‘More for Less’ – A Discussion of Project Value

More for less in Design…..Really?

In our Spring 2013 newsletter, our “Did you Know” article overviewed a variety of construction phase topics, including constructability, BIM, shop drawings, commissioning, and troubleshooting. In it, we discussed that the construction industry was (in our estimation) returning to the notion that it is possible to achieve more for less…when the focus is returned to the bigger picture.

More for less. In construction? In Design? In anything? Really? Absolutely, with the right team and the right process.

Being engineering geeks, let’s talk about this more for less thing from the standpoint of a term used routinely in thermodynamics: “Control Volume”. The control volume is the boundary around which the problem or question is to be analyzed. Depending on where you draw this boundary, the answer can be different.

Let’s apply it to Design Teams and to the project big picture. The current process for most design, even when some version of 3D or BIM is used, is to knock out the drawings as quickly and as economically as possible. This approach is the result of decades of downward fee pressure on A/E services, which in turn has lead more and more to drawings being as minimally detailed as required to acceptably illustrate “intent”. (And of course “acceptably” inescapably has a variety of interpretations among the Owners, contractors, architects, and engineers in the industry.)

The result of this approach? The Construction Teams in today’s projects spend inordinate time and money to create shop drawings that are in a constructible condition. Through our Construction Support Services (CSS), we’ve been a part of that process. The “control volume” has been built around the A/E fees. The quest has been to buy these services as inexpensively as possible. As one contractor has put it, “we usually receive what we believe are about 75% complete drawings, but we cannot build it to only 75% completion, only 75% right. So, we are filling in more gaps which takes more time and more money.”

I am not here to dog this approach. It is what it is. It exists today for a number of legitimate reasons (and possibly for a few not so legitimate ones). To pretend it doesn’t exist in too many aspects of the industry is, in this author’s opinion, not realistic.

But what happens if the control volume is drawn not around the A/E “soft costs”, but instead drawn around the total project costs? What happens if, in cases where the project needs it and the Design Team can deliver it, a new approach is followed?

What happens if a Design Team historied in constructible design, with sufficient details and specifics, develops a design to a status of needing only minor tuning rather than major infills and corrections? What happens if shop drawings and their coordination take a fraction of what is currently being spent? What happens if the construction teams can count on what they see in the construction documents as being representative of the costs they will experience in construction?

With the control volume built around the entire project, this new approach yields better definition of construction needs, and therefore truer costs on bid day. It reduces the time and effort to create coordinated shop drawings, thereby reducing their costs. It reduces the “unk-unks” (unknown unknowns) that ALL the project parties must endure (Owners, Contractors, Designers), thereby reducing RFIs, change orders, and other potentially costly diversions and distractions.

This total project control volume yields an immediate payback that is achieved even before the keys are turned over. This payback is not theoretical. Based on our project experiences, including those within our CSS, Contractors have stated to us the payback is real. It is a win-win for all.

Where from here? Except in Design/ Build (D/B) or Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) projects, moving toward the new win-win approach rests primarily with the Owners. Those of us who serve them in design or construction must therefore help them to be aware of the new mind-set and new opportunity.

For it is they who, in the overall, will receive the largest share of this overall “more for less.”

~ Tom Green, P.E., LEED AP – Principal Engineer