Keep the Lines Open

Years ago, when Casey Stengel became manager of the New York Mets, he said in amazement, “For these guys, every fly ball is a new adventure.” He might as well have been talking about building an integration team because every project of this kind requires a unique skill set and a custom cast of characters on the job. There is no such thing as a standard lineup for an integrated building systems team.

The electrical team might be headed by a traditional but diversified electrical contractor firm that does all of the electrical/-electronic work on the project. Or, the prime electrical contractor may choose to assemble a crew of electrical subcontractors for specific aspects of the job. Whatever the makeup of the team, the key to getting the job done is ensuring everybody knows what has to be done and when, from the first review of shop drawings through every phase of the project.

Talking ahead of time

“Communications ahead of time is the name of the game,” said Kevin Flanigan, telecommunications project manager at Miller Electric Co., Jacksonville, Fla.

The company works on both traditional electrical and low-voltage systems, but depending on the requirements of the project, it may bring in subcontractors for fire alarm, paging and intercom systems. In that case, Miller Electric’s personnel coordinates and directs the tasks of the subcontractors the company has hired.

“Getting a buy-in from these subs on their commitment to the overall schedule and determining where they can be flexible is essential,” Flanigan said. “Also, they have to understand how they can share network space in the backbone cabling system because telecommunications, security and lighting can run through the same tray. So if you are the prime electrical contractor on the job, you have to coordinate all of your subs’ efforts so that nobody asks late in the game where his pathway is or why a sleeve wasn’t installed.”

Lead contacts with electrical subs and other trades involved have to be developed early, and working relationships have to be established to avoid problems if or when late changes from the owner or consulting engineer hit the heating, ventilating and air conditioning technicians.

It’s the responsibility of the prime electrical contractor to ensure the altered documentation is disseminated to the appropriate subcontactors, so everyone in the chain understands how the changes affect the scheduling and his or her part in the project. From a practical logistics standpoint, even in the best-case scenario when communications are set up early and maintained throughout the project, it’s wise to limit the number of subs in order to streamline the chain of command.

“If you’ve been working closely together with your subs from early in the process, much of the uncertainty and confusion is mitigated,” Flanigan said. “If everybody knows who to talk to in the eleventh hour, any problems that arise can be more readily rectified.”

Do more, sub less?

Making the call on whether to bring in subs can be problematic for the prime electrical contractor.

“The electrical contractor today has to diversify into integrated building systems,” said Mark Huston, president of Lone Star Electric in Fort Worth, Texas. “What we did was to designate one man to head up this kind of work and to bid on it. He then has to decide whether the nature and scope of the job requires electrical subs. We do most of the work ourselves but would subcontract fire alarm and other life-safety matters that require special licensing. In those cases, we have to maintain close communications at all times with the people we are working with.”

With the accelerating evolution of the electrical installation business, Huston urges small to medium-sized contractors to think about investing in educating their own people on at least some of the disciplines they are currently subcontracting to other firms. Outsourcing may have immediate cost-benefit advantages for the smaller contractor, but over the long term, it could become a debilitating tactic if same-size competitors are adding skill sets to their in-house capabilities. While industry statistics indicate that diversification into low-voltage and other niche disciplines is typically done by larger firms, that may be changing.

“As technologies develop and change, it’s becoming more critical to educate ourselves so that we do more and sub less,” Huston said. “Naturally, we have to stay with our traditional electrical power distribution work and lighting, plugs and switches, but we’re going to have to become more involved with photo sensors, dimming switches and everything that’s energy efficient.”

The company team

Even if the team is completely internal in makeup and no subs from other electrical contractor companies are involved, the critical functions of coordination and communications have to be performed throughout the process. Much of this responsibility rests with the prime electrical contractor. Zwicker Electric Co. Inc. in New York typically does all of the electrical work on a job without subs.

“We have a sequence for our company team to follow once the job comes out of estimating and is awarded to us,” said David Pinter, president of the firm. “You have to understand that the first chance for the possibility of a foul-up on any job is the transfer point from estimate to actual project. You need a day-long formal session involving estimators and operations, including office and field personnel, because there has to be internal interaction from the start.”

In most cases, Zwicker Electric handles the wiring layout for the project and leaves points for the building management systems people to tie into for the regulation of air conditioning, installation of dampers, security systems and night lighting for energy efficiency.

“All this requires a high level of coordination,” Pinter said. “You have to look closely at the shop drawings and also at whatever documentation the BMS group has put together to make sure that everything that will be required has been put into the electrical specifications section of the contract.”

Zwicker Electric produces its own customized set of computer--aided design documentation, so everything for which the firm is responsible is available for review by anyone on the job who may need to access such information.

“Ongoing communications involving the owner, general contractor, consulting engineer and all the trades are the only solution to resolving issues before they impact scheduling,” Pinter said. “Constantly updating each other on the progress of everyone’s individual responsibility is the best way to keep everyone focused on the fact that the objective is to build an affordable project that meets both specifications and expectations and is finished on time.”

Backup resource

Any electrical contractor who takes on the formidable task of putting together and directing a team of integrators, or even managing its own internal team on a complex IBS project, can use all the help it can get. One resource sometimes overlooked is the vendor group supplying the major products to be used on the job.

“Choosing vendors who offer end-to-end solutions minimizes the risk that products won’t interface well,” said Tom Turner, business development manager at Panduit Corp., Tinley Park, Ill. “The lead electrical contractor should choose suppliers who not only have the right products but who also have experience with the type of project in question. The right vendors will ask questions about each sub’s scope of work and, by doing that, will facilitate communications and help ensure that nothing is overlooked as the flow of work passes from one sub to another.”

Turner also said electrical subs seeking to participate in such an integrated endeavor should keep in mind that their profitability and reputation will be on the line. So they should do their homework and ensure they will be working with a quality team of integrators, contractors and product suppliers who are willing and able to act as trusted advisers on the job.

Since communications are of such vital importance in this kind of integrated project work, Turner said that if any member of the team senses that the information exchange is less than it should be, he or she should raise the issue and improve the situation. He said it is everyone’s responsibility to prevent lack of communications from developing into problems that can affect the job schedule and the ultimate success of the project.

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 and

About the Author

John Paul Quinn

Freelance Writer
John Paul 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 and .

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