Why did you start SES?
As the owner of Huckestein Mechanical Services, Inc., we were continually challenged when bidding a mechanical project we didn’t design. And our customers were tired of paying for designs that they thought were construction-ready only to find out they were “conceptual.” Huckestein works primarily on existing buildings where new mechanical systems are the most difficult to design because so much is hidden behind walls and above ceilings. The only way for a design to be complete and accurate is to climb on roofs, enter crawl spaces, trace existing pipe routes in ceilings and walls, etc. Contractors are the ones who have the tools and equipment to perform these investigations. So my son Jonathan and I started our own engineering company as a sister company to Huckestein to leverage the benefits of both professions. Our engineers and tradespeople work hand-in-hand to ensure each mechanical project is designed for constructability. Since mechanical projects often include electrical and plumbing scopes, and we had expertise in all three, we decided to offer full mechanical, electrical, plumbing design and engineering (MEP) through SES.
What are some of the deficiencies you identified?
When it comes to existing infrastructure MEP projects, the entire traditional construction delivery model is flawed. With such a specific scope, the process should start with the entity most experienced with operating systems – the contractor – who then pulls in other professions as needed. Because many procurement requirements mandate hiring an architect first, who then hires an engineer, and solicits bids from competing contractors. Engineers provide conceptual designs which typically do not provide enough detail for contractors to comparatively bid. There’s lots of room for interpretation, but to win the work, contractors must bid only what is on the drawings and count on change orders to fill the gap after the contract is awarded. If a contractor bids the work by filling in the gaps with what they know is needed to professionally install the project, their price will be too high and they’ll lose the bid.
Why does this happen?
I’d refer you to an article by Paul Potts, a technical writer and construction administrator https://www.constructionspecifier.com/dealing-with-errors-and-omissions/. Potts contends that “errors and omissions in construction documents occur on every project. A design error is an instruction (or lack of instruction) in the plans and specifications that, if followed by the contractor, will require replacement or correction at a cost (or result in a construction failure). The owner has already paid for the work once at bid time and now must pay for the replacement or correction.”
So change orders are your customer’s biggest pain point?
By far. Followed closely by a project that doesn’t work correctly when complete because the contractor followed the design they bid to.
How does SES address this?
First, we include our contracting partners up front when we do the needs analysis with the owner. According to Potts, “the most powerful tool for minimizing the cost of errors and omissions is the contractor, who is the last party in a position to call out an error before it gets built into the project.” We make the contractor the first party, instead of the last.
Second, we thoroughly investigate existing conditions and how they will impact the final project. We open ceilings, crawl through tunnels, map pipe routes, and study any existing drawings to ensure we don’t miss a detail. Then comes an iterative process with SES, our contracting partners, and the owner to design and refine the project to meet the owner’s up-front stated criteria in terms of cost, energy and long-term operational efficiencies, and aesthetics.
When the design is finalized, SES commits to the owner that no change orders will be charged to the project unless the owner initiates a scope change or there’s a specific existing condition we could not see when designing the project. We make sure there are no surprises for the owner once construction begins.
This makes perfect sense. Why aren’t all construction projects delivered like this?
Design professionals operate by a principle called the Standard of Care. Standard of care does not guarantee a perfect plan or even satisfactory result (September/October 2002 Facilities Manager www.appa.org). Further, “Unlike the medical and legal fields, where owner expectations are aligned before the work is underway, design professionals often wait to discuss expectations after the owner reaches the breaking point with change orders.” We think this is ridiculous, and is why we involve all parties up front with the owner to define and plan the project.
In your opinion, what is the best construction delivery model?
Design-build for sure. Again referring to the previous APPA article, “Indicating the level of frustration that owners have had with designer accountability, there was a dramatic trend in the 1990s toward using the design-build delivery approach. This approach puts the designer and builder on the same team, thereby virtually eliminating the owner’s financial exposure to design errors… the design-build approach shifts the designer’s role from the owner’s agent to the contractor’s partner.”
So that’s what SES does?
Yes. It’s incredible to us that it has taken from the 1990s to now for the construction industry to even admit there might be a better way, and for owners to begin to demand it. We design for constructability. Constructability is a technique in which construction processes are reviewed from start to finish during the engineering design phase. Identifying and resolving potential construction problems upfront helps reduce and prevent delays, errors, cost overruns, headaches and major stress. Added to this, Huckestein’s and our other contracting partners’ experience with operability, reliability and maintainability ensure these considerations are included in the design. An important element of constructability is the quality of the design documents. Projects that feature easy to understand instructions will be easier to build, and those with poor design documents will be more difficult. It’s that simple. Our design documents are thorough and easy to understand.
Why aren’t all projects designed with constructability in mind?
To answer this you have to understand the construction “food chain” that places specialty trade (MEP) contractors at the bottom, beneath architects, engineers, construction managers, and general contractors. And yet they are the only ones who really understand all that is needed for a successful MEP project. They’re the only ones with the expertise, tools, and equipment to perform the discovery process in an existing building. They’re the ones who understand the permitting process because they have to pull the permits. And they’re the only ones who have the practical experience operating and maintaining MEP systems to know the best way to bring the building to 21st century standards in the simplest, most cost-effective way.
Do you ever perform just as an MEP engineer and solicit bids from contractors?
Absolutely. We have many customers whose procurement policies mandate they hire an engineering firm to design their project and get competitive bids from contractors to perform the work. The difference with SES is that we involve our contracting partners in the development and design of the project so that bidders have complete and accurate drawings from which to bid. Little to nothing is left to interpretation, so bids can be compared on an “apples to apples” basis, rather than trying to figure out if the low bidder filled in the blanks, or if that’s why the other bids were higher. We will solicit bids from whatever contractor(s) the owner requests, or will recommend comparably-qualified contractors if the owner asks us to.
Does SES ever operate as a subcontractor?
Yes, frequently. In the design-build delivery model where there is single-point accountability to the owner, the accountable entity is usually the contractor since they are the only entity that can bond the project. It doesn’t matter to us if we are the prime or subcontractor, since our mindset is always team-centered. There is no ego in our process.
If the client wanted SES to be the accountable entity, could SES bond a project?
Yes! Because of our sister relationship with Huckestein, SES enjoys the benefits of Huckestein’s bonding capacity and rates. Again, it’s about the team.