Three tips to mull over when starting a project

Learn to communicate effectively throughout the life of a building project.

By Richard D. Miller, PE, LEED AP BD+C, FASHRAE, Construction-Engineering Consultan June 27, 2016

You are a mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) consultant who just negotiated a fixed-fee contract with a new architect client and the number of conferences to be attended was not addressed The architect schedules an initial sit-down meeting to discuss the new construction project with the owner, general contractor, and design team.

What possible benefit can be achieved by having an in-person meeting? While it might seem like a waste of time and money, this is a great opportunity to make one-on-one contact with all the participants involved in the project. Attending in-person conferences also allows you to network with other professionals, which may lead to additional work down the road.

During the kickoff meeting, the owner will present the vision for the project and the architect will present a preliminary design to all of the attendees. Next, the spotlight is on you to provide your input. The architect will most likely ask you a series of questions, including:

  • What kind of system are you putting into the building?
  • What is the tonnage?
  • Where is the incoming power coming from?
  • Is there enough available power available to serve the building?
  • What about gas, water, sewer, and storm systems?

Rather than getting overwhelmed with the questions, use the resources that are available to you—i.e., the attendees, such as the civil engineer—to address certain questions directed to you as you collect your thoughts.

Once the other attendees are finished speaking, you are inspired to give a dissertation about the technical aspects of the project including British thermal units, gallons per minute, cubic feet per minute, watts, Volts, amperes, and variable air volume (VAV). You then explain all of the equipment needed, such as chillers, air handlers, pumps, variable frequency drives (VFDs), switchgear, transformers, domestic water heaters, etc. As your grand finale, you tell them what system will be designed and the load capacity of the combined systems.

Guess what? Most of what you just said was unintelligible to the architect, owner, and other consultants present. After listening to you, the general contractor just rolled his eyes and saw dollar signs dancing in his head.

Don’t shoot from the lip

There are alternative responses to the proposed questions. For starters, remind everybody (especially the architect) that you, too, are being introduced to the project for the first time, and that you are not a proponent of doing "instant engineering" around a conference table. Rather than toss around general concepts, evaluate what you heard and learned about the project at the kickoff meeting with your staff and follow up with everybody within a few days after you had a chance to digest the scope of the project and can pose thought-provoking questions for the design team.

Alternatively, shooting from the lip at the meeting can have dire repercussions. The architect or owner may come back and reference figures you mentioned at the first meeting that were just preliminary estimates. In response, you mention that it was just a preliminary estimate. Guess what—everybody conveniently forgot that was a preliminary estimate and you wind up being the bad guy. Unfair? Yes, but true!

Here are three tips to have a financially viable and successful project:

  • Take note of the number of conference meetings included in your fixed-fee contract.
  • Don’t use technical jargon that is best suited for your professional staff.
  • Take the time required to assess the project’s capacity and alternative design options.

Following these guidelines will enable you to avert wasting your time and the time of others and establish an effective line of communication between you and the team for the duration of the project.

Richard D. Miller is a construction-engineering consultant located in Las Vegas. His expertise is in the design, construction and management of projects within private and public sectors.