There are savings opportunities throughout the entire engineering process, not just the construction stage. With effective communication and adequate team management, it is possible to optimize the design process and reduce costs without compromising quality. High-level design software also helps: it may come at a high price, but the time and cost savings are significant.

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When the engineering design process becomes long and expensive, it is typically due to one of the following factors:

    • Poor communication between design teams. This is especially important in the case of mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems – all three have complex physical layouts, and there is a high chance of overlap between components of different systems when team communication is poor.
    • Excessive changes. MEP designs are carried out on existing architectural plans, which means architectural changes can become very disruptive as the MEP design process approaches completion. Completing the final version of the architectural design is highly recommended before MEP design starts; a major architectural change after MEP design has been completed can greatly extend the design process and its cost. Changes to MEP systems are also disruptive, since they have a high degree of interdependence.

This article will provide some recommendations that can help you simplify the engineering design process, while reducing its cost. There is a basic rule of thumb for cost optimization: modifications are cheap or even free when requested early in the design process, and prohibitively expensive when requested in the final stages of construction.

1) Involve All Project Stakeholders Before the Design Process Starts

If the needs and requirements of all parties are clearly stated from the beginning, they can be accounted for during project design. For example, some contractors and equipment vendors may have special requirements; if this information is known before MEP design starts, changes are avoided later. These changes normally add man-hours to the design process, and if omitted they may result in expensive modifications during construction.

Make sure your MEP design team reviews all equipment specifications before the design process starts, ensuring any special requirements are accounted for. Keep in mind that some building systems involve all three areas of MEP; for example, chilled water systems involve both electrical installations and hydronic piping.

2) Follow an Integral Approach for Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing Design

As previously stated, these three systems have very complex layouts, and if design teams don’t work in coordination, you are very likely to have issues with overlapping equipment locations. Also, keep in mind that all three systems distribute fluids or air throughout the building, and the means of distribution must not interfere with each other.

        • Mechanical systems typically involve air ducts, refrigerant lines and hydronic piping. If combustion-based heating is deployed, there will also be a chimney for flue gases, along with fuel piping and tanks.
        • Electrical Systems involve conduit and wiring, and there are also bus ducts in high-power applications. Keep in mind that transformers, motors, generators, panelboards and similar equipment may require a lot of space, and clearances may be required with respect to walls and other pieces of equipment.
        • Plumbing Systems involve pumps, as well as independent piping for potable water, wastewater, etc.

The layout of ducts and piping must be specified so that the least amount of materials is used, but taking care not to overlap components from different building systems.

3) Use Three-Dimensional MEP Design Software

There are now MEP design solutions where a three-dimensional model of the building is stored in a web server that can be accessed by all design teams, and building systems are laid out and specified directly on the model. This offers several advantages over conventional two-dimensional design:

        • Equipment locations can be visualized more clearly, especially when components from all three systems must be installed in tight spaces.
        • Modern MEP design software is smart enough to detect overlap, and design engineers can be notified immediately if it occurs. For example, if the optimal location for two pieces of equipment is the same, they can decide which of the two devices can be relocated for the least cost.
        • The confusion associated with different versions of the same design is eliminated; versions no longer exist, since the entire design process is carried out on a unified 3D model.
        • Most three-dimensional MEP design software can calculate all bills of materials (BOM) automatically, further reducing the total man-hours required for the project.

MEP design software has a high upfront cost, but the investment is compensated by the sheer number of man-hours saved. Also, there are now software solutions with the option of paying a recurring monthly fee, instead of an expensive one-time license. This purchasing model tends to be more attractive for smaller companies with limited budgets.

Having a well-trained staff is just as important as implementing a powerful software solution. If you will invest in a high-level MEP design package, make sure your engineering team learns how to use it effectively. For example, software solutions often have keyboard shortcuts and commands that considerably speed up the work, and using them is much faster than clicking on functions with the mouse. The difference may not be evident for a single action, but when you consider the total man-hours saved the effect is significant.

4) Use a Project Management Platform

E-mail is not always practical when coordinating multidisciplinary teams: tasks must be assigned textually, and there is always the chance of missing or misspelling one of the e-mail addresses. There are now project management platforms where team members can be added to common dashboards, and notifications are sent automatically whenever a task is assigned, modified or completed.

Project management platforms allow team members to focus on the tasks assigned, while communication is streamlined and automated in the background. For example, marking a milestone as finished and linking a project deliverable is faster than sending an e-mail to the entire team with the file as an attachment.

5) Consider Outsourcing the Entire MEP Design Process

Having an in-house engineering team may make sense in industrial settings, or other business sectors where technical assistance is required on an ongoing basis. However, there are companies for which the cost of a permanent engineering staff can’t be justified, and in makes more sense to hire an external firm specializing in MEP design and consulting. This way, the client can save the capital and time required for workstations, software and team building, dedicating it to core business activities instead.

If you will follow this approach, we strongly recommend you hire a firm that provides integral MEP design; if you hire separate designers for mechanical, electrical and plumbing installations, projection integration will be a daunting task.

Concluding Remarks

When optimizing the engineering design process, remember that poor team communication and frequent changes are the main factors that increase costs. With the combination of solid management practices, information technologies and strategic outsourcing, you can improve results while cutting costs. Effective communication also promotes collaboration and mitigates conflict.

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