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ReEngineering the Engineer: A Tale of Two Projects

Douglas Fitzpatrick on October 3, 2019 - in Articles, Column

Every now and then, you get a project that just seems to run into headwinds no matter which direction you turn. This latest one, however, came at a time when we were closing out our Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) project. The difference between the two projects couldn’t have been more striking and left us longing for a better way to work together to build our buildings.

The Worst of Times

The first project was a relatively simple two-office building with an outdoor open-air covered storage area and load-bearing tilt-up. We provided the engineering as well as the layout and reinforcing drawings for the panels. We issued construction drawings in early summer 2017.

Unfortunately, the site’s water pressure wasn’t good. It would be two full years before the owner was able to get a building permit while the city built a new water tower. During the two years, the owner’s company had grown, and they decided to finish out the upfit for the building. The architect sent everyone updated drawings this spring via email, indicating they included the upfit of the second floor.

A lot had changed in those two years, mostly related to the cost of construction. The additional costs for the miscellaneous metals package seemed out of line. Before totally rejecting the cost increase, I shot the architect an email just to confirm the added scope of the second-floor upfit and make sure they hadn’t added any miscellaneous metals to the package. Yes, the only change was the upfit of the second floor and a new exit door on the first floor. Wait … what?

Sure enough, they had added a door, through a tilt-up panel, on the first floor. I immediately started rerunning the design for the panel to get the revised panel to the field. The field quickly wrote me back that the panel had been poured three weeks earlier. Nice …

With some creative thinking, we were able to justify the panel was acceptable as poured; tragedy averted. I’m sure it was a casual oversight—the GC didn’t catch it, either.

The Best of Times

Fast forward to the second project. In July, I found myself sitting in our last “Big Room” meeting for our IPD project. We were working through the minutia of closing out the project. We had a great team, so closing out the project was rather trivial, and we ended up finishing the meeting early.

Rather than leave early, the owner asked us all to stay and talk about our experience with this IPD project and recount our most memorable moments, good or bad. We spent the next hour or so sharing our thoughts. Open communication, teamwork, problem solving for the good of the team and caring about each other were mentioned by everyone in some form or another.

However, what was most striking to me was the lament from just about everyone, including me, that “my next project” was already going sideways due to a lack of all the things we found dear about our IPD project. One project had RFIs in the hundreds, and they hadn’t even put a shovel in the ground.

Typical Dysfunction?

What was really sad, however, was the realization that most people have no idea just how rewarding and fun (yes, fun) it can be when everyone is pulling together for one common goal and working together. The typical project team thinks a dysfunctional way of working is normal and just a part of the sausage making we call “design and construction.”

Do I think the architect was being malicious in not mentioning the door on the first floor? Definitely not. Would it have been helpful? Absolutely. 

The collaborative environment of IPD puts you in a different frame of mind. With a multi-party contract, with profits at risk, there’s an incentive to help everyone else on the team succeed. It’s a group effort. The success of the group is way more than the sum of the success of the individuals. You’re always looking for ways to make sure everyone has the right information to succeed.

But it begs some questions. Do the results from our IPD experience require a multi-party contract? Does an owner have to hold the team’s profits ransom to get them to play together? Do I need higher fees to have a good IPD-like experience? My experience, and my belief, says “no.”

It really doesn’t take much (time or money) to reach out a hand and help someone. I didn’t say do their job for them, but simply help them. If enough of the team is willing to do that, the sum of all that helping turns a normal project into a great and successful project for both profits and personal satisfaction.

Is every firm a candidate for an IPD or highly collaborative team? Unfortunately, no. There’s a distinctive office personality required to fit this model. But for those that have it, I wish they could all experience what it’s like to be part of a team working together and pulling in one direction. I consider my firm very lucky to have seen a better way to work together and would wish that experience on anyone. I know it has made our engineers better for it in the long run.

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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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