It is generally accepted that design/build (DB) projects represent a source of lucrative work for electrical contractors (ECs). In fact, ECs cite this discipline as one that will contribute to future growth.At the beginning of
2014, ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR reported in its annual construction outlook that survey respondents believed the three most important trends leading to greater financial success would be building information modeling (BIM), access to project information through mobile tools, and integrated project delivery (IPD)—all key technological cousins of DB.
That said, the best way to gauge the importance of this kind of work to ECs is not to ask how many understand its importance or if they realize they should get involved, but to gather some field reports from contractors who have already made a significant commitment to the discipline and can describe first-hand how DB or IPD is actually done on-site.
The DB trend has accelerated, and it includes various innovations, according to Ron Wilson, director of engineering at Rosendin Electric Inc., San Jose, Calif.
‘The big room’
One of Rosendin Electric’s largest recent projects is the Wilshire Grand Hotel in Los Angeles. This job involved getting the construction team together for face-to-face, hands-on collaboration in what is referred to as “the big room.”
“People actually come in and live on-site—the mechanical, electrical, architectural, structural, low-voltage, and instrumentation and controls people,” Wilson said. “Depending on the location of a big job, they can be coming in from all over the country and rotating time for two to three weeks, including weekends. With everybody co-located to a common area for interaction and ad hoc meetings as needed, the projects are completed more quickly than with traditional DB, and I think we get a better finished product out of it.
“The designers are able to talk to the field ops people throughout, and a lot of the discussion takes place over the model itself—talking about what’s being done today and ‘doing the walk,’” he said.
While general contractors have become adept at the process and often still control the model, electrical and mechanical subs are now taking leading roles more. In terms of saving time, Wilson estimates that a high-rise that might have taken five to eight months to design before can now be done in three months.
Owning your part of the job
“The design and coordination are taking place in real time within the model, and things are fine-tuned as we go forward,” Wilson said. “We’ve developed controls so that different players on the team own various aspects of the job and have to keep the others informed of any changes. If a panel or riser is moved, that could cascade down to the detailing or support folks. Ownership has to be handed off cleanly. Daily walkthroughs of the model avoid clashes among the trades. It all comes down to communications.”
As an example, over time, it has become generally accepted that, in the early design stages, lighting and major switchgear should be the responsibility of the engineers and can then be passed on to the detailer and BIM staff for coordination.
“I believe that, thanks to this interactive process, engineers have learned a lot more about what it takes to put a building together,” Wilson said. “In some ways, this may have slowed down the early design process, but, by putting things down on paper, everyone understands what equipment needs to be procured and installed, so this avoids having to circle back later to pick up these products. The time lost early on is more than made up for by the time saved later in the project.”
But some firms are not sold on the in-person, on-site concept. In response to this, over the last few years, a number of cloud-based collaboration tools have been developed to allow for virtual IPD that before could only take place in the big room.
These programs include Buzzsaw, an online documentation and data management software package that allows the BIM and associated information files to be shared, checked out and updated; Box, a cloud-storage and online file management software; and Bluebeam Studio, an online collaboration and real-time interactive session software.
In addition, some of the more electronic data processing (EDP)-savvy players have built their own customized platforms of this type. This is almost face-to-face but gives firms more man-hour leverage so that people don’t have to be on-site for such extended periods of time.
“Taking part in design work earlier on has become more and more common for us,” said Floyd Young, superintendent for healthcare projects at Red Top Electric Co., Livermore, Calif. “This involves more responsibility, but also offers the potential for enhanced profitability commensurate with the more sophisticated additional work.”
Young said that early participation in the process and coordination of the entire team are the most critical contributing factors to success.
“On one of the major projects we just finished design on—Dameron Hospital in Stockton—we got in before there were even progress drawings created,” he said. “The general contractor, the owner and the architectural teams had decided they would make line drawings with the input of the electrical and mechanical contractors.
“This preliminary interaction is advantageous for ECs because, at times, an electrical engineer’s input on the design process may be based on limited experience with the building process. But if he’s willing to listen to the contractor about current construction practices and new things happening in the field that work or that don’t work, this can avoid slowdowns on the project. This is the wave of the future because it’s the way to cut costs and waste significantly if done properly.”
In another of Red Top Electric’s recent projects, the need for coordination was essential because the entire construction team would have to be working in extremely confined spaces. It was a small healthcare facility called Chinese Hospital in San Francisco’s Chinatown—a tall building with a very small footprint.
“We took the basis of design from the electrical engineer’s and the architect’s conceptual floor plans,” Young said. “We then populated these with the electrical infrastructure. We coordinated with the other trades throughout the process so we could make sure that what we needed to do would fit in the space.
“The design had to be in line with what you could actually accomplish from a construction feasibility viewpoint. Getting involved early, we could spin ideas about how to save money and space and time. This way, during construction, we could alleviate the typical roadblocks you have from working in such a tight environment with the trades on top of each other,” he said.
Be sure to KISS
Young also noted that preproject BIM and IPD can be crucial when working with an owner’s gross maximum price (GMP) budget, in which the final cost cannot exceed the amount agreed upon. By becoming jointly involved from an early stage, the construction team is better able to minimize costs that might come from change orders or redesign problems while on the job.
“The electrical contractor has to have the mindset that his design not only needs to save him money but help the other trades do the same,” Young said. “That’s the only way for a project to come in under budget.”
In case you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of acronyms floating around in this process. Here is one more to keep in mind—KISS, or “keep it simple, stupid.”
“In the early phases of DB, you have to learn to limit the details to be modeled and coordinated,” Young said. “As a project evolves, there will be changes as better ideas come to light through discussion with other members of the team. So don’t spend a lot of time and money on details that might be eliminated later. Learning how much detail is required early comes with experience.”
According to some observers, the electrical sector has been somewhat late in embracing DB or IPD work, perhaps partly influenced by the earlier wariness of the concept by unions. The feeling was that it could take work away from their members.
This has apparently changed, as progressive electricians have realized that, if they want to learn about this emerging disciplinary area of the construction process, they could be participating in design and 3-D modeling in the office instead of just framing or bending pipe and wire.
“Right now, 85 percent of the jobs we do have some BIM components,” Rosendin Electric’s Wilson said. “And of that 85 percent, easily 60 percent are complete BIM, populating an entire model. In addition, IPD is also on the rise. In fact, on more complex jobs, BIM and IPD in some form are now the rule, not the exception.”
Many have come to see DB and IPD as opportunities to gain new skills in one of the major trends in the industry—experience—which might come in handy sooner than they think.