbing project manager, “How could the verifier witness the joint with a pipe label over it?”
He said it would bubble the label if there were a leak. I recommended that the owner’s representative request the label be removed and relocated so the joint could be witnessed correctly. This was completed with some resistance from the verifier.
I also had at one point recommended to the owner’s plumbing manager to have several joints cut out and inspected. By code, those joints would have to be cut out and redone per NFPA 99 2012. The contractor, as expected, pushed back and we were not allowed to choose which joints to inspect.
We pushed back and were able to arrive on site and identify which joints had to be removed and inspected by a third party. We had identified approximately five joints for inspection, and all five failed the third-party test. You can imagine where this was headed from here. You guessed it; that was the extent of our allowed testing by the owner against all the evidence that the installation was at risk. It also places patients at risk down the road.
Halfway through construction, the owner discussed stopping progress payments; the contractor threatened to abandon the project and sue. As work fell further and further behind, the owner played into the contractor’s hands. The owner, in effect, became its own worst enemy. The project is more than two years past its completion date and continues to be in the news.
Since the project is not complete yet, I have no idea of what the total cost is, but the last time I looked, it was more than what the average bids were from the beginning.
So please consider these things when accepting or considering the lowest bidder. I don’t mean the lowest bidder of all the bidders relatively close to each other, but the one severely below all the other bidders.