Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Thoughts on Hiring Designers and Engineers, and the Design Process

Most residential projects involve little if any contact and exploration with the structural or mechanical designers, despite the fact that all projects present a range of not only challenges, but also opportunities.  As a provider of services in this area, I recommend clients think carefully about their goals in hiring 'professionals'.  One thing I feel is important is that the professional must have a sense of service.  All professionals are privileged to be in their position.  They must endeavor to serve their community as a primary and important goal of their work.  This applies to doctors and lawyers - so also to architects and engineers.  And frequently the first aspect of service is that each time one comes in contact with a professional, one should probably find that they are learning something useful. 

There is much to determine and discuss regarding the mechanical systems, which go beyond heating and cooling, and can include aspects such as;

  1. self-reliance, secondary and back-up systems
  2. Flood, snow, and disaster planning
  3. Versatility, reliability, future service, cost of ownership, etc
  4. Indoor Air quality, comfort, noise
  5. Accessibility (for the infirm, etc)
  6. Home Automation, internet of things
  7. thermal envelope design
  8. electric vehicles, vehicle servicing, hobbies
  9. ecological footprint, energy and water conservation,
  10. Rainwater collection, irrigation
  11. waste management
  12. food production - both for cooking, and for growing
  13. Lighting
  14. Renewable energy generation
  15. Energy and water Storage, recycling, and use
  16. Consumption monitoring
These are broader categories, so wood heating back-up and solar thermal back-up, or ice energy systems, or snow melt would be specific approaches that fit into a given category.
I believe every construction project should consider all of these opportunities, if only briefly in some cases.  Unfortunately, houses and other construction projects are frequently seen mainly as a financial instrument or a domestic instrument, and considerations such as resale value, turn-around time, and costs are over-riding, over-powerful factors.  I have seen many projects in which people build too big a house, and often wonder what they will do with the additional space.  Frequently, there is a feeling that one must maximize the lot coverage  - but why?  I firmly believe we should design houses to serve the existing owners - not the potential future owners - that approach is what led us into ridiculous protocols such as valuing houses by their square footage, or the number of fireplaces - in short, designing for 'resale value' on your own house project is the thing that often perpetuates many of the dumb things we did in the past.

The key point that is missed:
A building is YOUR project.  It should be built to serve you and your life and your goals, keeping in mind the broader community's needs as well.  It has to be something that will serve you in general - not create a problem in one area while making a small improvement in another, as so many buildings have in the past.  We have houses that are ugly, houses that are energy hogs, houses that have poor layouts, houses that are a major tax burden, houses that didn't fit their use, houses that are oriented the wrong way, houses that are disposable, houses that only suit younger people, houses that are always dark inside, and so on.

  If you are too busy to deeply define what the building should do for you, then consider not rushing into it, or be clear that your goals and needs for this project will be determined by others.  A project has the potential to provide very valuable dividends for the owners for a long time.  This can take the form of shelter, money, protection, serving the community, artistic expression, production, among many other benefits.  But a project can also be a big liability and burden both during and after construction.

We all know the three dimensions of project management and outcomes are:
Schedule, money, and quality - but I would argue that schedule and money are frequently going together, while quality stands a little on its own.  When projects are complex and large, quality needs to be carefully understood as far more than 'quality', also intention and opportunity.  A high quality building or project may be built, but it can still be redundant, malfunctioning, or deficient.  Many things have been made that should never have been made.  One who over-emphasizes schedule and cost risks producing scrap at a highly efficient rate.  A common stumbling block is that pre-conceptions and (unrealistic) expectations obstruct the heavy work of exploring and identifying the truest and best intentions and opportunities of a potential project.

So in buildings, and civil projects, give importance to design, intentions and opportunities, against how the project should serve for generations to come.

In other projects, I have been in the situation where what is needed, is mainly to get the permit.  This must be the lowliest task for the designer.  What happens is the client sees no value in the design, as it is little more than a bureaucratic hurdle.  Sometimes, the design fee is substantial, and yet there is no value in it for the client.  So I say, discuss this with your designer and find out if there is an opportunity somewhere, in which value can be created in the process of design.  On the other hand, at the moment, most buildings offer a lot of low hanging fruit, upon which good design may be brought to bear, with the potential for reaping great savings or improvements for the client, not to mention the environment or the community.

1 comment:

  1. A major impediment to the sort of client-engineer interaction envisioned is the architect. In many/most private house projects an architect is involved. The architect will usually select and work with the engineers, not the owner. It is a rare architect that has any concern about the issues listed. Rather, in most cases, they simply want to meet code and would prefer that any additional funds go into aesthetics/cosmetics. Only when meeting code interferes with the aesthetics will they become interested in pushing the engineer to get creative.

    In other words, when the budget is limited, mechanical engineering will not be a priority for most of the players. The architect will usually not allow the engineer to communicate directly with the client. So an often ignorant party with an agenda (the architect) directs information flow to and decisions by the owner.

    Have you found methods to open up the process to the benefit of all?