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Are you Armed with the 'Right Questions' for Stellar Project Success?

Dean Shellenberger,PE, Mechanical Department Leader, exp

Knowing what questions to ask up front, leads to more successful projects.  Be bold, avoid pitfalls and arm yourself with the top most relevant Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing (MEP) questions on day-one of your project.

Can your healthcare project afford high MEP cost overruns due to issues that are fully avoidable?  Knowing and asking these top dozen questions minimizes these issues both during and after construction. For a more successful project, this MEP CHECKLIST will help you ask the Right Questions at the right time.

1. Team Selection/Relationships – Ask the question, “Does the team of healthcare design professionals truly have the right type of experience?”  An experienced high performing team can usually outperform a possibly more talented, but dysfunctional team.  Invest in building the best possible team.  Look for leadership and commitment to see it through.  Even at the start, your team members should already know the “right answers” or certainly have a close estimate on systems like electrical service size, generator size or chiller plant sizing.  Then when more information becomes available, those team members can adjust their design, while avoiding wholesale changes.  When asked what jazz was, Louis Armstrong replied, “Man, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.”  This seems to apply to healthcare design – if you have a good feel for the answers before you start, you will have a better idea what will be the right answer.  Experience plays a vital role in the success of a healthcare project design. Up front partnering sessions, with periodic maintenance over the course of design and construction, helps bond your team relationship over the long run.

2. Complex Systems Operational Impact – The question to ask is, “What are the MEP systems features that most impact hospital operations?”  Often, the more global and complex MEP elements of design are never brought to the table for discussion.  The result is a haphazard design that could have been far more effective.  An example of this is Fire Alarm Zoning.  The arrangement affects areas of the hospital to be shut down, pending device activation.  With such dramatic impact to any hospital operation, this needs to be discussed and vetted up front.  If left to the fire alarm contractor or engineer to make all the decisions about the system by himself, the value of team input is never realized.  The result may be areas of the hospital being turned off pre-maturely, possibly due to HVAC misalignment with zoning boundaries or other reasons. Addressing this early, will lead to a better understanding by the team and the owner. 

3. Vertical MEP Distribution Spaces (shafts) – This begs the question, “Do the proposed shaft sizes and locations work for the MEP, while still maintaining Architectural space program?” Often the mere locations of the shafts lead to failure by placing them in the worst locations such as too far from the point of use, adjacent to stairwells, elevators or Technology spaces. When shafts are not vertically aligned between floor plates, the MEP simply cannot efficiently be transferred from one vertical location to another.   See image 1aligned shaft space can affect the immediate constructability and cost as well as the use of the horizontal space surrounding the shaft offset.  Offsetting a shaft is not necessarily fatal; however the impact on the Architectural program and loss of system efficiencies over the life of the building should be considered.

  4. Early and Often Facility Engineer Involvement – Ask the client/owner, “Is it possible for your Facility staff to be regularly engaged in the project?”  There is much to gain with hospital facility staff satisfaction by including them in the design process.  Their familiarity and understanding of the systems throughout the design process leads to an easier transition to owning and operating the building.  Start-up surprises are minimized.   Learning what is most important to the Facility staff at the right time influences the MEP design in a positive way, leading to a “better fit” between the design and the hospital Facility staff at the time of building occupancy.   

5. Maintenance Access – Though this seems simple, it is sometimes sacrificed.  Ask the design team, “What are your parameters for showing how sufficient access is available?”  Put yourself in the shoes of the maintenance man for a moment.   Do you have to cut and fold the filter into a pretzel to get it in?  One technique used to help better assure a space is kept clear for maintenance access is to show the three-dimensional service space within the building model and on the floor plan.  This “no-fly-zone” represents to all trades to avoid the area with construction.  Ask your team how each location is to be accessed – the roof, the interstitial floor and the often-missed, ceiling space above immoveable equipment and casework.  Note the painted yellow path makes it easy to maintain access to equipment within the fan room. See image 2 front.  Last and not least are the ceiling access doors that are a necessary evil.  The locations are dictated by servicing needs above the ceiling.  Conducting conversations about these locations at the design/model stage will help maintain tolerable locations for them.

 

6. Modeling the Pinch Points – Ask yourself, “Besides the vertical and horizontal stud framing members, is there anything else that should be modeled that limits space for MEP routing?”  See the pinch point model, image 3, showing how much of the space becomes non-available due to the 45 degree framing braces that were needed to support the lighting coves.  The braces were not originally modeled so the impact of this discovery included breaking the ductwork into smaller branches.  Having this modeled earlier could have avoided this change during construction. A good example of how a more complete model better represents actual construction is shown in the curved wall in image 4. The image shows how beautifully the MEP utilities penetrate through the stud walls.

7. The Advantages of Commissioning  
“Why should I pay for commissioning?”  “What will I get if I pay for it, and what will happen if I don’t?”  The risk-reward analysis for commissioning is straightforward – by engaging a qualified Commissioning Provider on your project, you are helping deliver integrated Total Quality Assurance in the pre-design, design, construction, acceptance, and post-acceptance of the building.  The benefit of engaging a commissioning provider during the pre-design and design phases is that it will help ensure the owner's requirements are captured in the construction documents, that design is complete (i.e. Controls devices and sequences), and that the building will function as intended.  This results in fewer change orders and project delays, managed start-up requirements, shorter building turn-over transition period, less post-occupant corrective work, minimized effects from design changes, improved indoor air quality and energy efficiency (by up to 15%), and improved operation, maintenance, and reliability.  If a qualified Commissioning Provider is not engaged, these benefits and requirements may not be met.

8. Scope/Schedule/Budget – The question is, “Is everyone clearly aware of the project scope, schedule and budget?”  When these are unclear, vague and poorly defined in the beginning and throughout the course of the design, it usually leads to failure.  Design and construction go much better when project expectations are clear from the start and then re-visited along the way.  It is the design team leader who is responsible to carry the ball on this, however raising the flag when it is unclear, is the responsibility of every design team member. 

9. Early Decisions – Making early decisions is one of the common threads throughout this checklist as it remains one of the most difficult concepts to master.  The question to ask is, “When do you need the answer?”  It is far too easy to put off making timely decisions to “finalize” an issue.  Human nature includes taking more time, if you can get it.  Taking more time will always prevail over the practicality of a project schedule, unless we intervene.   Knowing when everyone on the team needs their answers, including allowing time in the schedule for the coordination, is the key to making progress.  This can be accomplished by using a simple “living” list of outstanding issues, including dates and names for responsibility assignment.    

10. Early Reconciliation between the MEP and the Architecture – Early collaboration is not always a given.  The MEP team is sometimes brought on only partially or not until it is thought they are absolutely needed.  By then, it may be too late to avoid, or easily address, some of the reconciliation issues.  One small discovered example is when the plumbing engineer finds that the floor mounted toilet fixtures are located directly above structural beams below the floor slab.  Seems absurd, doesn’t it?  However, this is a small, but common occurrence that can have minimal impact if early reconciliation is part of the project.  The question from the project leader should be, “Can each team member reach out and collaborate early to others for the sake of a much better project?”  The Architectural program does NOT necessarily need to be sacrificed to accommodate the MEP. 

11. Telecommunications/Low Voltage – With telecom/low voltage systems playing a major role in healthcare today, there a couple questions with which to be armed, as follows:

“Who is doing what and with which system?”  During the programming phase of the project, a published responsibility matrix is essential.  It should note who will provide/install, the owner’s stakeholder for each system, etc.  To better assure this matrix is populated, the owner’s Clinical Information Technology (IT) and other Information Technology stakeholders need to participate in the programming meetings.

“What are the space considerations for the systems?”   Though IT rooms appear to be growing exponentially every year, the needs are often justified.  Ask the IT design professional to map out the projected anticipated equipment, so the space allocation will then be apparent.  Another example where space is often congested is the Patient Monitoring System Rooms and Operating Control Rooms.   These rooms generally have a high density of equipment.  Early discussion about this equipment can avoid an overcrowded space.

“Are there any devices to be ceiling mounted in the high-end finished ceiling areas?”  Undoubtedly, some ceiling have a higher-end finishes than others, yet they too may need to contain wireless systems, speakers, fire alarm devices, cameras, asset tracking systems, etc.  There is no real answer to resolving the aesthetics other than to be sure there is an IT/Low voltage team participant available early to meet and discuss the expectations and options.

12. Show the Quality – It is not uncommon for a design team to exchange documents between team members; however, there may not be a written Quality Assurance (QA) program within the team, either individually or as a group.  Ask the question, “What is our Quality Assurance program.”  Large, cumbersome, standardized QC programs can be so over-the-top that they become irrelevant and placed to the side.  Having a brief, but thorough, two-tiered QA Program can be effective at all project milestones.  The first step of the two-tiered approach includes an internal self-discipline review.  Have each discipline leader provide written documentation showing how their QA is performed. Only after this review, should the documents be distributed to the team for review/comment and coordination.   

No project is built without challenges, however ensuring the project goals are clearly defined and the ‘Right Questions’ are asked up front, will better assure you and your team that a successful project is truly within your grasp.

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