MEP projects involve multiple engineering disciplines, and coordination is key starting from the design phase. Mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems involve many types of equipment, as well as air ducts, piping and conduit, and it is important to ensure there will be no overlap between different system components. In general, equipment overlaps and conflicting specifications are less expensive to fix when detected early: modifying a general schematic design is easier than editing detailed drawings and specifications, and even then both activities are much less expensive and simpler that changing a part of the project that has already been built or assembled.
Mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems require different sets of knowledge and skills to be designed, and there are specific standards and codes for each location. However, design teams should not work in isolation, since that leads to time-consuming changes later in the design process. It is also important to note that changes do not affect all teams equally: what is considered a minor change for one team may represent considerable rework for another.
The best way to start a MEP project is with a kickoff meeting, since it helps build team synergy and makes sure everyone is on the same page before proceeding. The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), published by the Project Management Institute (PMI), provides valuable information and best practices regarding the best way to conduct a project, applicable to all business fields, not only mechanical and electrical engineering.
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The kickoff meeting is a chance to review the project from both the technical and managerial standpoint.
- Reviewing base building requirements: Regardless of final occupancy, commercial building projects are often delivered as a primary structure with and building envelope, and basic building systems such as MEP installations. The base build is also known as the “shell and core”, where each tenant conditions individual spaces as needed.
- Management expectations: A kickoff meeting ensures all design teams and contractors are on the same page with respect to how the project will be managed. This includes how project success will be evaluated, as well as the documentation involved, communication procedures and the rules everyone must follow.
Step 01: Presenting the Project Staff
Project planning involves not only scheduling tasks, but also creating the organizational structure. The main characteristic of project organizations is that they are temporary, unlike those of companies, and it is necessary to build teams and achieve synergy in a shorter time. In a MEP project, the kickoff meeting is an excellent chance to carry out the following tasks:
- Presenting the project organizational structure to all teams and their members, and their place they occupy within it.
- Providing an overview of the teams involved. They can be classified by their role, such as mechanical, electrical or plumbing engineering; or by the project stage where they are involved, such as design, construction or commissioning.
Of course, sharing contact information is very important in any kickoff meeting, since all teams and their members officially assume their roles from that point onward.
Step 02: Reviewing the Project Scope and Plan
Once the project staff members are aware of their roles, the next step is providing a detailed breakdown of the work to be completed. A project is first broken down by technical disciplines and then scheduled. For example, a major division of work can be called “Electrical Engineering”, which is further divided into categories such as “Distribution Boards”, “Lighting Systems” and “Electric Motors”.
Generally, the breakdown of a project by activities is provided by the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), while the scheduling is carried out with a Gantt Diagram that is based on the WBS. The project schedule also involves milestones and deadlines:
- A milestone represents the completion of a key activity or group of activities in a project.
- Deadlines are the latest acceptable dates in which specific activities can be delivered, and there is also a global project deadline.
Although milestone and deadlines are not the same thing, they are normally related. Since milestone indicate the completion of key steps in delivering the project, it is common to find one or more deadlines associated with them.
Defining How Progress Will Be Tracked
A project plan is only a baseline against which actual progress will be compared, and it is also important to define how this will be accomplished. In a kickoff meeting, it is very important to answer the following questions:
- How frequently will the project supervisor visit the site?
- What information or documents will be requested by the supervisor?
- How often should each contractor deliver progress reports? What is their required format?
The earned value method (EVM) is a very powerful method to track progress, and it should be discussed in the kickoff meeting if it will be used. Basically, the EVM consists on comparing the project baseline, the actual progress and the actual cost each time a progress report is delivered. With the EVM, it is possible to determine if a project is lagging behind schedule or exceeding its budget.
Another common tool is the tracking Gantt diagram, which has the exact format as the original Gantt diagram used to plan the project. The main difference is that the tracking Gantt diagram presents the actual progress achieved and is overlaid on the baseline diagram as the project progresses. This way, it is possible to know if specific activities are ahead of schedule or late, which provides greater insight over just knowing if the overall project is on time or not. A tracking Gantt allows targeted corrective actions when dealing with project delays.
Step 03: Overview of Project Stages and Corresponding Documentation
Documentation is very important throughout all stage of a project. The design process follows a set of performance requirements, the construction process follows drawings and specifications, and commissioning compares ensures that the final results and approved documentation match. Finally, as-built documents and manuals provide the basis for building operation and maintenance.
The role of communicating client requirements to structural and MEP design teams normally falls on the project architect, who must also ensure there is no conflict between building systems and the architectural layout. Architect checklists are a very powerful tool for streamlining the project, and they should be reviewed during the kickoff meeting:
- They break down complex design tasks by technical disciplines and into a sequence of items that are checked off as they are completed. The final set of construction drawings and specifications can be compiled much more easily with a checklist.
- Checklists help conduct meetings more effectively, addressing key points with the corresponding design team or contractor.
- A checklist allows the project supervisor to carry out site visits more efficiently. A final checklist can be filled along with the project owner when closing the project.
An effective kickoff meeting also includes an overview of all key project steps, and the documentation generated in each step along the way. The deadlines for all key project steps must also be presented.
Schematic Design (SD)
This is the first step in the project delivery process, where the architect prepares a set of schematic project drawings based on the client’s requirements. The model developed in this phase provides a general idea of the project’s scale and appearance, but lacks the technical detail required for it to be built by contractors.
Design Development (DD)
During the design development phase, the schematic design evolves into a set of drawings and specifications that can be used by contractors to execute the project. During this phase, the teams in charge of structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing design will specify their respective building systems and create their layouts. The architect provides guidance, ensuring that individual building systems are designed giving consideration to the schematic design.
No project can proceed in New York City without approval from the Department of Buildings, and this stage can only be completed by a Registered Architect or Professional Engineer. Design teams may be required to change their models, drawings and specifications during this phase, until an approved set of documents is obtained.
Construction Documents (CD)
This is the documentation that has been approved by the NYC Dept. of Buildings, providing the basis for physical construction of the project. If the final result matches the approved Construction Documents and meets all commissioning requirements, the building can be legally used for the intended occupancy; otherwise, the DOB will request changes until the completed project matches the approved documents.
Final Documents: As-Built Drawings, Operation and Maintenance Manuals
The contractor will typically be required to prepare a set of as-built drawings, based on the approved drawings and reflecting the state of the completed project. Depending on the building system, equipment submittals and Operation and Maintenance Manuals may also be requested.
Step 04: Defining Communication Channels and Collaboration Tools
Another important aspect of a kickoff meeting is defining communication channels and procedures. In a multidisciplinary project with several teams, which is the case of MEP, not managing communication can lead to confusion, especially with respect to document versions and specifications. As the project documentation is presented, it is important to point out who is responsible for generating it and to whom it must be addressed, as well as the communication channel to be used.
All collaboration platforms to be used in the project should also be presented and discussed at this stage. Keep in mind that a single project may use several platforms, each with a different purpose. For example, a large-scale MEP project may use a project management platform such as Primavera P6, and a collaborative engineering platform such as Revit MEP by Autodesk. In this case, the project management platform is used to coordinate tasks, and the engineering platform is used to carry out design and specification tasks, and then to assist with progress and cost tracking.
Project management software and Building Information Modeling (BIM) are among the most powerful tools that can be deployed in modern engineering platforms. Project management software provides a convenient way to assign and track project activities, while offering built-in messaging and correspondence. On the other hand, BIM is of great help when avoiding equipment overlaps and conflicting specifications, while allowing bills of materials and budgets to be calculated much faster. In both cases, a project document database ensures everyone is working the latest file versions.
Additional Information: Risk Management and Client-Specific Rules
Managing risks is so important in a project, that the Project Management Institute dedicates a whole chapter of the PMBOK to the topic. Risk management can be summarized as follows:
- Risk Management Plan: The approach to handle risks, including how they will be assessed and planning any associated communications.
- Risk Impact and Risk Probability: Each risk is unique in terms of impact and probability. For example, natural disasters and wars have a high impact but a very low chance of occurring, while delayed material deliveries and communication errors have a low impact and can be remediated easily, but occur in almost every project.
During the kickoff meeting, it is important to point out that risk management should be an ongoing process and not a one-time activity. In the first place, project conditions change as it progresses; for example, the risk of a crane accident is zero if a project is still in the foundations and groundwork stage.
When delivering a MEP project, working safely is just as important as meeting the technical requirements. Many clients have internal safety protocols that every employee must follow, and when external contractors are involved they must follow them as well. In many cases, failure to follow rules may result in banning a contractor from returning to the project, which disrupts the workflow for all stakeholders involved. If rules such as these are present in a project, they must be made clear during the kickoff meeting.