Quite a vague headline, right? Well, it fits the following problem quite well.

How many of you reading this have had to mediate between the mechanical contractor and the controls contractor on your projects? Don’t worry, I can’t see your hands, so it’s OK to be honest.

In this month’s column, I’m going to discuss an issue that had largely faded away but is coming back with a vengeance. The issue is material and labor responsibility when you have both embedded controls on equipment and building automation systems within the scope of the same project.

Before we go any deeper, a quick definition is in order, so we are all on the same page.

Embedded controls, also known as packaged equipment, is when the “controls” are factory-configured and installed on a piece of equipment. Typically, this equipment is supplied by the mechanical contractor. The rest of the systems on-site are usually controlled via the building automation system, which is provided by the controls contractor.

The result is that there is often conflict around scope adherence and scope ownership between the mechanical and controls contractors.

This naturally causes conflict for two reasons:

  1. The controls contractor is contractually under the mechanical contractor, which makes it difficult to have cross-contractor conversations about scope adherence; and

  2. Often, controls submittals are required early in the project, and this aggressive timeline along with the contractual structure leads to a lack of coordination between the contractors.

Side note: putting field coordination in the spec is a lazy way to manage this conflict and will end up causing countless meetings late in the project. I’ve seen this proven time and time again across multiple projects.

OK, well this is all pretty depressing. What can we do to fix this issue?

The No. 1 thing that can be done is to provide time for the design engineer to facilitate conversations between contractors when utilizing both packaged equipment controls and building automation systems.

Most of the time, everything you need to accomplish can be solved in a single meeting. After all, it’s much easier to decide how and where scope ownership ends before material is ordered and installed.

Here’s how I like to facilitate these meetings.

1. Identify the scope of each contractor and establish intersections/boundaries — I know this sounds complicated, but it’s really not. There are clear scope boundaries, such as servers, graphics, and the like, that don’t even need to be discussed. Additionally, the items that are in conflict are often exactly the same.

Issues like who is responsible for the communications card or who is responsible for the valves and dampers are so common that you should be able to quickly identify and resolve them.

2. Ensure that the specification and mechanical plans clearly refer to scope all the way through the design, procurement, installation, and test phases of the project. Once again, leaving it up to the mechanical contractor and the controls contractor to decide how and when to coordinate is a recipe for project delays and change order wars. It doesn’t need to be this way. A simple pre-meeting during the bid solicitation phase can go a long way.

I want to make sure you just caught what I said. Often, this must be done before bid solicitation and acceptance. If not, you will find yourself mediating scope ownership discussions, which is what we are trying to avoid.

3. Over time, develop a library and approach — there is absolutely no reason why you should be reinventing the wheel. Sure, sequences may change, but, over time, you should be able to predict (as long as you pay attention) where scope conflict will occur, and you should proactively eliminate it using the techniques I described above.

When I consult with engineers, one of the consistent themes I hear is cost pressure. “It’s so competitive. How can we afford to do these things?” But, it is these same engineers who are spending tens to hundreds of hours post-contract mediating conflict — what is that doing for your project profitability?



I want to leave you with this thought: You don’t need to be perfect. This is often what freezes the engineers I work with from taking action. If you simply get 10% better, that is a big deal. Be willing to change, track your efforts, and adjust your designs. Doing this will yield results and make your day-to-day life much more enjoyable.