Fast-track project schedules, along with economic and competitive pressures, are forcing everyone in the construction industry to find ways to streamline the process. In some circumstances, this includes having electrical contractors specify the necessary products.

According to Tom Montgomery, P.E., director of electrical engineering for Henderson Engineers Inc., Lenexa, Kan., a multitude of factors are forcing engineers to reduce their efforts and put the onus for specifying products on the contractor.

“Budgets being reduced by owners, offshore outsourcing of engineering services, the design-build concept, prototype designs and the knowledge that codes do not have to be exceeded have all led to a greater reliance on having contractors provide specifications and even detailed drawings, especially in fire protection, security and audio systems,” he said.

This trend does not necessarily hold true for lighting, according to Dennis Spaulding, commercial engineer at Osram Sylvania, Danvers, Mass.

“On conventional new construction projects of substantial size, the role of the electrical engineering firm is the same as it has traditionally been, with most of the lighting products being specified by the engineer,” Spaulding said.

Of course, there are design-build projects where the contractor acts as the electrical engineer and will have either a professional engineer employed or, on completion of the design, will contract with a firm to stamp the drawings and offer final assistance.

“In that case, the contractor will specify the lighting,” Spaulding said.

Jeff Sippy, business development leader of services for GE Consumer and Industrial Lighting, disagrees. He said contractors are more active in the specification of products than their predecessors. Sippy partially attributes the trend to the contractor community’s acceptance of this new role and to a deeper product knowledge being imparted by manufacturers.

“I think most manufacturers welcome the addition of specification influences such as contractors. We need as many people as possible talking to end-users about the far-reaching value and lower overall cost of energy-efficient lighting products,” he said.

Specification in design-build

Electrical contractors claim they are performing more specification work, particularly in design-build projects.

“However, a contractor doesn’t want to go outside the engineer’s parameters and specify a product that isn’t on the engineer’s preferred list,” said Kevin Ames, vice president of sales for Valley Electrical Consolidated Inc., Girard, Ohio.

According to Ames, this situation developed in conjunction with the increase in the demand for design-build projects.

“More owners are requesting this type of project delivery because it saves them time and allows them to get the project started more quickly,” he said.

In addition, the customer is not paying an architect or engineer to do the design. Having the contractor perform the design work also moves the design liability to complete the project onto the contractor and decreases the number of change orders.

Bill Mazzetti, chief engineer and director of engineering services for Rosendin Electric Inc., San Jose, Calif., agrees that the increase in design-build work has directly led to an increase in electrical contractors specifying the project’s products.

“For a design-build project, we develop the specifications and buy the job out pursuant to either industry best practices, our own field and engineering standards, the needs of the job, or to stated requirements by the owner or local jurisdiction,” he said.

For projects where designers are developing the specifications, Mazzetti does not see significant erosion in the development and delivery of those specifications. He has, however, noticed an erosion of specification criteria and requirements based on cost and schedule.

“In many cases, the specifications are not in line with the final requirements of the owner, although they may have started there, but then did not get changed. For some building types, such as data centers, high-tech industrial processes, and military and pharmaceutical applications, the specifications are well-defined, definitive in nature, and are relevant to the work and the systems to be installed,” Mazzetti said.

As electrical contractors have pushed the design-build concept, owners believe they no longer have to pay engineering firms to perform the entire design; but the engineering firms are only needed to provide preliminary drawings for the permit process.

“The electrical contractor can then complete the detailed drawings and provide all of the necessary specifications,” Montgomery said.

Having the contractor perform the design and specification work also forces the contractor to ensure compliance with codes during the construction process.

“Basically, the electrical contractor becomes responsible for figuring out how to meet codes because the engineers no longer have the time or budgets to specify compliance in their preliminary drawings,” he said.

Another factor that has led to the turn from engineering firms to electrical contractors for specifications is that clients are treating engineers as more of a commodity rather than as a professional entity, said Montgomery.

“Clients are having engineers bid on a low-bid basis, while the engineers, in turn, are requesting performance-based bids from the contractor, while providing them with the engineering concepts and owner’s vision but not detailed product specifications,” he said.

The industrial market, which is primarily not design-build, operates differently when it comes to specifications work.

“Normally, the customer has made up its mind in terms of fixtures, but may ask for some quotes for switchgear and for some low-voltage systems, such as fire alarm, security, and paging and nurse call systems,” said Tom Tatro, vice president of operations for Contra Costa Electric Inc., Martinez, Calif.

Even in the small percentage of design-build projects that Contra Costa performs, the customer still provides the company with written specifications as to what products they want to see installed.

“In the industrial market, the customer has a greater tendency not to use the contractor as a specifier and usually prepurchases the electrical systems and provides them to the contractor to install,” said Morris Coleman, chief estimator at Contra Costa.

Even with that said, Contra Costa does not receive 100 percent of the completed drawings from the customer or their design firm before the company is being asked to bid on the project.

“We believe this situation has developed because customers want to start the construction process as early as possible,” Tatro said.

Good or bad?

Is providing specifications for a project a situation with which electrical contractors are satisfied?

“We are very pleased when we perform the design and provide the specifications,” said Ames.

It puts the entire responsibility on the electrical contractor and, in situations where the owner might believe the contractor is trying to take advantage on change orders, it eliminates conflict with the owner.

Rosendin also prefers to be responsible for providing the design and specifications, according to Larry Hollis, director of business development.

“We prefer it because of the control it provides us. Since material and subcontractors represent about half of our contract, performing the design and specification work influences our profitability,” he said.

Charlie Hadsell, commercial division manager for Contra Costa, believes the company would benefit from performing more specifications work.

“When the electrical contractor is in control of product specification, it allows the company to better control the end product and project delivery,” Hadsell said.

Design-assist projects are a happy medium for Contra Costa because it provides an opportunity to have input without being entirely responsible for the design, and without having to invest in expanding the company’s support and CAD staff, or without having to hire the necessary design and engineering expertise.

As electrical contractors perform more engineering, design and specifications work, engineering firms are trying to convince owners that they are the best source for completed drawings and specifications.

“Financial pressures on the owner have not allowed much progress to be made at this point,” Montgomery said.

In addition, licensing and industry organizations are beginning to put the pressure back on engineering firms to perform design services to a higher level of professionalism.

“This is welcomed by engineering firms that are dedicated to providing high-quality services,” Montgomery said. EC

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 or darbremer@comcast.net