Whether they like it or not, electrical contractors are becoming more involved in the completion of design plans and the specification of products than ever before. And this is not just a disciplinary exercise of assuming greater engineering responsibility.

It impacts the bidding process, changes relationships on the job site, and, in worst-case scenarios, leads to costly litigation.

According to data included in a recent report, the 2008 Profile of the Electrical Contractor, published in the July issue of ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR, 80 percent of contractors surveyed said they receive some plans and specs that are incomplete, and this is the case 45 percent of the time, regardless of whether the work is commercial/industrial/institutional, single-family, or multifamily construction.

In addition, approximately 30 percent of contractors responding stated that a higher percentage of the plans and specs they receive are incomplete than they were five years ago.

The contractors most likely to become more involved in this growing engineering and specification activity are in the design/build or design/assist sector, which has grown to 47 percent of electrical contractors’ revenue from 43 percent just two years ago, a notable indication of the evolving role of the contractor as planner and specifier.

In other words, greater participation in these aspects of the project can be expected, along with a growing expectation that it is the electrical contractor who will make sure things actually work when the job is done.

More and less

“Our design/build workload has expanded significantly—up 60 percent over the past several years,” said Mike Paganini, president of Paganini Electric Corp. in San Francisco. “More and more, we’re seeing less and less initial design. We are asked to take on additional engineering work, to specify lighting, design and provide all necessary power, and to coordinate all the life-safety designs.

“Owners and architects are looking for expedited design and pricing with an eye to a thorough working understanding of the complete electrical design, practical efficiency and rapid turnaround. It’s very common for us to start the design and pricing process with little more than blank floor plans. It becomes necessary to design the entire electrical project in order to establish a quote.”

Paganini said this development has both positive and negative sides. The efficient completion of the job demands quality, open communications between the architect, general contractor and electrical contractor. Such successful collaborations have led to more negotiated work among the parties.

“On some projects, for example, we are given a preselected lighting package to use, but, oftentimes, the delivery schedule or the lighting budget does not allow for the fixtures specified by the designer,” he said. “Our role in that situation is to respecify the lighting package using our practical experience, to bring the job in on schedule and within budget.”

If the electrical contractor is given full rein to design with no requirements other than complying with the code and maintaining building standards, that’s the optimum arrangement, in Paganini’s opinion. And he stresses that this expanded role as designer, specifier and builder requires serious negotiating skills in order to reach practical compromises between the architect’s and owner’s original design and the revised design that meets the schedule and the budget requirements.

He also said that established field experience should be a requisite for handling this challenge and responsibility.

“We only hire people with hands-on experience to work in the office as project managers because that is what is needed to put these jobs together. Designing and specifying work is much more demanding than it might seem,” he said.

There is general agreement that early involvement in project planning is key to successfully participating in the specifying process.

“We do a lot of negotiated design/assist work and typically get in early,” said John Penney, president of John A. Penney Co. Inc., Cambridge, Mass. “Our experience has been that projects often go over budget, and so you have to suggest some revisions, make recommendations and provide a certain amount of value-added engineering, all of which have become the norm these days. The earlier you become involved, the better your chances of avoiding potentially costly adversarial relationships with the customer or the architect and thus staying out of the claims court.”

Getting in at the RFI stage

In many contractors’ opinions, the right opportunity for getting any problems sorted out is at the request for information (RFI) stage prior to the bidding date, not when the job is under way and running into scheduling and budgetary difficulties.

“Design and engineering plans have never been perfect, but these days, we’re running into more ‘cover-your-you-know-what’ clauses in the plans we’re presented with,” said Salvatore Anelli, president of Inner City Electrical Contractors Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y. “This makes it very difficult for us to give a complete price, and then we could be blamed for change orders when the specs aren’t just right. These days, the electrical contractor has to be more of an engineer, not just an installer.”

Code-compliance is an ever-present sensitivity point in this whole process, according to Anelli. If a set of plans comes in with a footnote that reads, “All work must be compliant with local codes,” that’s a red flag for the contractor.

“If an architect or engineer designs something that’s not code-compliant, it’s our responsibility to bring this to their attention, even if it involves adding expenses,” he said. “And this means more estimating work on our part because we have to identify and qualify whatever is wrong or missing.”

Fire alarm and lighting specifications represent two different kinds of problematic situations, in Anelli’s experience.

“We do a lot of commercial renovations, and many of the buildings we work in have an established alarm vendor. The drawback is that this firm dictates the price, and we can’t go anywhere else for a competitive price,” he said. “In jobs like this, we suggest to the owner or general contractor that they buy the equipment, and we’ll install it. If that happens, everybody bids to install it on an even footing. But of course, you never know if the fire alarm vendor has a favorite electrical contractor.”

Lighting is an even more complicated issue. Anelli said lighting fixtures are becoming, in many cases, a virtually custom line item with so many manufacturers designing products with a unique look, making it extremely difficult for the electrical contractor to find an “equal to” substitution. Also, on many larger projects, there may be a designated distributor who handles the whole lighting package, and the specification may stipulate working with this individual, which once again limits the electrical contractor’s competitive options. All of this leads to confusion and frustration if the need arises to change or modify the specs partway through the job.

The loose drawings challenge

In fact, the likelihood of that elusive complete set of plans materializing has dropped off precipitously, according to some industry veterans.

“The completeness of any bid package these days is perhaps 20 percent of what it was 20 years ago—very sketchy,” said Tom Driscoll, president of E.S. Boulos Co., Portland, Maine. “But this does have an upside for some contractors. We like to get into the value-added engineering aspect of design/build projects and provide our input. This is a plus for us because not many contractors have the capability to pull together a loose set of drawings and deliver a working project to the customer, and this puts us in the driver’s seat for securing the work. Unfortunately, even if we find out that the plans are incomplete at the RFI stage, that doesn’t give us much time to turn things around.”

The Boulos firm also does conceptual estimates for customers who have little more than a general outline of what they want, and the company then develops this into a final plan. Over the past five years, this kind of undertaking has grown to represent 25 percent of the work done by the company’s estimating department.

Most of Boulos’ large-scale, front-end specifying and planning is done in the commercial area, especially high-rise office buildings, and in institutional projects involving college campuses and hospitals. But there also is the unavoidable down-and-dirty task of substituting products on-site when work is in progress.

“Changing products that were originally specified happens all the time,” Driscoll said. “Nine chances out of 10, these days, projects are going to go over the owner’s budget, especially with the volatility of the prices of copper and other commodities. So it’s also part of our job to offer basic practical alternatives like going to aluminum feeders or using IMC instead of rigid conduit to bring their costs down without lowering quality standards.”

So, to specify or not to specify—which is preferable?

“I’d rather not have to specify,” Anelli said. “But if I have to, I want to do it early in the game so that I’m on an equal footing with the competition. The ideal situation would be a complete set of plans that don’t require the electrical contractor to send out RFIs about whether there is an option of matching or substituting and no need to study the plans to make sure they’re code-compliant. But that’s not the nature of this beast, and it’s not the way of the electrical contractor’s world.”

QUINN reports on a broad range of business and industry issues for journals in the United States and Europe. He can be reached at 203.323.9850 or mirabel@snet.net.