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Design-Build Engineers Help Manage Risk and Improve Results with Construction Oversight

In food and beverage manufacturing, designing a new process or piece of equipment can often seem like the most challenging part of a design-build project. Innovation, creativity and technical expertise all have to come together to make an efficient, functional design.

(Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the March/April 2016 print issue of Food Manufacturing)

In food and beverage manufacturing, designing a new process or piece of equipment can often seem like the most challenging part of a design-build (D/B) project. Innovation, creativity and technical expertise all have to come together in just the right way to make an efficient, functional design. However, most project owners are not aware that the construction phase of a project typically contains the greatest potential for risk, due to the multitude and complexity of moving parts involved. The construction phase requires obtaining all necessary resources, complying with various codes and regulations and communicating with all the parties involved. Each of the stakeholders may have different priorities and interests, and many significant factors cannot be foreseen at the beginning of this phase; each of these components opens up opportunities for risk. Working with an engineer that can provide design-build services as well as site management and construction oversight services minimizes these risks and keeps projects on schedule.

Sticking to a Project’s Schedule

The construction phase provides plenty of opportunity for delays due to unforeseen challenges or a lack of awareness of how long certain tasks will take. However, during the design process, a project’s D/B engineer becomes aware of the requirements responsible for determining the schedule, as well as the specific deadlines associated with the start-up of a new process or new piece of equipment, and an installation schedule is developed during this phase based on these requirements. Additionally, their familiarity with the design means they know the exact number of tie-ins to existing systems (mechanical, electrical, utilities) and they can develop a schedule of shutdowns for the tie-ins that will minimize the impact on operations.

Having a clear overall understanding of the project, D/B engineers will also better understand what the project’s priorities are and can quickly adjust the schedule during the construction phase accordingly should outside complications, such as weather, existing equipment failures or production schedule changes, cause delays. This also makes it easier to work around special installation requirements like multiple installation windows or rotating installation shifts, as the D/B engineer will be aware of these circumstances from the beginning of the project rather than at the time of receiving the bid. In fact, this also makes it possible for the design to be tailored specifically for these circumstances.

With the D/B engineer performing construction oversight, requests for information and change orders can also be responded to more quickly than in standard design-bid-build projects. This is because the time it would take for the owner or general contractor to reach out to the design firm and wait for a response is eliminated. Instead, the design firm is onsite and engaged in the day-to-day installation work, which minimizes the time to answer questions. Furthermore, the D/B oversight engineer becomes the start-up coordinator in these types of projects, reducing the transition time from the general contractor’s installation portion of the project to start-up.

Working Within the Budget

One major concern when hiring a firm for construction management is the possibility for exceeding the budget due to miscellaneous expenses. When the project owner is accountable for any additional costs, the risk involved in going over budget is considerable. In contrast, a D/B engineering firm generally has a greater motivation to keep change orders and additional construction costs to a minimum. Of course, all engineering firms want to do what is best and most cost-effective for their client, but bearing the responsibility of paying contractors gives a design engineering firm a direct reason to avoid additional costs where they can. Not only can project owners save money with this model, but the stress of dealing with change orders is also lessened, as the D/B firm is responsible for the entire scope of the project. The only risk the project owner assumes is a change to the scope of the project after the design has been completed.

With your design engineer performing construction oversight, you also eliminate the need for separate construction support trips from the engineering firm during the construction phase, as the firm is already onsite. This might not be a cost many project owners consider significant, but the expenses associated with travel can add up quickly. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that having the D/B Engineer become the start-up coordinator removes the cost and the need to have both a general contractor and start-up coordinator on site at the same time to address punch-list items while start-up is getting underway.

Choosing the Right Partner for Your Project

Possibly the most important benefit to project owners using their design engineer for construction oversight is having only one point of contact for any and all questions or project-related items. However, this makes choosing the right partner to be that single point of contact a top priority.

One of the first factors you want to consider when choosing a D/B engineer is their prior experience with other D/B projects. Look carefully at the size, scope and complexity of the other D/B projects the firm has completed, and make sure their experience is a good match for the type of project you’d be hiring them to complete. This includes asking questions about the firm’s available resources for supporting their people on site, as well as the experience of the actual on-site team. Asking about or receiving testimonials from clients the firm has worked with in the past can provide a great deal of insight into the company’s track record, the type of working relationship they foster with clients and the firm’s flexibility in dealing with challenges. If you can, it’s always a good idea to find out what past clients’ comfort level was with the firm, and most importantly with the project team and onsite personnel.   

Project owner involvement may be a concern for some considering working with a D/B firm for construction oversight on their next project, as hiring a separate oversight consultant can appear to provide the project owner more control. However, when working with a D/B firm, the client can certainly be as involved as they are on all other typical projects during design. When it comes to the construction phase, a project owner’s involvement will depend on his or her comfort level with the D/B firm. If this is important to you as a project owner, be sure to discuss the level of involvement preferred as part of your firm selection process. As an example of what a typical working relationship might look like during the construction phase, it’s common for the D/B firm and project owner to have two weekly meetings: one at the beginning of the week and one at the end of the week to review the project status, schedule and any issues that may arise. As the project installation begins to reach completion and moves into the startup phase, the client’s involvement typically increases accordingly, working more closely with the engineer to complete the finishing touches.

Retaining a project’s D/B engineer to manage the construction oversight role does take some forethought. It’s important to assess their capability for managing that role effectively from the beginning of the project and ensure that they share the project owner’s goals and vision for the final result. In the end, though, partnering with the right engineer for construction oversight services has the potential to improve results by customizing design and construction efforts to the particular project at hand while keeping costs and project timelines in check. Plus, there is no need to coordinate with a general contractor, individual subcontractors or the design firm when questions arise. This model provides one-stop shopping for anything that comes up and one back to pat upon the successful completion of the project.

Jason Jacobe is a mechanical engineer with experience in consulting for manufacturing environments. He has been involved in several projects related to the food and beverage industry, including work in packaging, process, utility, mechanical engineering, and construction oversight. His project history also includes procurement, testing, installation and start-up coordination of packaging, process, and utility equipment.

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