From Design to Built

The days of desk-sized blueprints and drawings spilling out of the superintendent’s pickup are fading. Rolls of plans are being replaced by laptops that prepare and store estimates, Gantt charts, CAD drawings, and circuit and lighting schedules. Wading through reams of paper is giving way to real-time online systems engineered to keep an entire design/build team on the same page. High-speed Internet connections and myriad software tools are allowing for a greater level of interaction and accountability, which is changing the way electrical contractors plan and execute projects.

“Since the design, preconstruction and construction phases are tied together more closely in a design/build project than in a traditional project, the need for clear communication, coordination and collaboration is even more acute, especially in light of the inevitable changes that can originate in the field,” said Richard Sappe, architecture, engineering, construction industry market manager, Primavera Systems Inc., Bala ­Cynwyd, Pa.

Software for concept to completion

But it is no longer sufficient to rely solely on the nature of design/build work as a competitive edge.

“As the popularity of design/build as a delivery method approaches that of bid/build, contractors will need to exploit those advantages which design/build lends itself to in order to remain competitive,” said Keith Hallman, graphical products manager, Accubid Systems, Wheat Ridge, Colo.

For example, Hallman reported that the company recently introduced a feature in its estimating software that provides contractors with “portable takeoffs,” which estimators can apply to different projects with similar installation specifications.

“You’re not going to apply an industrial manufacturing takeoff to a retail store, but when a design is done for the next school project in CAD form, your takeoff might be 60 percent done in one-tenth the time it previously took you,” Hallman said.

“If your competition is benefiting from such tools, they’re not going to advertise that to you, but regardless of your awareness, this has a fiscal impact on your ability to estimate, procure and manage projects profitably,” he said.

There are many electronic tools and software packages available to assist electrical contractors with elements such as design, estimating, lamination, scheduling and dissemination. According to Dave Hearn, president of Iowa-based Baker Electric, the area of planning and staging technologies is constantly changing.

“In the past, we have used various design elements, such as Cadvance, AutoCAD and Autodesk. Presently, we are using AutoCAD with Design Master software. We also use the traditional Microsoft Word and Excel programs. Of course, you need plotters to print the plans, Acroplot to make PDFs and a host of other programs for different functions,” Hearn said.

Despite the evolution to electronic formats, some in the industry contend there isn’t much difference with regard to planning and staging equipment on a design/build job compared to a traditional design//bid/build project.

“Unlike HVAC design that requires building modeling, the design of electrical distribution systems for commercial, industrial and institutional buildings typically does not require software unless there is a need to do a fault or coordination study,” said Thomas E. Glavinich, Electrical Contractor contributing editor and electrical engineer who teaches power engineering and construction management at the University of Kansas.

“When that is required, the electrical contractor will either retain a consulting engineer, or the manufacturer supplying the distribution equipment will perform the study,” Glavinich said.

Others, including Bob Robison, vice president, business operations, Design Master, Shoreline, Wash., are seeing a more direct value transfer to design/build projects.

“If you are working on buildings that can get a permit without a fault calculation, a feeder service calculation or parking lot photometrics, then you do not need software for those situations. But if you do require any of those calculations for a permit, then software can make your design process more efficient and profitable,” Robison said.

Planning efficiencies

One benefit of design/build is that the contractor owns the CAD drawings, whether created in-house or contracted to a design firm. However, according to Design Master’s Robison, there is a misconception in the development world that electrical design documents created by a design/build contractor somehow do not have to meet the same standard of care that a design firm would be required to meet. The further implication, he said, is that there is a savings to the developer in lower design costs.

“In reality, it doesn’t work out that way. Design/build firms are held to the same standard of care that design firms must meet, and the requirements for documents to obtain a building permit are identical,” Robison said.

With most design software, calculations are built into the drawings, providing an automatic update mechanism. Automated takeoff features are designed to allow the contractor to see the impact of changes on a bid price in a more timely fashion than traditional takeoff methods.

For Fort Thomas, Ky.-based Kohrs Lonnemann Heil Engineers (KLH), PSC, workload and deadlines prevented the firm from fully developing its own software to relate databases to CAD drawings. Although the adjustment to any new software package involves the usual bumps in the road, manufacturer training has enabled the company to form a common network, including remote sites. Multiple users can simultaneously work on different drawings of the same project due to the database’s interface to the CAD drawings in real-time.

“Filling out panelboard schedules is a thing of the past, as is last-minute load crunching. The software automatically tracks and calculates all loads upstream to the service entrance,” said David Joesting, KLH electrical engineer.

Similarly, the software creates the luminaire schedule from the database of lights used on the project. This eliminates a manual build of the voltage drop or fault-current calculations.

“Using Design Master software, we have reported a reduction in design time of approximately one-third over projects where it was not applied,” Joesting said.

Some estimating solutions do more than just the standard export of designs to Excel spreadsheets. These develop a link to the CAD drawings with the contractor’s proprietary labor and material values, complete with price updating by specified suppliers. These are not future abilities, but everyday methods that contractors are using to gain real-time project quantification of design/build projects.

According to Stephen Nicholson, P.E., assistant vice president, Egizii Electric, Springfield, Ill., one of the primary benefits of employing estimating software when taking off the estimate is the ease of being able to separate the estimate into multiple, easily modifiable parts. Many of the estimates the firm produces, such as large ones performed for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and the new FBI building in Springfield, Ill., require detailed breakdowns on the bid form.

“The bidding process for these projects demanded many different options and various changes up to award time as we negotiated costs. Electronic estimating with Accubid made this process tolerable and achievable with positive results.

“Since design/build project estimates are typically more generic and fluid as the bidding process progresses, having the estimate broken out into easily manipulative parts makes the changes more manageable and efficient as well as minimizing costly errors. These breakdowns can help the field as well as management, determine scheduling, material staging and change order pricing,” Nicholson said.

Due to the higher accuracy of CAD-based estimates, Accubid’s Hallman observes project managers using such tools to validate the quantities of equipment packages and commodity materials even after the contract amount is finalized.

“The means exist to know within minutes if your fixture package is a bit off, or if you’re allocating too much labor to a particular work phase,” Hallman said. “Given the reduced cost of obtaining this information in a timely manner, contractors have started asking themselves, ‘Do I want to know about these discrepancies before or after I’m able to do something about it?’”

Staging project execution

On any construction site, equipment and materials are constantly flowing in and out. Unfortunately, the extended project team, including contractors, equipment renters and materials manufacturers, frequently are not included in communications about schedule changes and can quickly become lost in the heat of project execution. The application of collaborative Web-based project management systems can link all communications to a common schedule that synchronizes all players for project delivery flow.

“Certainly the biggest trend we’ve seen is that contractors are demanding project management solutions that allow them to collaborate effectively with the entire project team, so that they know when they need to get their work done, and that when they arrive on site, it will be ready,” Primavera’s Sappe said.

In particular, Primavera’s latest project management solution, P6, features complete Web-based scheduling and project management through a dashboard, which configures information on a Web page according to each individual’s role. The system incorporates interactive Gantt charts and graphics that simulate a Windows application and allow schedule changes to be submitted through any standard Web browser.

Tools for electronic plan dissemination are increasing efficiencies and improving critical communication lines on design/build projects. The Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA), in partnership with Planlog, offers a centralized digital plan distribution system on the DBIA Web site designed to get—and keep—everyone on the same page.

Time is always money, and without adequate premobilization planning, consistent price tracking or poor design review processes, a contractor is exposed to under-used labor resources during the production phase, said Planlog’s Rod Percival.

“The real benefit with a tool like this is that all the construction documents are in one place. All subs and all trades have access to them. This is critical in eliminating coordination conflicts,” he said.

“The contractor has the ability to control costs through each design iteration. Disseminating these designs and pricing is a critical factor to the success of a project. A subcontractor may be asked to price a job three or four times instead of just once for a traditional design/bid/build.”

As the use of planning and staging equipment evolves, greater efficiencies are desired and expected in design/build projects.

“Unfortunately, paper distribution and the records of such tend to fall short in this area,” Percival said. EC

MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached via e-mail at



About the Author

Debbie McClung

Freelance Writer
Debbie McClung, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa.

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