Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What's the value of value engineering? Part 2 of 2

We've discussed the basics of value engineering, and it should be said that VE is neither good or bad in and of itself--it simply is. Projects will come in over budget and need to be brought under budget, and VE is the process through which that happens. However, it would seem that no one walks away from VE happy. Engineers complain that their systems--the ones that make the building work and make it comfortable and habitable--get cut unreasonably to the point that rooms are always freezing or roasting, or a breaker trips every time someone plugs in a fan or space heater. Architects complain that contractors always want to cut out all the pretty stuff, or that the contractor's substitution products are a crappy imitation of real quality products and they only offer those substitutions so they can make more profit. Contractors complain that architects and engineers are primadonna whiners that don't care about a client's budget because if they did, they wouldn't specify all this super-expensive stuff in the project in the first place. The design team then counters that complaint with the fact that they're trying to provide true quality in a project and trying to make sure that the client has good products in their building that will look good and provide trouble-free operations for the long haul, and contractors wouldn't know good design if it fell on their heads and if contractors had their way everything would look like a bowling shoe.

The VE process tends to get ugly.

Let's look at some good and bad examples of VE that I experienced on a hospital project a few years ago. Due to a bad initial estimate of the project combined with a volatile bidding environment and the fact that the project was located a few hours from any major market, the project came in way over budget. Here are a few of the VE decisions that we made and how they turned out.

Decision: Shelled out two of the four operating rooms, equipped a third with minimal equipment
The hospital had enough volume to warrant two operating rooms, and they wanted to be able to expand to four eventually. In the short term, they planned to use two of the four as minor procedure rooms. However, shelling out two of the four (with just drywall, a concrete floor, stubbed up plumbing for scrub sinks, and minimal airflow from the ducts) allowed the hospital to turn that area into a temporary maintenance equipment shed and repair/workroom. When the patient volume is heavy enough to warrant the two extra rooms, the maintenance crew can move out into a simple metal outbuilding, and the plumbing lines and duct mains are all ready to go--construction on building out the two rooms can take place without bothering the existing operating rooms. Also, by putting in just the supports for future medical equipment in one of the two ORs to be used, the room was still useable for a year by the staff, and when they had the funds to install the new equipment in the second OR, the equipment crew was able to install it over a three-day weekend, leaving the hospital with no downtime.
Grade: A

Decision: Changed parking lot reinforcement material and removed all raised curbs from parking lots and drive aisles
The original plan for the concrete parking lots included using a wire mesh that was located in the middle of the concrete slab, and the ends of each row of parking included raised curbs with islands for planting landscaping and small trees. A local concrete subcontractor suggested a fiber-reinforced mesh for the concrete that was closer to the surface because their experience was that concrete parking lots in that part of the country were going to crack and curl no matter what was done to it. Also, each length of curb cost a pretty penny (a special machine comes out the job site and extrudes concrete curbs), so it was best to eliminate them where possible. Also eliminating landscaping (see next item) was a major concern as well. Not having the planting islands allowed the snow removal crews to push snow much more efficiently and effectively, but the fiber reinforcing was peeling up out of the concrete within a few months of occupation, causing the concrete to crack and spall (spatter apart at the surface). The concrete had to be resurfaced within a year.
Grade: B-

Decision: Removed all landscaping from initial buildout
While scope removal is an option in some projects, it's rarely an option in a healthcare facility. Healthcare projects are very program driven--after all, it's the program that provides the services that a community so desperately needs (operating rooms, X-ray, CT scanner, trauma bays in an emergency department). In order to keep all the program in the project, the hospital decided to leave the entire site as soil with a little bit of runoff protection in place so that they could make their occupancy deadline. A month or so before occupancy, several major spring rains washed away soil (and some of the runoff protection) in torrents, and water collecting in some areas of the site were breeding mosquitoes. A year later, the hospital found a local gardener to provide some nice landscaping up near the front door, but the edge of the property towards the main roads is still rather spotty and unkempt-looking, which doesn't add to the curb appeal of the facility.
Grade: C-

Decision: Changed all casework toekicks to rubber base and removed doors and sink panels in work areas
The original casework drawings showed plastic laminate on the toekicks of all lower cabinets, which would match the cabinet faces. The casework subcontractor suggested that we use a neutrally-colored rubber base as the finish for those areas instead--yes, it would look a little different, but it would wear much better than the plastic laminate, and besides, who would notice? Also, wherever it was possible in work areas that no patients would see, upper cabinets with plastic laminate doors were replaced with open shelving with melamine interiors and shelves, and the panels that cover the piping below sinks was removed. While the workrooms themselves look a little cheap, the nurses didn't seem to mind the changes and were happier in some instances to be able to reach needed items without swinging open doors.
Grade: A-

Decision: Changed structure and exterior from steel and brick to precast concrete
This was a huge change for the project, and frankly there was a bit of luck involved. The contractor has having a heck of a time getting a good price on steel because so much of it was being used in China at the time. The contractor was also concerned about getting high-quality masons to this remote town--no one wants brick that lets water in the wall, right? Fortunately, there was a precast concrete company that was willing to cut the project team a deal on a nice-looking precast exterior and a good strong structural and roof system. This change made a difference in many ways: first of all, it allowed the design team to locate columns every 60-90 feet instead of every 20-30 feet, like with steel. Also, the concrete tees used for the roof carried an automatic 2-hour fire rating, which is required by code for hospitals over a certain size. The precast structure and exterior had an added benefit of being very durable and strong, which was important to the hospital, since it was located in a tornado-prone area. Finally, the precast could be made in a controlled environment (to assure quality) and then erected in record time on site, which allowed the building to be dried in quickly and ended up shaving two months off of the construction schedule. Brilliant.
Grade: A+

Decision: Simplified sheet flooring patterns and brands
The flooring patterns also showed a variety of fun, exuberant bubbles and circles that matched some of the architectural elements in the floor plan and in some of the drywall soffits above. The flooring subcontractor explained to the design team that sheet vinyl generally came in rolls about 6 feet wide, and in order to cut some of the floor patterns that they'd drawn, he would have to provide two to three times as much flooring material just to get the pattern to work. By simplifying the patterns, he was able to buy less materials in the first place and then make better use of the material he had to buy.
The original finish schedule showed five kinds of sheet flooring from two different manufacturers. The
contractor then found some savings in going down to two kinds of sheet flooring from one manufacturer. Overall, there wasn't much of a difference except in the room with the MRI. Equipment manufacturers require certain environmental standards for their equipment to operate, such as temperature or humidity. One of those standards for MRIs is antistatic flooring...and the newly specified sheet flooring didn't have those properties. So far, there have been no reports of the MRI malfunctioning due to a static electricity buildup, but if there is ever a problem, it could fall back on the owner to pay for a repair...which could fall back to the architect.
Grade: B

As you can see, some decisions are good ones and some are not so good. Some VE decisions are shortsighted and some truly introduce value into the project. The best overall way to approach VE is knowing what the project truly requires and then defending those basic points. For example, I had a hospital project in which the mechanical & plumbing sub wanted to reduce plumbing fixtures. However, a hospital is required by healthcare codes and guidelines to have certain fixtures for cleaning and handwashing, so in that case it's against code for me to remove fixtures In other cases, it would hamper the facility's operations--removing the toilet room from the ultrasound suite would be downright uncomfortable, as having a full bladder during an ultrasound helps the procedure be accurate (and right afterwards, the patient reeeeeeeally has to use the bathroom!). Knowing (and being really honest with yourself as a designer) about what's truly important in a project can allow VE to go more smoothly and to actually introduce value into a project.

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