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You Need To Be Doing Design/Build

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At age 12 I started working for my father carrying his tools. I recall sitting in the snow watching my father work on an early heat pump thinking I need to learn a different trade. However at 16, with driver’s license in hand, I started working as a service technician. As a service technician, you hone your skills to solve problems.  You find a unit that’s not working; you figure out the problem and correct it.

I attended Hume Fogg Vocational and Technical High School and graduated valedictorian of my class majoring in HVAC and refrigeration. While at Hume Fogg I served as State president of VICA, a new youth trade association now called SkillsUSA.  Although I do not hold a formal mechanical engineering degree, I have attended numerous design classes and am licensed in seven (7) states.

When I took over operating my own company, I began working for a general contractor that constructed pre-engineered metal buildings. His approach to providing cost-effective solutions bucked the traditional methodologies of an architect.   He would assemble a team of subcontractors in different trades with whom he had confidence. This team would put together a design proposal addressing the owner’s needs. If the owner accepted our proposal, we then would construct the project as proposed.

With the traditional model, an owner employs an architect who in turn assemblies a design team consisting of a mechanical engineer, a structural engineer, civil engineer etc. The architect and his team design the project, then the owner solicits bids from general contractors based on the architect’s design. In most cases the architect’s team members are compensated based upon a percentage of total construction costs.

Under the design/build model the owner approaches a general contractor, who assembles a team to address the owner’s needs, but from a contractor and design perspective.  Since a design/contractor does the estimates and actually puts the project together, they can work within the end user’s parameters and deliver a project within budget, without change orders.

The traditional architect design team only understands historical project costs. They don’t necessarily understand how new technology and features impact future costs. Traditional architect design teams avoid new technology because they’re ultra conservative.  That’s where design/build contractors excel. They can take newer technology and implement it sooner in the market place.

Let me give you an example.  I attended an Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration trade show about 30 years ago where I learned about a fabric air disbursement system that had just been introduced in the U.S. from Europe. Shortly thereafter we had an athletic facility that was having budget issues. The design had specified double wall sheet metal duct work for the air distribution system.

As a cost reduction suggestion known as “Value Engineering”, I suggested using a fabric air dispersion system. The owner accepted the suggestion and it worked great.  It met the needs of the space and lowered the install project costs. Since then I’ve used fabric duct with great success and today many traditional design engineers have even accepted the concept.

There’s a poem out there about somebody who is running a train and they can’t control the whistle; they can’t control anything but if it jumps the track they catch heck. It’s the same in construction. The end users are going to look to me anyway for satisfaction.  So if I’m going to be held to all those responsibilities shouldn’t I also have some input on the design?

We were doing a medical facility project, and we kept telling the mechanical designer that his design will not work. The designer insisted that he knew what he was doing and directed us to do the installation per his documents.  When finished the project, the HVAC system would not perform, and the owner refused to pay us.

I requested and was given a meeting with the hospital administrator.  At the meeting, I explained, your designers are like the doctors.  They have written a script, and that’s what these plans are. I’m the nurse and I executed those orders, but the patient is not responding.  You’re now trying to hold the nurse responsible but the nurse was just following the doctor’s guidance?  The hospital administrator looked at me and the mechanical designer and without saying a word, left the room. Shortly afterward, he returned and handed me a check.  He finally comprehended the traditional design model.

I’ve been in the trade more than 50 years. I’ve seen more changes to our industry in the last 10 years than I saw in the first 40. When I went to school over 50 years ago, it was pounded into our heads the physics of oil migration, but now variable refrigerants flow technology seems to have changed the laws of physics. There’s a lot of stuff that’s hard for us old-timers to get through our heads. However, as my business mentor Carl Parker once said, “Everything we do today will be done different and better tomorrow. If you want to be successful, be willing to learn new ideas or you will be left behind with the coal stokers.”

Garry Floeter
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