As much as 40 percent of a building’s construction budget can go into the project’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) systems; a hefty investment that can affect the cost of operating the building in the short and long term. The MEP systems coordinator brings valuable perspective to help steer sound engineering decisions among the project team.
Matt Stringfellow, an MEP systems coordinator at Kraus-Anderson, recently shed some light on how this role adds value to the construction project.
Q: What does the MEP systems coordinator do?
Stringfellow: The MEP coordinator is responsible for assisting with mechanical and electrical design and construction issues from preconstruction through construction, startup, commissioning, occupancy, and warranty. Based on the project complexity and needs, the MEP coordinator may become involved at different times and provide a variety of service levels for a variety of projects. Typically, the key is to be involved early on during preconstruction to help the owner make informed engineering decisions prior to bidding and construction.
The MEP coordinator provides an independent set of eyes from that of the designers and subcontractors to verify and validate the engineering systems decisions. The goal is to make sure that the engineering design decisions/solutions meet the owner’s project-required goals including scope, budget, quality, performance, maintenance, among others. We work closely with the construction project manager, MEP subcontractors, and MEP designers to challenge the scope and budget direction while also trying to add value with suggested alternative solutions. During the construction phase we help track and validate progress and quality of installation, assist with resolution of field issues, and participate in startup/commissioning/warranty activities.
Q: MEP Systems Coordinator is a role that was not very prevalent a few years ago, but today more and more clients demand that an MEP expert be part of their construction team. Why?
Stringfellow: I recently participated on two project interview teams where, in each case, the owner asked point blank: how do we make sure we are choosing the proper mechanical systems from a long term operation and maintenance perspective; and how do we prevent mechanical problems from occurring? I think there are several reasons for this MEP coordinator trend:
• Owners don’t always fully understand the engineering decisions that need to be made, but they don’t want a repeat of the engineering problems they have had on past projects.
• Construction contractors have realized that having an MEP coordinator on staff and involved early in the design and construction process can keep problems from emerging at the end of the project, when they are more difficult and costly to resolve. It is much easier to make the changes while still on paper rather than after the items have been purchased and installed incorrectly.
• Naturally, some designers may tend toward more conservative, and costly, design solutions. An MEP coordinator who understands systems and associated costs at the detail level can often effectively raise a challenge to this conservatism, which can free up budget for use on other portions of the project.
• The MEP coordinator also provides an independent perspective and a second set of eyes that can help speed issue resolution in the field.
• Another important role of the MEP specialist is to review and challenge the cost estimates provided from subcontractors.
Q: How does this role supplement that of the mechanical and electrical engineers and contractors?
Stringfellow: The MEP coordinator is typically divorced from any particular design direction and is instead focused on getting the best possible solution within the budget limitations that meets the owner’s needs. Most engineers and subcontractors typically appreciate the second set of eyes because it can make their job easier in the long run.
Q: What kind of training or experience is required?
Stringfellow: MEP coordinators come from a variety of backgrounds: engineering design experience, subcontractor experience, operations/maintenance experience. Having worked in more than one area helps to provide a well-rounded understanding of what works and what does not from a practical perspective. Experience with multiple building types over a number of years provides depth of understanding to be able to quickly assess situations and provide useful direction. I would say, though, the most important qualification is a strong engineering design background with significant startup and commissioning experience.
Stringfellow: It is equally some of each. The role of the MEP coordinator is to support the project team members (owner, designer, project manager, job superintendent, etc.) in all of these areas related to the MEP systems.
Q: Besides the up-front cost of these systems, there are operational considerations that will affect the life cycle of the building. As those two considerations may sometimes be at odds with each other (higher upfront cost means lower life cycle expense, and vice versa), is your role to advise on a course of action, or to provide informed decision-making on the part of the owner or owner’s rep?
Stringfellow: Absolutely, this is a key focus and the MEP coordinator is central to this discussion. The MEP coordinator helps the owner review design solution decisions; and make the best choice for both upfront construction cost and long term life cycle operating cost.
Q: Are there construction markets that are more sensitive to MEP considerations than others?
Stringfellow: I think these days with increasing energy code restrictions which strive to limit energy use, all building types are becoming more complicated from an MEP perspective. It is typically true that a hospital is more complicated than a school, for instance. However, the MEP coordinator can adjust his efforts to the project at hand. Since an MEP coordinator supports many projects at once, he typically needs to assess the situation at hand to determine where he can have the greatest impact. Regardless, the MEP coordinator can typically add value to a variety of project types and complexities.
Q: Most of the emphasis seems to be on ME these days, given the higher energy costs of ME systems as well as the rapid shifts in the technology that affect those systems. But talk about some of the considerations of the P- Plumbing.
Stringfellow: I think the biggest issue with plumbing systems these days is water conservation and storm water management/reuse. The world in general is becoming increasingly concerned with fresh water conservation, so we use items like water conserving plumbing fixtures which use less water than in the past. We also use automatic faucets and automatic flush valves which help reduce water usage (with a side benefit of helping to reduce disease transmission as well). Storm water management typically involves finding ways to keep rainfall on the project site by letting it absorb into the soil through pervious paving or through a storm water treatment/infiltration system; the goal being to reduce storm water runoff into the storm sewer system. Another method for reducing storm water runoff is to collect the rainwater in storage tanks and use it to provide a “grey water” plumbing water source for flushing toilets, for instance; or as a water source for landscaping irrigation (with the added goal of reducing fresh water usage.)
Q: What’s on the horizon in this field?
I think the continuing trend is that owners are looking for construction companies who can provide total responsibility for a successful project outcome. The trend has been that owners have reduced their in-house staff expertise when it comes to developing and operating building facilities. So they need someone else who can bridge the gap for them to make sure their buildings are completed in a manner that successfully meets the needs of the occupants and is not a burden to operate over the life cycle. We foresee continued strengthening of the MEP coordinator role in the construction industry. I think it will become a standard offering of all major construction companies.