Last month, I addressed the challenge faced by new construction project teams to build faster and cheaper. In the normal project delivery process, this responsibility falls on the construction manager and/or general contractor (CMGC). CMGC firms are comprised of talented people experienced in the construction of buildings; usually project managers, architects, structural engineers, and civil engineers along with people who have come up through the ranks in these building trades.
Historically, up until about 20-25 years ago, this talent pool was sufficient, because individual subcontractors were expected and able to take care of the systems within the new buildings (e.g., electrical, lighting, HVAC, plumbing, life safety, elevators, etc.). Each system was a discrete entity with clear lines of responsibility for each subcontractor.
Today, however, systems inside buildings are rarely standalone and are integrated to varying degrees. It is becoming more common for fire alarm, doors, security, HVAC, lighting, elevators, windows, etc., to each be talking to one to three other systems in order to provide high energy efficiency, optimized security and life safety, and enhanced performance feedback to the building operators.
In order to deliver today’s high performance buildings, the CMGC team needs to include a mechanical/electrical/plumbing (MEP) coordinator who understands how these systems are installed, operated, and integrated with each other. The MEP coordinator should be dedicated to these issues and to facilitating the communication/coordination between all of the subcontractors responsible for the systems that make the building work. The MEP coordinator is the hub of the wheel whose spokes are made up of individual subcontractors. An excellent MEP coordinator (not just anyone given the title of MEP coordinator) who is respected and heard by the project team makes a huge difference in a project.
In our role as commissioning professionals, we have worked with CMGC project managers who believe a system will be complete and fully functional by a certain date because his/her construction schedule says it will be. The project manager doesn’t have the time or expertise to dig deeply into what’s actually happening with the subcontractors. The most unfortunate situations are when the subcontractors tell the CMGC that there are issues and that they won’t be done by the scheduled date and the project manager simply tells them to “get it done” and assumes that it will get done. Then, when it doesn’t get done and we show up for functional performance testing, we hear from the subcontractors that, “It isn’t our fault. We told the CMGC that it wouldn’t be ready, but he/she wouldn’t listen.”
This has happened enough times and is so unproductive that we are sometimes tempted to serve as liaison between the subcon-tractors (who tell us the truth about completion and coordination status) and the CMGC project manager who is acting like his/her head is in the sand. However, that should be the role of a MEP coordinator on the CMGC’s team.
On the other hand, we have been involved in projects where the subcontractors are telling the CMGC exactly what the CMGC wants to hear about completion status and readiness for functional performance testing — even if it isn’t true. An experienced and pragmatic MEP coordinator will know when the subcontractors are “snowing” him/her with impractical information. In that case, the MEP coordinator should help the subcontractors turn the situation around and/or have the CMGC project manager adjust the construction schedule to reflect reality.
I don’t think there are many (although there are some) building owners who believe that commissioning should encompass the role defined above for a MEP coordinator. However, as a commissioning professional, it is so tempting to do just that in challenging projects with no official CMGC MEP coordinator. Sometimes we are the only people who have the full bird’s eye view of the systems and all of the subcontractors trying to integrate them. When we see a train wreck coming, we need to be very careful about how we communicate our concerns and to whom. Without a MEP coordinator to talk with, any concerns we voice often fall on the ears of people who don’t want to hear about MEP problems.
I recommend that every project be assigned a MEP coordinator as part of the CMGC team. The position can be part time for small projects and may require a staff of people for large complex projects. In either case, I believe it is critical that the MEP coordinator be responsible only for that role on a particular project and not for anything else in the CMGC’s scope of services. Amongst all of the other benefits inherent to this role, having an effective MEP coordinator should reduce the total cost the owner spends on commissioning.
Ellis is president of Questions & Solutions Engineering Inc. (Chaska, MN). E-mail her at Rebecca.Ellis@QSEng.com