When a new design project is kicked off within an engineering firm, it sets in motion a “standardized” process of design engineering. This process is routinely followed in order to produce the documentation required as the project moves through schematic design (SD), design development (DD), and ultimately the construction document (CD) phase. After the CDs are released for bids and costs and contracts are approved, the project moves on to the construction administration (CA) phase.

Even though creating documents is based on the same process from project to project, the project fee is seldom the same. Consequently, the question arises, “How do we consistently produce quality documents and proactive CA, when we are working for variable fees?”

The answer is not to produce lower quality documents and limit CA services because the fee doesn’t match the task at hand. The answer is to change the age-old process (AKA 20th century consulting services) in order to prioritize what should be included so that quality documents are produced and proactive CA services are provided based on the fee. Instead of diving right in, the engineer needs to step back and ask, “How can we achieve all of this while making a reasonable profit?”

In this two-part discussion on reassessing the design and CA process, we want to challenge readers who provide these consulting services, by sharing our approach and experience to date. The goal of this discussion is twofold: Establish a technically correct business method for producing construction documents based on a fee and agreed upon deliverables at the onset of the project. Then, allocate adequate funds to take back CA responsibilities abdicated in the past due to limited, remaining construction phase fees.

Starting Off On The Wrong Foot

The SD phase of a project is extremely important, as it implements many of the design factors that will be followed throughout the course of a job. Typically, 15% of the engineering fee is allotted to schematic design. The typical SD process looks like this:
  • Calculate block loads based on building use
  • Research and define all applicable codes
  • Outline preliminary systems selections
  • Determine mechanical and electrical space requirements
  • Produce an outline specification
  • Produce SD drawings
  • Lay out equipment rooms
  • Produce a SD narrative outlining the design intent

When evaluating the SD documents produced from this process, the following questions should be asked:
  • Are these the correct documents for the building owner to understand the design intent?
  • Can these documents establish sufficient performance criteria to provide a design-builder with adequate information to produce a single-source solution with a fixed project cost?
  • Has the design engineer stayed within the design fee based on these deliverables?

Our SD assessment:
  • No, these are not the correct documents needed for the owner to understand if the basis of design will be met, even though these documents are probably exactly what a design firm will produce in the SD phase.
  • No, a D-B firm could not take these SD documents and commit to a project and cost.
  • No, the budget was probably exceeded because these documents are excessive, yet lack substantial performance criteria.

Once the SD documents are submitted for approval and authorization to continue is given, the DD phase begins. Typically, 20% of the engineering fee is allotted to DD. This is the phase where the engineer begins to coordinate the various building systems with the building architecture, refines the system criteria for proper equipment selections through HVAC load calculations, and begins to produce project specifications. In sync with these tasks, the engineer begins producing a drawing set. The typical DD process looks like this:
  • Create a legend sheet
  • Create demolition floor plans (if required)
  • Create new construction floor plans (piping and ductwork)
  • Create schedule sheet(s)
  • Create detail sheet(s)
  • Create a first version of project specifications

When evaluating the DD documents produced from this process, the following questions should be asked:
  • Are these the correct documents for a building owner to understand the design intent now that 35% of the design fee has been invested?
  • Will the owner have a sense of how much annual energy consumption and associated operating costs will result based on the documents to date?
  • Will a construction manager (CM) be able to provide a GMP (guaranteed maximum price) based on these documents vs. 50%, 75%, or 90% CDs?
  • Has the design engineer stayed within the design fee based on these deliverables?

Our DD assessment:
  • No, although system layouts outline general intent and preliminary coordination, they don’t necessarily provide design intent and/or operational information.
  • No, the lack of operational information does not allow the owner to outline associated utility costs and operating costs.
  • No, the documents do not contain enough information for a CM to provide an accurate GMP.
  • No, the budget was probably exceeded because these documents are excessive, yet still lack substantial performance criteria.


Straying Off Course

As the engineer moves into the CD phase, the majority of the equipment has been selected and located, the main ductwork and piping systems’ routing has been established, and mechanical rooms have been laid out including access clearances for maintenance. Typically, 40% of the engineering fee is allotted to the CD phase, but here is where the engineering firm loses control of the fee, if it has not already started to lose control.

Beginning in the CD phase, most design teams will have overspent the fee producing the documents to date. During the CD phase, this cost overrun will only get worse. The typical CD process looks like this:
  • Drawing set revisions, including editing the legend sheet; producing double-line ductwork layouts; creating part plans, sections and elevations; editing schedules; and editing details, etc.
  • Revising and coordinating the project specifications with Division 1 requirements.
  • Coordinating architectural elements such as space revisions; soffits; reflected ceiling plan (RCP); exterior sight lines; furniture, fixture, and equipment drawings, specialized systems, etc.
  • Coordinating with the structural engineer on equipment locations, building penetrations, seismic bracing, and concrete pad requirements, etc.
  • Coordination with other trades, for RCP, equipment rooms, equipment requirements (water, gas, electrical, ventilation), etc.
  • Sequences of operation are determined.

When evaluating the CDs produced from this process, the following questions should be asked:
  • Are all of the drawings necessary?
  • Do the documents provide adequate performance criteria?
  • Can the contractor build from these documents with little additional support from the engineer?
  • Does the owner have a sense of system sophistication based on the sequences of operation?
  • Is there enough information for proper air and water systems balancing?
  • Are the documents useful to the owner for sustainable building systems operation (post-construction)?
  • Has the design engineer stayed within the design fee based on these deliverables?

Our CD assessment:
  • No, these documents are probably excessive when weighed against the design fee.
  • No, these documents will probably still lack substantial performance criteria.
  • No, over-coordination in the design process conflicts with contractual field coordination and coordination drawings leading to requests for information (RFIs) and subsequent engineering support.
  • No, typical narrative sequences of operations do not provide sufficient information, resulting in the commissioning engineer duplicating and enhancing the sequences.
  • No, system flow requirements are usually insufficient, resulting in the TAB firm creating flow diagrams to document complete air and water balancing data.
  • No, the documents lack the information required for the owner and their facilities personnel to maintain proper equipment and systems operations.
  • No, the budget was probably exceeded because these documents are usually excessive, yet still lack substantial performance criteria.


Giving Up On CA

Upon receipt of the bids, the engineering firm should get another 5% of their design fee, bringing the fee to 80% of the total and leaving only 20% of the fee to cover consulting services that will span the CA phase, which is usually twice the timeline of the design documentation phase. Based on these limited funds, the engineering firm will probably now take a back seat to the building process because of the small remaining fee. Compared to the original CA tasks outlined in the design engineer’s proposal, the firm will likely abdicate its proactive responsibility for CA.

The typical CA process looks like this:
  • Perform a limited number of site visits (e.g., four visits)
  • Shop drawing review
  • Respond to RFIs
  • Final punchlist
  • O&M manual review
  • Record drawings review

When evaluating the CA process, the following questions should be asked:
  • Is the contractor duplicating the coordination effort that was already over done in the design phase?
  • Are all the drawings necessary, knowing the contractor is required to facilitate field coordination drawings?
  • Will the contractor require additional operational and balancing data that should have/could have been provided in the design phases?
  • Has the design engineer stayed within the CA fee based on these deliverables?

Our CA assessment:
  • Yes, the contractor is executing field coordination and coordination drawings already addressed by the design team.
  • No, drawing sections, elevations, and even some plans may be immediately obsolete based on final field coordination documents.
  • Yes, the contractor does not have the complete ATC and TAB scopes of work outlined in the documents to fulfill the design intent.
  • No, overruns in the design phases typically result in inadequate funding to provide the basic/proposed CA services.


Rethinking The Process

We believe the project starts “off course” at the time of the engineer’s fee proposal to the client, due to poor planning. Following the “standardized” process, the engineer continues off course to a point of no return (no ROI) and is left with an insufficient fee remaining to champion the design intent. Losing control of the fee during design phases leaves little room for the design engineer to carry out the basic/proposed CA services, let alone perform the additional CA services that typically arise.

In order to avoid this occurrence, the engineer needs to assess the fee and determine the level of documentation that fits the fee without compromising the quality of the deliverables. The proposal should address the documentation necessary to prioritize the design parameters, include what is crucial, and leave out what is not really needed.

In rethinking the process, we believe the design engineer can break from the routine of creating “standardized” documents, handing them over to the mercy of the contractor and then backing away from the proactive CA responsibilities. The goal is to produce quality documents that fit the fee and can be utilized in a number of ways, not just for contractors to bid and build by. The documents should have the ability to do the following:
  • Have the building owner understand the design intent.
  • Have the deliverables be useful and cost-effective for design, construction, operation, and maintenance of the installation.
  • Allow the engineer to provide the owner estimated energy consumption and operational costs once the project is theirs.
  • Allow a D-B firm at the SD level to assign an accurate cost and commit to building the project.
  • Allow a CM firm at the DD level to assign an accurate cost and commit to a GMP.
  • Properly outline the systems’ operations and balancing for the facilities personnel to carry out sustainable building system operation.
  • Allow the engineer to produce the required deliverables based on the fee for each phase of design and construction while staying within the fee associated with each phase.
  • Allow the design engineer to be proactive in the CA phase.

How can this be accomplished? We will share our process with you in Part 2 of this article. In it, we will discuss a 21st century approach to design engineering and CA. Integral with this approach will be our use of software for design, drafting, equipment selection and sizing, and the use of standardized checklists. Equally important is the start of closeout on the job at the beginning of the project by envisioning the deliverables, the allocation of hours/fee, time management of the available electronic business tools, and the use of project-specific websites to get the job done on time and within budget.