Design-assist MEP engineering can help reduce project risk, cost, and schedule

By Mike Lawless 

Risk reduction, cost control, and time savings are paramount for owners facing large, complex, or fast-track design-build construction projects. In such situations, engaging the MEP consultant through a design-assist delivery model can be a particularly effective way to achieve these goals. 

In a design-assist delivery, the MEP consultant begins involvement with the owner by developing initial project plans and specifications to be used during the selection of the subcontractors, who are engaged very early in design. Once the subcontractors are in place, the design-build/design assist team works collaboratively, with the MEP consultant leading the progression of the design and assisting in finding lower cost solutions, resolving issues that cross disciplines or subcontractors, and providing input on code interpretations. The MEP consultant remains as the engineer of record and advocates for the owner throughout construction, commissioning, and operation.  

Design-assist shortens the project schedule by enabling the construction team to: 

  • Offer input into constructability, phasing, and long-lead materials 
  • Go straight from design into construction by conducting the bidding and contract negotiation phase earlier in the project 
  • Save weeks of coordination time since construction BIM models are typically close to completion by the end of the design phase  
  • Work more efficiently during construction since they have a deep understanding of design intent 

The main goal of the MEP design-assist model is to provide the best possible project for the best price with minimized overlapping efforts by the multiple parties involved. To be successful in this model, however, the owner and project team members must be committed to: 

Clearly defined roles and collaboration: Under the design-assist method it is critical the owner clearly define the roles and responsibilities at each phase of the project and reinforce the expectation that the team will work collaboratively. The collaboration and varying perspectives of the different team members can lead to the best ideas and a smooth project – and cost savings for the owner. For example, input from contractors helps the MEP consultant provide a constructible and maintainable design from the beginning and eliminate second guessing from contractors once documents are complete. The contractors in turn receive a design that is efficient with their installation methods and processes – mitigating issues during construction that can cause project delays and increased costs. 

Team-based problem-solving: All team members need to be willing to ask for, as well as provide, assistance for the betterment of the project and be willing to listen and learn from the other team members to arrive at the best solution. (Teams that have worked together previously — and can bring their shared experiences and lessons learned to a new project – provide added value.) When problems do arise, the team is expected to focus on collaboration and creative solutions, not where to point the blame.  

Ingenuity and efficiency: Well-defined performance specifications with supporting contractor selection documents that are not prescriptive allow the design-build subcontractor bidders to use their ingenuity to provide cost-effective and functional system proposals that might be outside prescribed parameters. The subcontractors can then continue to work collaboratively with the MEP designers to provide creative solutions throughout the completion of construction documents. 

Early coordination of space planning: The MEP consultant’s experience and input on space planning results in few system-level changes in plumbing, electrical, fire protection, etc. – and is critical for schedule and cost-efficiency. Early planning also allows for a range of HVAC systems (which can provide the biggest performance impact and allow for the greatest creativity) with the understanding that once the contractors are selected there may need to be changes. 

Accountability: It is also important to have a mechanism to review team member performance and make changes if necessary. Release clauses related to performance or cost control should be included for the consultant; releases for the design-build contractors should be in place in the event they do not perform consistent with expectations for collaboration, cost control, quality control, or schedule compliance. 

Given the ever-increasing utilization of design-build delivery, owners have many opportunities to consider using design-assist to engage a consulting engineer throughout the life of their project. When done correctly and under the right circumstances, such collaboration is an effective way to merge the expertise of the MEP consultant and the design-build professionals to receive an efficient, cost-effective, and timely project. 



Basic steps of MEP design-assist delivery: 

  1. After being hired by the owner, the consultant creates detailed MEP specifications and a systems-level set of contractor selection documents to show design intent. These plans go beyond traditional schematic design and include systems and performance criteria along with the basic layout. All major equipment, conduit, pipe, and duct locations are specified; specific installation details are noted; and mechanical zoning areas are indicated. These plans are used by the owner to solicit competitive design-build MEP contractor bids.  
  2. The evaluation of bids begins and is based upon the MEP contractors’ qualifications, value-added innovations, schedule, and team chemistry. The evaluation process is managed by the owner or owner’s project manager and includes the MEP consultant to verify scope coverage and assist in selections. (Each bid would include a line item cost for each subcontractor’s pre-construction efforts.) Collaborative selection and due diligence in selecting the contractor and their team members is critical and can take some time and effort to find the best value. 
  3. The selected contractors are then partnered with the MEP consultant for the duration of the project, working collaboratively, but with very specific roles.  
  4. The MEP contractor fully develops the consultant’s initial set of MEP plans into construction documents, working collaboratively with the rest of the team and following the project’s defined scope of work and owner’s requirements. The MEP consultant provides continuous review and input to verify the design is meeting the intent. At each level of document completion, the consultant and the design-build contractors sign off on the documents. 
  5. Once the construction documents are complete, the contractors submit for permits, based upon the construction schedule. 
  6. During construction, the MEP consultant essentially provides quality control – assisting in reviewing shop drawings, attending owner and construction meetings, and conducting field review for design intent compliance. 
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