Problems, problems…

“The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is aproblem.” – Theodore Isaac Rubin​

One of the challenges associated with being a regionally-based design-build engineer working for a regionally-based design-build mechanical contractor is that sometimes my view on the industry is purely regional—even local—more so than I would like it to be when writing this column. Are my issues and challenges the subject of national and even international interest? I don’t know. I like to think so, or hope so, since Southern California is not exactly a rural environment. Perhaps sometimes it is not rural enough to be of common interest? Other times it might be of banal interest for the likes of my old stomping ground of NYC, or Boston, or Chicago, or San Francisco or many of the other metropolises in the U.S. and other countries. After all, this publication does have an international reach.

Having said that, it seems that lately my projects are rife with problems—problems that I have not experienced in 30 years in this industry. Years ago I took pride in stating that there wasn’t a problem I couldn’t solve effectively. Today, I seem to be surrounded by proof to the contrary. But I haven’t changed. I do believe that the industry—at least locally—has changed around me.

Once upon a time there was professional respect in the engineering community. Today, I believe it is treated as a commodity that should be able to be served by the push of a button: Poof! Here are your contract documents, in 3D. The name’s Houdini. Please pay the receptionist on your way out.

In contrast, contracts are negotiated for months on end, and when you are finally awarded the contract, you are asked, “Why aren’t you done yet?” Commonly, saving money by negotiating the contract is given much more time and respect than the engineering process. This frustrates me to no end. I have no complaint about clients wanting to negotiate and save money, but it is often done at the expense of the design schedule, and that is both unprofessional and unrealistic.

To make matters worse, nearly every project I have been awarded in recent years has had a construction schedule that was ahead of the design schedule. As a design-build contractor this means that we were installing pipe before 100% construction documents had been issued—out of our own firm no less. And this, it seems, has become the norm.

“Why aren’t you finished yet?” I hear it in my sleep.

Rather than continuing on this personal rant (which I hope and trust that many of you can relate to; otherwise this is wasted text), I will attempt to get back to the subject at hand: problems that do not need to be problems.

If you study the definition of design-bid-build contract delivery (conventional plans and specs, competitive bid), the owner warrants to the contractor that the contract documents are free from error. In contrast, in the definition of design-build, the contractor warrants to the owner that the construction documents are free from error (based on the owner’s contractual criteria). The difference between these two is the assignment of risk: in design-bid-build, the owner assumes most of the risk; in design-build, the contractor assumes most of the risk. The common underlying assumption between both delivery methods is that the contract documents are free from error. Is this realistic? No! Refer to the quote at the head of this article: “The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.” I love the idealistic sentiment in this quote. Unfortunately, that is not how our legal system works, and contracts do not provide room for error.

This concept is reflected in everyday life. The next time you get in an argument with your spouse, girlfriend, or whatever, try telling them, “The problem is not that we disagree. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that disagreeing is a problem.” Hence the old adage, “agree to disagree.” The real problem is that this concept, however realistic, is not well received, especially while under fire—be it in the office or in a relationship. And sometimes it is can be hard to separate the two.

The fundamental problem within our industry, I propose, is schedule compression, and the ever-increasing tendency to buy into it. Schedule compression is how the owner maximizes their value, so the driving force is understandable. But this is where the problems that should not be problems are bred, and we take them on for the benefit of the owner. Does compromising two months from the design schedule benefit the engineer? No! But it benefits the owner. Does starting construction prior to completion of construction documents benefit any of the design professionals? No! But it benefits the owner. And during all of this schedule compression there is an expectation that the contract documents will be free from error. Is this realistic? No! The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.

Where am I going with this? (I ask myself, as you ask me.) What is it in our industry that needs to change in order to halt and reverse this trend? It is not a new trend. The Egyptian pyramids were delivered ahead of schedule and under budget by the use of slaves. That’s a dark joke, but the Empire State building was delivered in 1931 three months ahead of schedule and $5 million under budget, which (I have heard) provided the architect William F. Lamb a $1 million bonus. That would translate to about $15 million in today’s dollars, using a conservative 3.25% inflation rate. I don’t think any of today’s architects (or engineers) is getting incentives like that. Granted, the Empire State Building was constructed during the Great Depression and under a pseudo Master Builder Contract, where the architect played the role of architect, structural engineer and MEP engineer, but regardless, I still find it hard to imagine incentive contracts like that today.

How do we ease our lives by reducing the expectation that having problems is a problem? Sadly, I think that sometimes this is impossible. The pressure of schedule compression tends to put fellow team members at odds. When team members are at odds, it does not bode well for a prosperous outcome. We need to do everything in our power to prevent that opposition. I think it starts by acknowledging the fact that problems are inevitable, and the only thing more damning than having a problem is the expectation otherwise. n

Timothy Allinson is vice president of Engineering at Murray Co., Mechanical Contractors, in Long Beach, California. 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 lagunatictim@gmail.com.

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