Trust is Crucial in Project Coordination

The key ingredient of any successful project is trust: the owner must trust the building team to envision and create the owner's goals; designers must trust the contractor's ability to work within the framework of construction documents to build a living environment; the contractor must trust that the design team has developed a plan comprehensive enough to get them all out of the jungle withou...

By Michael Sheerin, P.E., Healthcare Division Director, TLC Engineering for Architecture, Orlando October 1, 2003

The key ingredient of any successful project is trust: the owner must trust the building team to envision and create the owner’s goals; designers must trust the contractor’s ability to work within the framework of construction documents to build a living environment; the contractor must trust that the design team has developed a plan comprehensive enough to get them all out of the jungle without too many snake bites.

This delicate balance can be upset by many factors—engineers taking too hard a line on overly conservative specification requirements, or contractors applying more cynicism than experience in the face of designer directives.

Certainly, the best method for keeping on track throughout the course of a project is communication—the unambiguous, respectful, formal kind as well as the inquiring, personable, informal kind.

Coordination drawing is crucial test

During the ongoing project at Frederick Memorial Hospital (FMH), the coordination drawing process has proved a great opportunity for the building team to test trust and exercise communication skills.

Coordination drawings, such as the one above, are generally developed to allocate space for M/E/P and fire-protection system components, which are bounded by the structure and the ceiling. Everything in the ceiling plenum and on the ceiling is identified and set to an elevation.

In the drawing above, for example, the green grid represents the reflected ceiling plan. Light fixtures are double-lined; red lines represent ductwork; brown lines, walls; blue lines, structural grid lines; magenta text, the room name, number and ceiling height requirement; the cyan text gives pertinent information for installation, such as duct size, elevations, etc. Anything that is clouded raises coordination questions or indicates that a revision is necessary to make the equipment coordinate. This, of course, requires engineer review/approval.

“Coordination drawings are a necessity to manage installation of today’s systems in a complex project,” says Rex Camden, senior project manager at RW Warner, FMH’s mechanical/plumbing contractor.

As readily as engineers may express an opinion to the contractor, construction documents seldom become as-builts by themselves. The coordination process starts with the architects and engineers working closely to make a cohesive design and manage the constraints of structures, ceilings and M/E/P systems. Similarly, the engineers need to join the multi-disciplinary elements of their design to bring sense and consistency that will translate into easier understanding and installation.

At FMH, the construction team used an outside coordinating agent—Commercial CAD, Inc.—to develop the reference coordination drawings. On other projects this task is sometimes executed by the general contractor, the mechanical contractor or even the sheet metal subcontractor. Coordinating agents, however, are not impartial—somebody pays them for their effort—and indeed, every coordinating agent should seek to balance the competing interests of all of the design and construction team members to achieve ownership—and acceptance—of sometimes difficult decisions.

In the case of FMH, Commercial CAD melded the sheet metal shop drawings with plumbing and HVAC piping fabrication plans. They then integrated the structure and ceiling construction along with associated ceiling elements, including light fixtures, to define a workable plan for installation and to identify conflicts that need resolution to the design/construction team.

“We will never know how many time-delay and material-reorder situations the coordination drawing process resolved on this project,” says Jeff Bainbridge, project coordinator for Morgan-Keller, Inc., the general contractor on FMH. “The coordinating agent provided us advance knowledge of areas where ceiling heights would require modification. This enabled us to address the issue with the owner, architect, and engineers to research and modify systems so that the systems would fit into the allowed space while still maintaining the integrity of their decision,” he says.

Checking egos at the door

The coordination drawings were distributed to the team members, who then held periodic review meetings to discuss issues and construction concerns and to hammer out solutions to any problem areas. Architects and engineers, however, should not expect praise at these meetings just because the majority of their design works without a hitch. In fact, a contractor may take some satisfaction in button-holing a designer for some area of flawed thinking. In the face of concrete dimensional data, designers must drop their egos at the door.

At the same time, the contractor, ultimately, must have a viable design. Typically, a contractor doesn’t want to take on the time, headaches or liabilities of designing the project, so he or she also has to find a workable attitude with the design team.

Experience shows that the best ideas come from all sides of the table when design imperatives are expressed clearly and when flexibility is a shared chore.

At FMH, this point is clearly illustrated by ceiling plenums. With floor-to-floor heights generally less than 12 ft.—and driven by the need to accommodate matching floors of closely enmeshed existing hospital wings—the ceiling plenums are tight sandwiches of electrical conduit, ductwork, plumbing and medical gas piping, sprinkler pipes and light fixtures. Flat slab concrete minimizes the surprises, but when things don’t fit, they don’t fit. Rerouting, realigning and resizing M/E/P systems, and the compromise all architects despise—dropping ceiling heights—all had to be employed at FMH to ensure constructability, maintainability and accessibility to necessary components.

Find the time

It all really boils down to taking the time to do so, but time, paradoxically, is the greatest hurdle to project planning. And this limited resource is further taxed by employing coordination drawings. So there’s no doubt that developing such drawings will require a significant investment of front-end time and costs beyond typical M/E/P system shop drawings. Furthermore, the review process itself will require a number of intensive designer-contractor meetings. But the rewards can be dramatic. Contractors can more confidently—thus, more quickly—install systems without conflict. From the owner’s perspective, he or she gets as-built drawings that more accurately reflect the real installation, which may be a great help and guide for the future.

In the end, such coordination is a necessary step toward establishing trust and team building, which ideally, should result in issues being resolved before they become urgent requests for information or potential change orders.