Recently, I was working with a couple of other engineers on a facility assessment that will, in turn, be the beginning of a five-year capital plan. At this point in the project, we were working on the feasibility of replacing the entire hvac system for a 1.2-million-sq-ft retail store. Much of the focus to date had been spent on surveying existing conditions and considering potential engineered solutions.

Taking The Big Picture...

During our recent discussions about this job, it occurred to me that often design engineers don't get the opportunity to participate in the programming process the way we were with this project. Our job was more than just determining the optimum hvac systems for the client. We were charged with developing a strategic plan that will:

  • Be a reinvestment in the building infrastructure;
  • Be a reinvestment in the building, the "flagship" for this company;
  • Keep the retail store in business during normal working hours;
  • Keep the noise, vibration, etc., to a minimum;
  • Phase the project installation and associated construction costs over five years; and
  • Provide implementation alternatives with advantages and disadvantages.

In reviewing the hvac system design and its alternatives, there were several less technical but equally difficult "roadblocks" that had to be considered, as well as the more obvious hvac issues. In brainstorming the various conceptual designs, we were able to identify the roadblocks and unknowns as follows:

  • Will the client accept the idea of having a "swing space" to maintain business activi ties while renovating storefront space?
  • What will be the impact of this swing space in first cost, annual operating cost, and project schedule?
  • Will this swing space be for application horizontally within the building, or will a vertical approach be better?
  • What will be the trade-off to upgrade only "behind the walls" hvac and not in the retail and office space?
  • How will the hvac upgrades affect the exterior of the building, customer traffic, and the sidewalks below?

...And Developing It

I have seen the engineering community take a more assertive role over architects in recent years, relative to this kind of strategic planning. It is this added responsibility that has also expanded our idea of conceptual engineering and estimating. On this particular project, we are the ones providing the customer with a building program based on sound business decisions.

Part of these decisions are directly associated with selecting the appropriate hvac equipment and systems, but many decisions go far beyond this into implementation scheduling, phasing, and project cash flow. It is these other challenges that offer us the opportunity to provide program management services to our customers. It is this "big picture" conceptualization of a building program that challenges us to be more than just hvac engineers.

As design-build (D-B) and project delivery services continue to grow and customers request single-source responsibility, conceptual engineering and conceptual estimating will challenge us to reshape how we do business. For many a traditional engineer, they will miss the opportunity to lead. For others, this is an exciting time to "break the mold" and continue to lead.

For the engineering community, we are being asked to take more responsibility for the opportunities ahead of us. Don't miss the train - it is leaving the station.