I'm standing here in the cold. I'm also indoors, which is a clear indication that I have a problem on my hands. I am having a kind of weird, out-of-body experience. Nothing spiritual, mind you, but weird. I know I am talking because I can hear my nasal ramblings, like the unseen teacher in all of those "Charlie Brown" specials. But I am more aware of my audience than I am of my own pontificating.

Perhaps you have been here, too? Like when you have crossed your better half and you are digging yourself out of some hole, and you start wondering if it sounds sincere enough. You are talking, but your brain is dedicating more synapses to interpreting your mate's reaction than it is to forming sentences.

Well, it's something like that, except instead of my loving wife, it's a group of disgruntled contractors and a very disappointed owner. These aren't happy faces I see. Some of them look downright confused.

How could I have allowed myself to get into such a fix? I write articles for Engineered Systems, for gosh sakes. I chastise people for not communicating and harp about the status quo. But for all of my preaching atop my high horse, here I am, knocked off said horse and knee deep in a mess of my own making.

I ask you ... how in the world did I get here?

The Preceding Spring

It's a good day. I have almost completed a game of "Mine Sweeper" without a detonation when the marketing guy steps into my cube. "Have I got an opportunity for you," he enthuses. "The good news is we have a chance to work for an owner we have been trying to get in front of for some time now. The bad news is we had to team up with our competitor as a subconsultant. It's a simple job with a short fuse, and the kick-off meeting is tomorrow. Here is the address and you can hook up with the architect (our client) at the meeting."

My first mistake is, I fail to interpret the marketer's secret code: Opportunity equals problem job. My second mistake is, I believe him when he says it is a simple job, and I don't prepare for the meeting ... basically I hit the room cold. And what a room it turns out to be. In addition to the architect, the local code officials, and fire marshal are there. It turns out this isn't the kick-off meeting but rather the design sign-off meeting.

The budget is set, an estimate has already been formulated, and the architect has already decided upon the mechanical systems (as if he is qualified). The opening day is fixed, and apparently it doesn't matter that the scope isn't completely nailed down - the contract documents need to be out in two weeks.

I start to wonder if the marketing guy picked up our company's worker's disability insurance option, because he is likely to have a workplace injury as soon as I get back to the office.

My third mistake: I play along instead of throwing a flag. In the spirit of being a team player (or simply because I wimp out) I assume that the correct decisions have been made up front, that the budget and estimate are realistic, that the owner is fully informed about the design choices already made, and, that even if these things aren't all worked out, I will have another opportunity down the road to express and address my concerns.

On every count, I am mistaken.

The next day I sit down with the marketing guy and review the project. What they want seems doable, but to do it right will take all of three weeks, and four guys working full-time. "Oh, gee," the marketing guy laments, "the client wants us to do the project for X dollars, do you think that you can swing that?" I have just explained what it will take to do the job, and that equals 2X dollars if the planets align and I pray the rosary with more conviction.

Mistake numero quatro: I agree to X dollars even though I know what it will really take is 2X. This isn't a mistake because we might not make a profit; this is a mistake because every project has a unique critical mass when it comes to hours and manpower, and I am well below that critical mass. Forget the bottom line, the engineering effort is already compromised.

That Summer

I have managed to get the project out on time (don't ask about the budget), and now it's bid day and my phone rings. The marketing guy informs me that the job came in high and, oh, by the way, we have a "history" with the general contractor (GC) selected.

Recognize that I am now a month in and I have already struggled with the architect because, surprise, they want to keep us at arm's length from their client, the owner (remember the architect is our competitor). Now joy of joys, I have a GC with an ax to grind.

Remember when I assumed the budget was realistic and the systems selected were appropriate? Remember when I said I was mistaken? Well, now value engineering (VE) has commenced, and the one item in my spec that could really save some money was the system component preselected by the architect.

Mistake five: I didn't stand up with my design concerns prior to bid, and now I am compelled to defend the design in the interest of saving face. Pride? Stupidity? Timidity? Whatever the reason, the time for throwing the flag had come, and again I let it pass.

The sixth mistake: I participated in a VE session without the owner present. We ended up keeping the primary system component alluded to above, but removed other system components. All of these decisions were predicated on my mistaken belief that the GC was truly representing the owner and their interests.

In the Fall

All of the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost in my already crowded cubicle. My silence in that first meeting continues to haunt me as the project proceeds to careen out of budget and the schedule starts to slip. The planets did not align as I had hoped, and our own design budget bloats beyond recognition.

I'm starting to get disturbing phone calls from the GC and architect asking about what kind of conditions the owner can expect in the building. I point out that the design conditions have always been listed on the drawings, but that makes little sense now because we value engineered part of the heating out of the job.

"So what will the conditions be in the space?" I am asked. "I can't say for sure, in that we made the process the priority and the ambient space conditions secondary." The GC responds simply, "Huh? The owner just wants to know if the space is going to be comfortable." They press. I coolly reply, "Well, it all depends on what the meaning of is, is."

OK, I didn't really say that, but I may as well have. The answer was not a satisfactory one because it wasn't what the owner was expecting. That lonely VE session was beginning to haunt me. It was starting to feel like those assumptions I made about the owner's priorities and representation by the GC were again proving false.

Winter of My Discontent

The calls come more frequently now. The GC is having startup problems and the building is uncomfortable. He doesn't know if it is the design or the installation, and since someone has decided that a punchout is either unnecessary or too expensive, I haven't been to the site to assess the situation.

The owner has received the first utility bill, and it is four times what it was the year before. This isn't a surprise to me, because the new systems use different utilities than the old systems. In addition to a change in primary fuel, the ventilation systems were brought up to code, and we are bringing in probably twice as much ventilation air as before. But here is mistake number ... oh geez, do we really need to keep count anymore?

The latest faux pas is my belief that the owner had a clue about the impact the new system would have on the bill. Turns out, if he had known, he might not have signed onto the particular solution presented by the architect. Because I was mum early, any aspersions cast at this point would come across as either a lame CYA or sour grapes.

So the GC finally breaks down and calls a meeting with the contractors, the owner, and myself. It's time to straighten out this mess, and yours truly is compelled to explain how we got here and what we need to do to move forward.

Back To Where You Came In

I must be done talking, because I don't hear the nasal chatter in the background anymore. I am still taking in the stares of the various parties and trying to read their take on things. The owner isn't angry, but is clearly disappointed that what he has is not what he expected. The GC is relieved that I didn't blame him directly for my absence, and that I even credited him with "facilitating this critical meeting."

The contractors are somewhat chagrined because they swore to the GC they were done, but in the course of the meeting it has become clear that they aren't. And if I had a mirror, I imagine I look a bit relieved that no one stormed out while I was talking, but also a tad embarrassed that I was a party to getting us to this sad destination in the first place.

There are no good excuses for getting where I have. At every turn, I had a decision to make, and too often I let expedience or my own budgetary constraints override what should have been common sense and good practice. If a system you design fails to satisfy the enduser, nuanced explanations of the architect's failure to pay, allusions to the GC's attitude problem, or the "I simply didn't have the time," whine and screech will do you no good.

At the end of the day, all you have is your reputation and your credibility. Take good care of both, because once you allow them to be sullied, you too may find yourself standing in the cold in more ways than one.


(The preceding story was a work of fiction and based on an amalgamation of the life experiences of the author alone. Any similarity between the events, persons, or projects described therein and to actual people, places, or events is unintended and purely coincidental. No engineers were harmed during the writing of this story).ES

Five Tips To Help Stay Out Of Trouble

  • Never go to any meeting unprepared. If you get drafted at the last minute, the answers to two simple questions can make a world of difference: Who will be there, and what is the project's square footage? If you know the players at the table, or just their titles, you can quite often figure out the gist of the meeting. And with the square footage in mind beforehand, you can also have parameters in mind based on rules of thumb, regarding topics like anticipated cfm, plant size, approximate budget costs, etc. In turn, you might actually sound somewhat intelligent if called upon.
  • Know that when it comes to sizing up a situation, there is no such thing as a stupid question. If you understand a problem, quite often the solution is obvious. But if you don't understand the scope of a problem, you have no business signing on to a solution. Simply put, if you don't get it, don't nod in compliance - speak up.
  • Never think a tight schedule or an insufficient fee is an excuse to compromise your design effort. If a schedule is tight, figure out how to do the job right in the time allotted. If the schedule is impossible, say so and pull the plug if need be. No client should have to accept a slip in the schedule due to sloppy time management. But just as importantly, neither should they have to pay a penalty in changeorders or compromised performance because some arbitrary due date was kept.
  • Know the stakeholders. Know what the endusers expect, and, just as importantly, what they don't expect. If at all possible, don't allow an intermediate authority, be it an architect, project manager, or a facility director, stand between you and the guy operating the systems. If you don't give them what they need, they will figure out a solution without you afterward. If you give them more than they need or understand, they will simplify it to their own comfort level. Either way, what they end up with is not what you designed, and that doesn't bode well for either of you down the road when problems have to be solved.
  • Stay in the loop. From beginning to end, you have to stay plugged in. If you jump in a project late and decisions have already been made, make the design team rewind the tape and play it back. During construction, stay in touch with the design. If you can't afford to visit the site, pick up the phone when the shop drawings come across your desk, and make sure the contractor knows whom you are and what you are trying to accomplish. If you can swing it, participate in a training session or two in addition to your punchout. A word of wisdom from you, the designer, at the right time might make all the difference.

Bonus Tip

  • Never forget what your initials on a drawing represent. That design is a reflection on you personally, and more importantly, professionally. Because your value is determined by your ability, the protection of your own professional reputation should be paramount in all your actions.