The Building Design Team

Jun 10, 1996

From all we see and hear through our “catbird seat” at ZW&A, it seems to me that many of the professionals out there in our industry have forgotten what their role is in the building process. At least that’s the impression you get when you talk with their clients. In the building design field, in particular, our industry faces an increasing perception problem. The old traditional process of design-bid-build is no longer the only way to do things (it’s not even the preferred way in some market sectors). Clients have other alternatives and are using them. Here’s my quick assessment of the situation facing various disciplines as it relates to building design: Architects. Architects are here to design functional buildings. Some clients (a few— not most) also want their building to be a piece of art or they want to make some kind of statement with their facility. Most clients want someone who is going to give them what they need at the lowest cost. Usually, this means that various options need to be considered. The owner of the facility needs help examining these alternatives, particularly in terms of what each will cost. This requires the architect to know what certain things cost in the specific place the project will be built. Too many architects have no idea of costs, try to apply universal rules-of-thumb, or always load in cost estimates at the high end to allow for virtually any contingency. This makes it impossible for the client to make good decisions, which then leads to a failure by the architect to meet the client’s expectations. This in turn leads to bad feelings about the architect, and in some cases, architects as a whole. As a result, many architects have a hard time selling work and keeping clients happy— a quandary indeed. Architects— if they are really serious about wanting to improve their profession’s reputation— will learn to listen better and become more informed about costs. HVAC engineers. HVAC engineers exist to design appropriate (with the emphasis on “appropriate”) heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems for buildings. Of all of building-related discipline areas, I am convinced that HVAC design is the most problematic and tends to generate the greatest number of end-user complaints. HVAC engineers have many excuses for why their systems don’t work— and most (but not all) are legitimate. Clients don’t want to spend the money to get what they really want, contractors “value-engineer” in the field, systems get screwed up over time by changes in partitioning, improper maintenance, and so on. But there are also HVAC engineers who know only one way to do a job— strictly by the ASHRAE code book. The client may be perfectly willing to have a 10-degree swing in temperature inside the building during a day if he knows what it will cost to get this variation down to two degrees. HVAC design clients are relatively easy to find (many clients aren’t happy with their HVAC consultants), but hard to keep (they may not be happy with your services, either). HVAC engineers— if they are really serious about improving their reputation as a profession— will become more adept at communicating the ramifications of various alternatives available to their clients. They’ll also get more involved out in the field (two periodic site visits is probably not enough) to make sure their clients are getting what they need and what they are paying for. Structural engineers. Structural engineers exist to figure out how to keep the building from falling down, to protect the safety of those who use the building and those around it, and to give the architects and the final users of the facility maximum flexibility in how they can lay out the space. In a few instances, they, too are called upon to help make an artistic statement through their design work— particularly for large public spaces such as stadiums, airport terminals, and other similar projects. Structural engineers are often accused of over-designing everything they do and not being creative enough in their work to lower project costs. They do, however, seem to have the most stable relationships with their architectural clients of all of the building-related engineers. Structural engineering work is very hard to sell (clients tend to be happy with their structural engineers so there is little reason to switch), but once structural engineers get a client, they tend to hold them. Structural engineers— if serious about improving their image— will become better versed at construction techniques used to minimize costs, and will aggressively suggest the best of these to their clients when appropriate. Electrical engineers. Electrical engineers provide the power, lighting, and other special systems design for the building. Electrical engineers are the last people to do their work, because it can’t be finished until the final floor plans are readied and the mechanical engineers have selected all their equipment. Like all other building-related engineering disciplines, electrical engineers have to protect the safety of the building’s occupants and make sure that all electrical systems comply with national and local codes. Electrical engineers are often accused of not being responsive enough because they perform 90% of their work in the last few weeks or days of the project. And occasionally, electrical engineers are accused of over-designing and over-detailing their work, just like other building engineering disciplines. Electrical engineers tend to be bundled with mechanical engineers, although most people would agree that electrical work is less problem-prone and probably has a higher client satisfaction than HVAC work. Electrical engineers— if serious about wanting to improve their image and reputation in the industry— will anticipate these last-minute crunches and be ready to deliver anyway. All building-related design disciplines better keep in mind the needs of the final user when it comes to doing their thing. Price of the designers’ services and the final constructed project are critical to most clients. Being able to communicate the pros and cons of alternative schemes is essential. And all disciplines need to work together in a sensible fashion to make it easy (and smart) again for clients to use their services. Originally published 6/10/1996

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