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ReEngineering the Engineer: Teaching IPD: Integrated Project Dharma

Douglas Fitzpatrick on October 4, 2018 - in Articles, Column

In 2016, Fitzpatrick Engineering Group was invited to be a signatory for a true Integrated (Lean) Project Delivery (ILPD) project for a regional hospital system. Most of the design team (everyone but the architect) as well as the general contractor and his subs had all worked together at this hospital on a previous project. There were 11 signatory companies to the contract: the owner, the design team (A/S/MEP), the general contractor and some of his subcontractors.

We worked almost six months before anyone produced a single drawing. Everyone was in every meeting discussing high-level decisions and vetting opportunities to save money and time. The idea was to uncover the things that might come back to haunt us later; we didn’t want any surprises. In the early phases, we met at a common location near the hospital—the big room—every two weeks.

The Project

One of our tasks as the structural engineer was to vet the structural system. We formed a small committee with our structural engineer, two architects, an MEP engineer, two people from the general contractor and someone from the mechanical sub. We created schematic-level designs for a steel moment frame, a flat plate with shearwalls, and a one-way slab-and-beam system with shearwalls. Floor-to-floor heights were tight, because we were trying to match the floors in the original hospital.

Among other things, we compared structural framing cost, schedule impacts, foundation costs and other trade impacts. The goal was to be as fair as possible in our assessment and not just do what we’ve always done … or would prefer to do. In the end, we made a presentation to the group with our findings and recommendations.

Based on our study, the steel scheme was edging out both concrete schemes by a slight margin, so we proposed the steel scheme. The only feedback we received was crickets. Finally, after what felt like several uncomfortable minutes, the mechanical sub raised his hand and said he could save 20 percent on labor costs if we went with the concrete flat-plate scheme.

I’m not a rocket scientist, but I’m pretty sure a 20-percent reduction in labor cost for a major subcontractor is a significant number. Then the drywall subcontractor explained how he wouldn’t have to fire caulk around the steel beams crossing the corridors. Then the plumbing manager started talking about how they could easily layer the plumbing work with the mechanical. All of a sudden, the room was abuzz with ideas to make everyone’s work more efficient.

The Question

I think I’m pretty observant and been around a while, but as we closed the discussion about the framing system, I posed a question: Why haven’t I heard this before? There was a short pause, and the mechanical subcontractor finally answered: “No one ever asks.”

Wow… I thought about his response all the way home. We engineers—and really the whole design team—sit in our design meetings and make judgment calls about the “best” way to design our projects. We have no input other than our own personal experience and the experience gleaned from those around us.

If you’re lucky, you have a construction administrator in the office who shares his or her thoughts based on what they see in the field. Sure, we make jobsite visits, but it’s not the same. We think we’re doing the best thing for the project, but the reality is that our own experiences color how we make design decisions. We’re missing a major opportunity.

The Solution

Unfortunately, most of the design and construction interaction these days feels adversarial; it’s us against them. After the drawings are sent out, all the construction team can do is try to make it all work the best they can with what they’re given. Rarely does a contractor ask for a better way to do something during construction. My suspicion is they’ve learned that we designers aren’t open to changing what we’ve done, and, worse yet, some of us aren’t willing to listen even though it’s better for the project. They likely have heard:

• “I told you to do it this way, and I know what I’m doing.”

• “I’m only getting paid to design it once.”

• “I don’t have time to change it.”

• etc, etc.

We designers need to learn how to benefit (yes, benefit) from our construction friends. They have a lot to share that ultimately makes us better designers. A better understanding of the entire project from design through construction makes us more informed and a more-valuable member of the project team.

Ask questions when you’re on the jobsite. Try to understand what works and what doesn’t. It’s not embarrassing to realize you don’t know everything. You get more credit for asking than for pretending to know the answer (and getting caught). And it’s not creepy (our daughters’ word, not mine). You’d be surprised what the construction folks are willing to share. You might even find they like the way you did something.

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About Douglas Fitzpatrick

Douglas G. Fitzpatrick, P.E., is the founder, president and practicing engineer of Fitzpatrick Engineering Group, a 14-year-old structural engineering firm specializing in commercial and healthcare building design.

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