Tom Székely, P.E., LEED AP

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April 11, 2005

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“Value Engineering” and other insults


Those of you who know me may recall me telling the story about the difference between Architects, Engineers, and Contractors, so I won’t repeat it here. (If you’d like to hear [read] it, drop me a note and I’ll send it along.)  Suffice it to say that it’s not a bad icebreaker at the first meeting of the Design/Construction team.  The problem with it is that sometimes Contractors take the part in it about them starting out knowing everything about everything, and ending up knowing nothing about nothing because of their association with Architects and Engineers,  somewhat (as in at all) seriously.


So I happen to see this story in today’s New York Times about Richard Meier’s downtown glass condos on West Street, and the effect of value engineering thereon.


The reporter speaks of a consulting architect coming in to value engineer a project (something that would be a contradiction in terms were we in a State other than New York – more later).  That issue is then woven into other problems in the translation between pictures and palaces, such as the lack of adequate control by the Design Professional (for whatever reason), and the Developer’s need to concentrate on the bottom line.


Some of the statements in the article just blew me away, such as giving “. . . the architect the right to come in more often to the job site . . .“ (which I hope is code for increasing his fee somewhat to allow for the additional visits).


Compared to my experience, Mr. Meier was lucky that another Design Professional did the “value engineering”; I’ve had Contractors doing it.  Understand that I acknowledge that Contractors are more intimately aware of material costs, but “value engineering” via substitution of materials is usually pretty stupid in MEP work, doing little more than putting money in the Contractor’s pocket.


For example, installing a Specification Grade electrical outlet might cost $60.00 or so. Installing a 99˘ WalMart special might cost $57.00.  Figuring (very generously) that the Electrical Subcontract is worth 15% of the total cost of construction, and that the cost of the receptacles therein is (again, very generously) 10% of the Electrical Subcontract, the 5% we’ve saved on each outlet comes out to  .075% of the entire project, that is, less than one-tenth of one percent.


The reason I call it stupid is that the cheap outlet is virtually useless after a year or two of use, with plugs falling out of the device.  The reason I put “value engineering” in quotes and called it an insult in the headline of this piece is that I would’ve thought that Developers figured out what I described in the preceding paragraph for themselves, and would have enough faith in their Design Professionals to also figure out that the real value engineering has already been built in. 


Any idiot can build a bridge that won’t fall down.  It takes an Engineer to do it with half the material while making it twice as strong.  Indeed, it’s how the Design Professions started separating from the Construction Trades when Khufu was having stones piled up near the Nile for a mausoleum.


None of this is to say that a fresh set of eyes won’t catch something that I may miss, and it’s why I always entertain substitutions and alternate schemes from the installing Contractors.  The key is that they have to make sense for the project as a whole, and this is where an Architect has a more difficult job than I.



All I must contend with is that the thing works, is quiet, and is unseen, while an Architect is concerned with how it looks, and how it brings his/her and the Developer’s vision to life.  There’s also the little issue of an Architect doing something called space programming, which is incompatible with my status as an Engineer, a card-carrying nerd.


This, by the way is why, that notwithstanding the fact that NYS Education Law, allows an Engineer not only to practice in any specialty in which he/she is qualified, but also to do anything an Architect does, it would be foolish for an Engineer to play Architect.  Conversely, it is permitted and foolish (though less so, owing to the education referred to in the story I spoke of at the beginning of this piece) for an Architect to play Engineer in New York State.


Now let me tell you what I really think . . .



Building Codes, Design Professionals, and Home Inspectors


Building Codes exist because we don’t live in caves or carry our own tents with us anymore. 


The State issues licenses to Design Professionals because, prior to the minimum standards required for licenses, building collapses and boiler explosions were a depressingly common occurrence. 


Design Professionals have willingly (and wrongly) made themselves subservient to Local Code Enforcement officials even though the Design Professional, not the Local Code Authority, remains responsible for the adequacy of the design.


Home Inspectors can train for “ . . . as little as $30 a month . . .”  How this is all related, next issue.

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