Ever growing demands

In recent months, I have had conversations with several different people about the ever growing demands put upon consulting engineers. Sadly, engineering fees have not gone up commensurate with these demands. The theory of entropy holds that there is an ever increasing state of complexity in our universe, and our engineering discipline is no exception.

The early 1980s were a transitional period when large architects had started drawing in AutoCAD, while smaller firms where still drawing by hand. All the engineers were still drawing by hand. Architects that drew by hand were less likely to make changes to floor plans since making those changes by hand on Mylar drawing sheets was an arduous process. I can remember the frustration of changing architectural backgrounds with eraser and pencil on the back of the Mylar, and then modifying the piping with eraser and pencil on the front of the sheet. Those were good times.

Architects that drew in CAD were more likely to make changes since the process was easier on a computer than it was on Mylar. This put the engineer in the frustrating position of having to make more changes by hand. Did engineering fees go up? Of course not.

Then we engineers started drawing in AutoCAD. That was a very frustrating transition because the industry hadn’t been standardized. Every architect had different layering systems, and formatting the engineering drawings was a real nightmare. Initially, it took far longer to draw in CAD than by hand because we were on the bottom of the learning curve. Did engineering fees go up? Of course not.

Eventually CAD became faster than hand drafting, but changes became greater in number and faster in turn around. Did engineering fees go up? Nope.

“It’s part of the design process.”

Then in the 90s, I heard the term value engineering (VE) for the first time. As most of you surely know, once the engineer has completed their design it has become common practice to go through a value engineering phase, where the engineer has to evaluate where the design can be compromised to save the owner money. On the face of things, it is inherently ridiculous, because any engineer worth their salt should design efficiently enough that the systems cannot be value engineered. That is with the exception of possibly considering the quality of the fixtures, equipment, and materials selected. However, to be fair, many engineers are guilty of inefficient design, so there is basis for VE in many cases.

However, this process should be carried out by a third party, not the same engineer that designed the systems. Frequently though the same engineer is called upon to go through a VE exercise and not compensated for the process.

Come 1993, the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) was formed in the board room of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and in 2000 the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification program was established. Pretty soon, nearly every new project had to be LEED certified. This of course put more demands on the engineer, attending LEED meetings, performing water savings calculations, researching energy efficient equipment and innovative processes. While this is all for the greater good (in theory), it did not LEED to greater fees (forgive the pun).

Meanwhile, the Heal the Bay Foundation sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for dumping polluted storm water into the ocean and along came SUSMP, the Standard Urban Stormwater Mitigation Plan. As a result, we engineers now have to work with the Civil Engineer, jumping through hoops to find ways to mitigate storm water pollution. While this affects some engineers more than others depending where you are in the country, here in Southern California the demands are dramatic. Did our engineering fees go up because of SUSMP? Of course not.

Next, to complicate matters further, life-cycle cost analysis (LCCA) became a popular demand to put upon engineers with respect to the engineered systems. While a true LCCA includes the cost of acquiring, owning, and disposing of a building, in many cases it has to do solely with the operating systems of a building. These represent calculations that must be done to justify the selection of the HVAC system, associated window glazing criteria, domestic water heating, pumping systems, and so on. While this is of significant benefit to the owner, it represents another area where the engineer’s responsibilities are increased but not necessarily reflected in their fee.

In 1997, the Lean Construction Institute (LCI) was formed and lean project delivery was born to “maximize value and minimize waste.” Have you ever been to a pull planning session? That’s lean project delivery in action! It can be of great value to a project, but it is yet another process that the engineer has to perform that adds demands to the design process which benefit the owner but are not reflected in the engineer’s fee.

Since the dawn of the millennium, the craze of the new century is clearly 3D design and building information modeling (BIM). I’m sure I speak for us all when I say this is the bane of the plumbing engineer’s existence.

The problem with BIM and design in the plumbing world as most of you surely know is the software. First, we started messing around with AutoCAD MEP 3D. This didn’t go so well. Then a program called Revit, first developed for architecture and later refined for Structural, was literally forced down our throats as a contractual requirement on some projects. The trouble is Revit has not, and still does not, work very well for plumbing. The variety of materials, fittings, and systems that pervade our trade make the program user unfriendly. Sloped gravity drainage is a particularly hard problem to solve.

My own company has done 3D drafting for many years using specialty software called CADmech. But, this is a program designed for spooling and fabrication purposes – not design. Making changes in CADmech when the architecture changes is a laborious process. It is not a design tool. But, it is a brilliant tool for BIM when coupled to the architecture and other trades through Navisworks.

All that said, BIM is just the latest facet on the jewel that should add value to the engineer’s fee but does not. The associated catch phrases of 3D, 4D, 5D, LOD 300, 400, 500 and so on just exacerbate it further. The question in my mind is, where does it stop? When do we start being paid more for delivering all of these extra services?

The irony is in the acronyms. CAD, VE, USGBC, LEED, SUSMP, LCCA, LCI, BIM – and this is to name just a few. I’m sure there are many other services we provide these days which are taken for granted that I am overlooking. Perhaps it is time we put our collective foot down?

Timothy Allinson is a senior professional engineer with Murray Co., Mechanical Contractors, in Long Beach, Calif. He holds a bsme from Tufts University and an mba from New York University. He is a professional engineer licensed in both mechanical and fire protection engineering in various states, and is a leed accredited professional. Allinson is a past-president of aspe, both the New York and Orange County Chapters. He can be reached at laguna_tim@yahoo.com.

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