Published on March 1st, 2013 | by UC&D Magazine


Mechanical Roundtable: Contractors & 
Engineers Discuss Industry Issues

IPD/BIM, LEED, Commissioning Agents among main topics discussed by industry professionals from major local mechanical firms.

Pat Lynch, Vice President, CCI Mechanical
Derrick Sander, President, A&B Mechanical Contractors
Brett Christiansen, President, Palmer Christiansen Company
Jason Hilton, President, KHI Mechanical
Neil Spencer, Principal, Van Boerum & Frank Associates
Roger Hamlet, Vice President, Colvin Engineering
Bob Bergman, Executive V.P., UMCA
Craig Coburn, Richards Brandt Miller Nelson
John Young, Young Hoffman, LLC


Utah Construction & Design, in conjunction with the Utah Mechanical Contractors Association, hosted a mechanical roundtable forum February 6 at the Utah Career Center in Salt Lake City. Representatives from four prominent Utah mechanical contractors, along with representatives from two of the largest mechanical engineering firms in the state, met to discuss key issues within the local design and construction market. The roundtable was moderated by attorneys Craig Coburn of Richards Brandt Miller Nelson, and John Young of Young Hoffman, LLC, along with Brad Fullmer, publisher/managing editor of UC&D.

Coburn: What is the general consensus of where BIM (Building Integrated Modeling) is in the market? In an ideal world we see IPD (Integrated Project Delivery) and BIM working together if it’s implemented at the right level and deep enough into the process. Is that happening in the market?

Young: The theoretical concept of BIM, if it’s utilized to its maximum benefit, dovetails with Integrated Project Delivery. You almost eliminate conflict problems.

Coburn: This is specific to the mechanical professional. If you guys could be working together on the same model, knowing you can share any upside when the project is delivered early and under budget, which is what pure IPD envisions, you will put together a much better product at the end of the day and that same concept would permeate any trade and profession.

Christiansen: If you’re really going to do (IPD), you have to have the mechanical and electrical subs on board at the beginning, or early in the design process, rather than get the drawings to 90%, bring a couple of subs on, and then you have the realities of the construction schedule overlapping with the design and that’s the problems we’ve seen. If you really are going to do IPD, you need to bring subs in at an early stage. A lot of owners are reluctant to do that because they’re afraid of paying too much for those services. >>

Hamlet: The irony of that is that the percentage of total project cost that is allocated for design is less than one percent, when you figure in financing, long-term maintenance, and all that, bringing in the trades (subcontractors) to work on the design is such a small component of the long-term cost of that project.

Lynch: How do we get a message to owners, or begin to educate them as to the benefit of integrating design. You hear words integration and collaborative. Those are the fundamental pieces that somehow get disrupted. At the end of the day an engineer has a design centered on functionality and we want to figure out how to get it installed the most efficient way we can so the customer is happy. We have the same goals, but we get pushed in different boxes and the collaborative part seems to get lost.

Coburn: Why is that? Is it a matter of contracting and education?

Christiansen: The problem is there are different funding mechanisms. You have the DFCM funding the initial construction of a big state project, but then you have the end user, be it Salt Lake Community College, the University of Utah or whoever that has the mechanism for funding the maintenance and long-term operation of the building.

Spencer: It is a contracting issue. 20 years ago the State of Utah was doing partnering. They would cover the design team under the same liability and insurance as the construction project. We were all supposed to be partners, but they never changed their contracts to reflect that. People who make the contracts, the building owners, need to be sold on the concept (of collaboration) and then address it in their contracts.

Hamlet: Often times in an owners mind when they’re trying to consider payback of first time costs, most owners won’t go beyond seven years. Some clients, if they are manufacturers, they will take that capital and invest it into something else that is directly related to manufacturing, and if they don’t get a payback within six months it doesn’t even enter into the equation. We’re talking about very long periods. If we try and shrink (the ROI) down to where most realistic financial decisions take place, that’s where it loses traction.
Coburn: So does that mean IPD may have a place in the institutional work, but maybe not in the private sector as much?

Hamlet: There are some private groups that aren’t planning on selling a building immediately after it’s built, but they still have to weigh that (first time) cost benefit and see if they can take that money and invest it in something else that would have a higher rate of return in that limited period of time.

Lynch: There are some owners who a driven strictly by first time costs and that’s their whole focus. In talking about Integrated Project Delivery, in my mind the long-term payback on maintenance costs is just one element of really applying IPD.

Hamlet: In talking to my engineers about using BIM they say it’s not being utilized in the broader spectrum of the project like it could be utilized because owners don’t want to pay for it. >>
Christiansen: Correct. This is one of the downsides of BIM in that it’s a marketing tool for architects. (Architects) are going to mechanical and electrical consultants and requiring a 3D Revit model along with the design. So it’s increasing the hours of design work involved in creating construction documents because they’re trying to also use a (3D) Revit model to show work on drawings. Drawings become fuzzy, they’re not clear. I think the use of Revit in construction bid set models is a bad trend, personally.

Spencer: I think the rub is people look at BIM or look at a Revit mechanical drawing and expect a shop drawing level of quality on it and it’s not there for a number of reasons. One is in the design business we (consultants, architects) all finish up on the same day. We don’t have the luxury of looking at everyone’s drawings and doing a show drawing level. So when someone says there are 10,000 (plus) clashes on these drawings, I’m not the least bit surprised. People need to realize there are going to be 10,000 clashes unless owners want to pay the design teams a lot more money to produce a shop drawing quality set of documents.

Young: There seems to be at least a blurring of responsibility for resolving design issues as opposed to having a clear definition of what is design and what is coordination.

Christiansen: Occasionally we’ll say to the GC (conflicts) need to be resolved by the engineer and they’ll say, ‘oh no, you guys can make it work’. It’s not like that in every case, but it does happen. Our national trade association (MCA) has tried to come up with a definition of what 3D coordination is and contractually what we should be obligated to do, or not do. They’ve issued that BIM standard and are trying to get it adopted as an industry standard.

Hamlet: I think it would be a smart thing regarding IPD to get all the associations together on this issue.

Christiansen: In talking about IPD, I know of a general contractor in California where they did IPD. Early in the process (the owner) picked a general, they picked an electrical (contractor), they picked a mechanical (contractor), they picked an architect. They rented a building and everybody spent the entire design process working side-by-side. It was a giant hospital project and the owner understood the additional design costs in doing it and supposedly it went very well.

Coburn: There are a lot of IPD models out there and some contain contractual risk transfer provisions. Construction is so difficult whether it’s design-build or design-bid-build. Pure IPD projects where everybody comes in with a pre-allocation of economic risk and opportunity, those are the ones that work, and they work even better when you bring the major trade subs during design.

Hilton: I think there is a difference in talking about a project that is design-bid-build vs. design-build. To defend BIM a little bit, I find it quite useful as an information device to show owners when there is a conflict.

Young: The whole concept of integration of all information for a building, does a design-build method of delivery work better than design-bid-build?

Sander: The design-build method brings the user into the whole formula, makes them an integral part of the team and opens a dialogue between the people building it and people using it. That’s where the 3D model comes into play so well because you can incorporate all their thoughts, their changes and show them graphically what that does to pipe routing, to conduit routing to duct routing. I can show them how financially that affected their bid and they can make a decision on whether it was a good call or maybe we don’t add that capacity to the building by minimizing conflict.

Fullmer: Let’s talk about Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. This year is the 15th anniversary since the U.S. Green Building Council implemented the LEED process. The first LEED certified project in Utah was in 2001. Some owners are for it, some are against it. From a contractor’s perspective, what challenges do you have with LEED? Do you have LEED Accredited Professionals on staff? Is LEED a good thing?

Hilton: The only real impact that I’ve seen is when we’re in on the design of the project. Otherwise the general contractor and engineers take care of LEED issues.

Lynch: We’ve had LEED Accredited Professionals on our staff for quite awhile. We think LEED is a great program. There has been, over the 15 years, a great amount of education that has taken that first cost increment and it’s been figured out how to reduce that. I remember having conversations regarding segregating waste and how that costs money. Some general contractors have figured out a system that has lessened or eliminated any cost impact in that respect. Firms have been able to adapt to figuring out ways to make (the LEED process) work better. The challenge for us is implementing a plan on achieving certain LEED points that have been identified earlier in the process.

Sander: We’re seeing LEED on most of our jobs. The technology is advancing as fast as we’re able to use it. The pricing isn’t always concurrent with technology so engineers may have products available to them that our market may not have current pricing on, so it can be tricky.

Christiansen: LEED has been a positive influence in terms of buildings becoming more sustainable. If you get into the intricacies of LEED, if you want a really green building, it has to be a more energy efficient building. That’s where the big (LEED) points are. Several of the LEED points are just check off boxes and easy to get, others are difficult. As a mechanical contractor, the only trouble we can get into is using the wrong solvents or adhesives. We have LEED Accredited Professionals on staff and it helps. You don’t want to be responsible for losing a point they were counting on.

Young: With respect to the various categories of Silver, Gold and Platinum, are you finding that more owners will take the Silver just to get the plaque, but they’re not willing to go to the next level, or is there a great desire on the owners side to get to the Platinum level?

Hamlet: When LEED was first introduced we would see more owners who were pushing to just trying to get certified, they wouldn’t necessarily make the extra effort to get to one of the higher designations. That’s less the case now. Silver seems to be the old certified, and some owners are setting Gold as a minimum standard.

Spencer: LEED has raised people’s awareness of sustainability and energy savings. Engineers as a group have been pushing for improved efficiency years before LEED came around. LEED has given us ammunition. Owners and architects have come around. It’s been great for the entire building industry. Everything LEED is trying to do, I think it’s accomplishing.

Young: What’s the consensus on third-party building commissioners?

Hilton: The biggest problem I’m running into is it’s their job to find problems; even if they’re not there, they have to create them sometimes.

Bergman: Are they finding legitimate issues?

Hilton: Sometimes they’re legitimate issues that we’ve overlooked or items where we made mistakes. Other times they’re pinning you against the engineer a bit. We just finished a project where the general contractor hired a commissioning agent and the school district hired a different commissioning agent; neither was involved in the design process at the end they both were trying to put their imprint on the project and justify why they should be hired for the next project. It makes it really difficult. >>
Fullmer: How much is it to hire a commissioning agent?

Hamlet: Generally it’s more than what the mechanical engineer is on a project.

Spencer: The rule of thumb is it’s 1.5 percent to 2 percent of the mechanical costs. If they do more total building commissioning to include the envelope and the electrical system, it may be 1 percent of a total building costs.

Sander: We’ve always performed pre-functional checklists that the manufacturer recommends and then we have our control contractors perform verification tests on all systems, which includes the shut-down. What I’m seeing with commissioning agents is that they’re bringing up access requirements and they’ve kind of become the owner’s voice on equipment maintenance. This goes back to the BIM issue. Once a system is built, to modify the access is costly. That’s a difficult thing for me as a contractor for someone to come up at the end of the job and say ‘you’ve got to re-route all this piping or conduit or ductwork to provide access’. Access is a relative term. Access for me, being 150 pounds, is a piece of cake. Access for someone 6-foot-5 might be more difficult. Anytime there is a gray area that involves costs, there’s going to be an issue.

Christiansen: In terms of pre-function and functionality checklists, if you have a good construction team, I sometimes question whether spending the money for commissioning is worthwhile. If you have a good control contractor that is running through those sequences and working with the engineer at start up to verify things like safety, functionality and sequences of controls, I think it’s just another set of eyes doing the same thing that would get done otherwise by the balancing contractor and the control contractor. If an owner picks the right team going in, I’m not sure there is a benefit to justify that additional cost.

Young: How often are owners using third-party commissioners?

Christiansen: Almost every single LEED project has a commissioning agent. There are some great commissioning agents out there that we love to have on projects. Other guys are out there just to write there lists, make a name for themselves and write up things that may or may not be issues.

Sander: It’s becoming more of a trend, the past seven or eight years. It would help if they brought a commissioning agent on at the first of the project, especially on design-development remodels because remodels are complicated.

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