Catch Mistakes Now, Save Money Later

Finding expensive job-site mistakes before they happen can really pay off


While checking on the progress of an audio-visual system installation for a client, a consulting engineer discovered a worker preparing to sand drywall directly over an uncovered mixing board worth $35,000.

Silly and expensive mistakes like this one are made all too often in today's busy commercial and industrial construction industry. What can consulting engineers do to minimize these mistakes and save clients precious time and money?

A communications-technology consultant's role is to ensure that a clients' voice, data, audio-visual and security systems are not only designed properly, but also work correctly once the building is ready for tenant move-in. The consultant's responsibility is to educate clients on the value of these services and potential cost savings. In fact, in the audio-visual example above, simply catching and correcting that single mistake actually paid for more than half of the consulting fee.

To provide tips on creating the most effective consulting service, the following are anecdotes taken from actual projects where significant savings were achieved as a result of catching potential mistakes. Money-saving tips

  • Have cutting-edge knowledge. By serving as the single point of contact for the dozens of cable contractors, distributors and manufacturers that responded to a bid, a consultant saved a client tens of thousands of dollars in administrative overhead. Fielding questions, qualifying substitutions, etc., freed the client's staff to do their jobs.
    Help the client make informed decisions about highly technical questions and address any concerns as they arise. Nowadays, communications technology plays a huge role in the development of any building, yet most clients do not have the necessary experience with these technologies to be able to handle the complex issues that arise during bidding and installation.

  • Know the contractor. On one job site, the contractor ran out of cable and asked the owner for a $120,000 change order to cover additional cable costs. The consultant made a site visit and discovered that the contractor ran out of cable because he was leaving too much slack in the runs. Photos and documentation of the incorrect work gave the client the ammunition needed to get the contractor to withdraw the change order.
    Know the track record of all the contractors vying for a job, and help the client identify which firms are appropriate to bid on the work. A proliferation of technology contractors, combined with accelerated building schedules, has created an environment ripe for missteps and mistakes. The client doesn't necessarily know which contractors have the experience to do the job right. During installation, the consultant should keep an experienced and watchful eye on the contractor's work to ensure it is done correctly.

  • Don't be a yes-man. A client wanted the latest and greatest equipment, and requested a mission-critical audio-visual system designed around a not-yet-released, expensive and untested technology. While the new technology held promise, the consultant did not think it would meet the client's needs—nor would it be available in time for installation. The engineers convinced the client to use a less expensive, proven technology that was better suited to the company's requirements. Not only did this save the client $50,000, but it also saved time—more than six months after the client's system was installed, the technology that the client originally wanted was still not shipping.
    A good technology consultant has no financial ties to any manufacturer or installer, and provides an unbiased opinion on the most cost-effective technology solution customized to meet the client's needs.

  • Follow the right steps the first time around. Before hiring a consultant, a client solicited bids for an extensive sound-masking system. The bids came in between $300,000 and $1.5 million. Surprised by that range, the client hired an engineering firm to design a system and provide more precise bid documents. The low bid on the revised system was $200,000. The fee was less than $40,000. Savings to the client: at least $60,000.

Working with the architect

The steps that the engineering consultant should undertake throughout the project follow closely on the heels of the architectural process:

  • Schematic design/space planning phase. Work with the architect in the initial phase to ensure the building spaces are the appropriate size and shape, and also to settle issues with adjacencies.
    Upon review of an architect's initial schematic design for a client build-out, the audio-visual consultant suggested shifting a few walls and adding a door, which greatly improved the feasibility of access control and substantially reduced security-system costs.

  • Programming phase. Work with the client to determine the extent of the systems needed.
    A vendor convinced a school administration client that they needed an expensive system to encode streaming video onto their network to allow students to view instructor presentations. During programming, the consulting engineer met with instructors and learned that the students only needed to view still images or short clips of video, not entire presentations. Also, the school's network was barely able to support the existing data traffic—any streaming video would slow the network to a crawl. The resulting program report recommended that the school not purchase the streaming system, but instead utilize a much less expensive system.

  • Design-development phase. Work with the entire design team to properly coordinate all systems.
    A consultant worked with an architect to ensure projectors, monitors, microphones and cameras were integrated into the millwork and architectural elements in a low-key, aesthetically pleasing fashion. The firm then helped the mechanical engineer design low-noise systems serving acoustically sensitive spaces, such as auditoriums and training rooms, greatly improving speech intelligibility.

  • Construction-document phase. Not only must consultants prepare detailed, biddable construction documents for the technical systems, but they must make sure the other trades' documents properly address the needs of the technical systems.
    While checking a review set of construction documents, a consulting firm noticed that the structural engineer had neglected to put in the additional support steel needed for the speaker clusters for a performance hall. Had the drawings been issued to bid , the cost of a subsequent change order to add the steel would have been approximately $30,000.

  • Bidding phase. Whenever possible, put the project out for bid. Competition—closely supervised by the consultant to make sure everyone is bidding on the same thing—can realize significant savings.
    One firm convinced a client to bid a job, rather than negotiate it with contractor X. The bids ranged from $600,000 to $1.2 million with the highest bid coming from contractor X. Savings by bidding: at least $600,000.

  • Construction-administration phase. Make sure the client is getting what they are paying for. Require the contractor to provide detailed shop drawings and review these thoroughly. Make regular site visits to inspect the work and require rigorous, documented testing of completed systems.
    While reviewing a contractor's security-system shop drawings, a consulting engineer discovered approximately $40,000 of missing equipment.

"Privilege" Exempts Engineer From Liability

Lawyers tend to think about litigation in terms of causes of action and defenses. A cause of action is a civil claim that is recognized by law. A defense is a statement of facts that, when proven, will neutralize or defeat a cause of action. To overlook a potentially valid defense would be legal malpractice.

Consider this simplified scenario: An owner, dissatisfied with the performance of an air-conditioning system, employs an engineer to investigate. The engineer reports that the problem is due to the poor workmanship of the mechanical contractor. Based on the report, the owner files suit against contractor. At the trial, the contractor shows that the system was constructed in a workmanlike manner and in strict accordance with the requirements of the contract documents. The conclusion is the failure was caused by faulty design.

Thinking he's on a roll, the contractor files suit against the engineer for negligence in preparing the report, and argues that this negligence not only impaired his reputation, but also imposed upon him the outlandish expense of hiring lawyers to defend himself.

In a similar case recently decided by a California Court of Appeals, it was held that the contractor would have no cause of action against the engineer. The defense? Privilege.

Under section 47, subdivision (b), of the California State Civil Code, a communication is "privileged" if made to a person with an interest in the subject matter by another person with such an interest. Here, the owner had an interest in his heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system, and the engineer had an interest because he was employed by the owner to make a report. Because of this privilege, no third party—such as the contractor, in this case—could make a claim against the engineer based on negligent preparation of the report.

One caveat: The privilege, of course, would not protect a negligent engineer from a claim of malpractice asserted by the owner . The owner is not a third party.

The California case also made two other points: 1) A report to an insurance carrier based on an investigation ordered by an insurance adjuster was similarly privileged, and 2) a report to the Contractors' State Licensing Board, and testimony based on the report, was privileged.

Product of the Year
Consulting-Specifying Engineer's Product of the Year (POY) contest is the premier award for new products in the HVAC, fire, electrical, and...
40 Under Forty: Get Recognized
Consulting-Specifying Engineer magazine is dedicated to encouraging and recognizing the most talented young individuals...
MEP Giants Program
The MEP Giants program lists the top mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineering firms in the United States.
October 2018
Approaches to building engineering, 2018 Commissioning Giants, integrated project delivery, improving construction efficiency, an IPD primer, collaborative projects, NFPA 13 sprinkler systems.
September 2018
Power boiler control, Product of the Year, power generation,and integration and interoperability
August 2018
MEP Giants, lighting designs, circuit protection, ventilation systems, and more
Data Centers: Impacts of Climate and Cooling Technology
This course focuses on climate analysis, appropriateness of cooling system selection, and combining cooling systems.
Safety First: Arc Flash 101
This course will help identify and reveal electrical hazards and identify the solutions to implementing and maintaining a safe work environment.
Critical Power: Hospital Electrical Systems
This course explains how maintaining power and communication systems through emergency power-generation systems is critical.
Data Center Design
Data centers, data closets, edge and cloud computing, co-location facilities, and similar topics are among the fastest-changing in the industry.
click me