In a previous life, I was the manager of engineering for an HVAC equipment manufacturer. There were two major product lines, one serving the commercial market and another serving the United States government. In both cases, the product included a coil, a fan, and a housing. And in both products the primary purpose of the equipment was to heat and cool. But the similarities ended there.

The differences in the intended markets made the two products vastly different. The focus of engineering on the commercial line was all about production efficiency and beating the competition while protecting the bottom line. The government designs were driven by archaic military standards and bulletproof construction (literally), damn the cost.

What was frustrating for me as design manager was the complete lack of exploitable similarity between the two lines. Two different companies at two different locations may as well have built them. No production improvements discovered on the commercial line could be applied to the government units because of the constricting standards. And no aspect of the robust government design could be applied to the commercial units because of cost.

Ultimately, that frustrating disconnect defined my perception of government vs. commercial sector work: They may look the same from the outside, but the rules were vastly different, with different expectations, drivers, and concepts of value.

Figure 1. An example of functional objectives for a sample project from The Facilities Standards for the Public Buildings Service or P100.

Good Government

Now you may share a related conventional wisdom, a belief that nothing good can come from government. And you might be right if government were only what we see on Sunday morning news shows. I contend that those bloated windbags who change their "core beliefs" as often as we change our furnace filters are merely the front men for the government. The real deal goes on out of sight.

As this article goes to press, we are closing in on the finale of the longest presidential election season in recent history. By now, you are either chomping at the bit to cast your vote, or you stopped paying attention a long time ago. But regardless of who wins in November, the government's institutions will chug along pretty much the way they did in October. One of those institutions is the General Services Administration (GSA).

The GSA is made up of thoughtful architects, engineers, and various practitioners of the built environment. As the landlord for the federal government, they have a mandate to provide buildings that are lasting and appropriate, striking as well as functional, and flexible in addition to being efficient. Kind of like you and me.

And, like you and me, they are expected to do this while balancing the mutually elusive objectives of budget, quality, and schedule. Toward this end, they and their consultants have developed standards that void the common perception that "good enough for government work" is the very definition of mediocrity. In fact, I have found these standards so useful and so practical that they have altered my "government ain't commercial" paradigm.

Systems and Process

So, what good are articles about government stuff if you aren't doing it yourself, right? I mean, even though the GSA is a major player, the vast majority of you out there are doing work for other clients. The true value of these types of articles (in my humble opinion) can only be measured by their applicability to what you do day-to-day. With that in mind, consider the following.

First, HVAC designers are systems specialists. We don't engineer the chiller, pumps, or condenser; instead, we select the most appropriate temperature or distribution mode and then select the gear to produce the desired result. In a very real way, almost every project is a prototype, as we pull together equipment to create unique mechanical organisms.

Second, there is a way we go about this. Engineering is a sequential process, and you have to start somewhere before you get somewhere. But you can't get there from here if you don't have a plan. It may be a good plan or a bad plan, but you need a plan.

So in the most basic terms, we have systems and we have processes by which we create these systems.

Now, a firm may take years to develop standards and a consistent approach. As individuals, it takes a lot of hard-knock tutelage to gain insights into what constitutes a good design, let alone a pathway to said design. But while nothing can trump real world experience, there may be a way of making the ride on your particular learning curve a little less bumpy courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer.

Drum Roll Please ...

At the GSA, there resides the standard known officially as PBS-P100, The Facilities Standards for the Public Buildings Service (its friends simply call it the P100). This standard is continually reviewed and updated (most recently in March 2003) by some of the top practitioners in our field. This manual covers both systems and process, and unless you're designing strip malls (and God love you, someone has to), it can most likely be adapted to your next project.

In regard to systems, the standard provides sound guidance. From chilled water to ventilation, from building pressurization to psychrometrics, the P100 defines practical approaches. We will focus on a number of these systems and their applicability to your practice in a subsequent article, but this article is about process as defined in P100 and how it can be of use to you today.

Steps to Success

My wife is a much more spiritual person than I am. I approach God kind of like a math problem, and inevitably I reach a circular argument that frustrates. But I digress. Mrs. Dickens likes to tell me that the journey is more important than the destination (then she challenges me to snatch the pebble from her hand, which can really be annoying). But as much as I fight it, she is right.

Just as in life, how you reach your conclusion in an engineering endeavor is as important as the conclusion itself. And arguably, my HVAC-grasshopper, how you get from the initial question to the final answer has a direct parallel to others' perceptions of your professionalism, the quality of your work, and, heaven forbid if you get hauled into court, the defendability of the final product.

Face it. If you fly by the seat of your pants, eventually you are going to get bit in that same general area.

At the present, I have the luxury of working for a large company with deep resources and standard operating procedures, but I have worked for smaller firms with less formality. On many a project, I knew in my gut the steps I needed to take, but articulating those steps was difficult. I would have to create a plan from whole cloth and inevitably I would miss a step.

Even if I did okay, the guy in the cube across from me was probably reinventing a similar wheel, but one completely unlike my own. Such a practice breeds inconsistency when most design firms are striving for just the opposite. And in a large or growing firm, there may be a tendency to allow your processes to atrophy over time.

That's where the P100 comes in. In Appendix A, the different phases of design and the appropriate deliverables at each stage are described. While in many cases the number of phases may need to be truncated, and all of the deliverables may not be appropriate for the particular project, the fact remains that it provides a road map that can chart your steps to success.

At the risk of offending Confucius, I will trot out one more tired truism: Failing to plan is planning to fail. So regardless of whether you have a specific plan of attack or you wing it every time, your process is due a second look through the prism of the P100.

Phases and Philosophy

Each phase of design has a distinctive challenge and goal. What you are trying to demonstrate and document at each stage is the evolution of the design, from concept through bid documents. So it is appropriate that the deliverables that make the case along the way advance as well.

Consider standard details and life-cycle cost analysis (LCCA). Both are relevant to serious designs, but at different stages. Standard details at the concept phase may fill up a sheet, but they do little to assist in the determination of system type. And a LCCA begun in the construction document (CD) phase is probably too little too late.

With that in mind, the P100 lays out nicely the objectives and deliverables for each phase. Because a picture is worth a thousand words, and even though a discussion here would help me reach the word count I promised the editor, I refer you instead to Figure 1 from the P100. You can refer to the P100 for a more detailed description of the phases and deliverables.

Remember, neither every job nor every client will require the level of detail described, but the road map presented can reasonably be tailored to your particular situation.

Figure 2. A functional objective matrix from the P100 can help define the objectives of any project.

High-Impact Intercepts

All of this hubbub about government standards and planning may keep you out of trouble, but can it help you bag a future job? All of it brings added value, but the P100 presents a specific tool that you may be able to introduce to the architect and design team, and in turn increase your worth: performance expectations matrices.

At the beginning of each project, it is important to define the functional objectives. A functional objectives matrix, similar to the one shown in Figure 2, can help in this regard. The P100 states in part, "By providing a numeric impact weight ... a graphic check list becomes apparent as to which systems/features are most important in delivering a project's performance expectations."

It goes on to say, "The high impact matrix intercepts call for design solutions that will optimize functional interests, consistent with the need to integrate solutions that will support all functional objectives."

Did you catch that term, "high-impact intercepts"? Sounds like Top Gun doesn't it? I can see Tom Cruise now, hunkered over his CAD designer in front of the PC, functional objectives matrix in one hand and a Hewlett Packard 11C programmable calculator (circa 1984) in the other. With urgency in his voice, he barks, "Roger that, Air Weasel, we have identified the use of underfloor air distribution as a primary high-impact intercept. Prepare to develop construction details on my mark ... ."

Bet you had no idea what we did was so exciting.

But seriously, high-impact intercepts require formal design team technical discussions to help optimize design solutions. These technical discussions take place during the concept phase and should address functional performance goals and integrated solution options, head off what can go wrong, and identify commissioning requirements upfront.

Let's say the architect isn't open to a fully integrated approach as supported by the matrix concept. In that case, you, as the HVAC lead, could develop your own discipline specific matrix and use it as a tool to document and prioritize the functional objective of your system design for the owner, endusers, and the rest of the design team.

For example, maybe the architect will be less likely to elevate aesthetics over maintenance concerns if he has to admit to it in front of the owner during the assignment of priorities in the matrix. And, with this information in hand, you the designer may be in a stronger position to challenge ridiculous ceiling heights that can turn the space above the ceiling into a coordination and operations nightmare.

GSA, LEED™, Documentation, and Integration

One last testament to the value of the P100 is the fact that the GSA has mandated a USGBC LEED™ Silver Certification level for all new buildings. The beauty of this is not just due to the fact that this requirement encourages more sustainable design, although that is certainly laudable. No, the added value can be attributed to two of the oft-overlooked benefits of LEED certification: documentation and integration.

When most discuss LEED, they get hung up in the point count, which is understandable. After all, it is all about the score, right? But to get the most from the LEED process, you have to have an integrated approach to the design. Many of the credits can be mutually exclusive, thus requiring a thoughtful approach by the entire team.

Building orientation, system types, and air distribution are just some examples of options that have an impact on the overall design and approach to the building. To be truly successful, the team must approach the checklist together and avoid the silo effect of the mechanical engineer focusing only on energy and atmosphere, while the architect is consumed with materials. In turn, the LEED™ requirement fosters a process where the high-impact intercepts must be, and can be, identified early in the process.

Further, the certification process drives documentation, which leads us back to the case for a strong design file that is ultimately defendable. We all claim to meet ASHRAE 62. LEED requires confirmation. You think you are meeting the definition of increased ventilation effectiveness? LEED says prove it. Every state energy code mandates compliance with ASHRAE 90.1 as a minimum. LEED calls for evidence.

To paraphrase Cheech and/or Chong, you may say, "Certification? We don't need no stinkin' certification." Nevertheless, the one-two punch of documentation and integration will ultimately lead to a better design.


Government and commercial work can have common ground. And in spite of the politicians, the U.S. government has provided us with some remarkable tools, most notably the P100. HVAC design is about systems and processes, and how you get to the final answer is just as important as the answer itself. With the P100, determining the right approach for you and your projects is made easier.

And finally, by using the tools described herein in concert with the steps required of LEED certification, you can identify problems and their solutions early, while promoting a more integrated approach to your team's designs. This ultimately increases your value to the owner and architect, and in the long run supports a healthy bottom line for you and your firm. ES

To download the P100, access the GSA website at