The MEP trades are at a turning point in construction history, and it’s a good place to be. Never before have the signs of the times been so clearly pointed toward the men and women of the mechanical, electrical and plumbing trades. Those signs say, “Take a seat at the design table.” This is an exciting development for the firms that usually ride the trailing wave of a construction project.
Keynote speakers at the MEP Force conference in San Antonio during the last week of August highlighted some of the most important trends taking place in the MEP industry. Perhaps the most valuable takeaway was the message that the time is ripe for the MEP industry to take a leadership role in transforming construction as we know it today – moving the trades from the end of the construction process and placing them in a collaborative position at the beginning. Imagine for a moment no rework. Just imagine.
Indeed, there may be those with an “always done it that way” mindset who don’t feel the industry needs to be transformed. But when you look at the reality of how a building project progresses, this is one example of how projects can benefit immediately from an attitude adjustment. According to Steve Butler, Senior MEP Industry Strategist with Autodesk, 40% of a construction project is MEP-based. It’s just common sense that the trades should participate earlier in the design process . . . what works; what doesn’t; what can be adjusted; what can’t. The trades need to shift from being a “commodity” on construction projects to serving as consultants on those projects.
This involvement requires a certain resiliency and agility amongst MEP companies to adopt changing technologies, which seem to be bearing down on all of us like a locomotive with a full head of steam. Change will continue to accelerate in this industry. What’s required is a mind shift so, as Josh Bone has said, “more contracts involve priority trades early in the game,” getting information to the design teams so they can develop plans right the first time. Bone and his Caisson business partner, Jonathan Marsh, pointed out that the trades must be a part of the overall building information modeling process to help solve problems early in the design-build progression. By helping to overcome design challenges early on and streamline decision making (cut down on redundancy), the MEP trades can be part of the integrated effort to bring a project to completion faster and within budget. Trades have historically been the jobsite problem solvers. The ideal scenario is to shift that problem solving to the front end of the project, where it has greater impact without increasing costs.
Is it an exciting time for MEP? Yes! Are there challenges? Of course. Foremost, there’s a shortage of people in the developing workforce who are even remotely interested in the “hard labor” of construction, let alone the sweaty, contortionist requirements of MEP. But, those very same people are likely to be interested in and adept with technology. Is that a marriage made in heaven or what? A forward-thinking firm can recruit the best and brightest to make use of virtual design and construction (VDC) and be poised to exert a stronger voice on projects. Perhaps that voice will evolve into a rallying cry, a challenge set forth by Tim Speno, President and CEO of E2E Summit during his keynote address at MEP Force. He suggested MEP professionals get involved in peer groups, learn more about digitizing workflows and mentor and inspire the next generations. Trade professionals truly can create a movement using job data as the driving force of a project.
For those who are skeptical of VDC, Josh Bone emphasized that digital tools are not toys. They empower users with the correct information and the correct tools to do their jobs more efficiently. This is where the “digital” foreman is important. Instead of reams of paperwork, the digital foreman uses new technology and mobile field apps to work smarter – like keeping tabs on the production schedule and progress for the entire project.
The collaborative construction process is also ripe for manufacturing and assembly improvements. Prefabrication of buildings is making a strong comeback for good reasons, among which are improved safety, reduced overhead, standardization, streamlined labor force, and shorter build times. According to a capstone project published at Georgia Tech, the design team has nearly 80% of the influence over price, quality and cycle time of a product. When that product is a building, construction can be accomplished at a reduced cost. MEP is perfectly suited to offsite construction, and that improves upon safety, cost of materials, quality, and best use of the skilled labor available. Such is the world of staying competitive with DfMA (Design for Manufacturing & Assembly), which is driving technology adoption and process improvements that ultimately help the industry as a whole. Bone stresses that every job is now a “fast-track” project demanding that firms produce faster and cheaper, and that needs to change. As he puts it, “You can only be so fast . . . and firms are already operating on razor-thin margins.” Fortunately, VDC is propelling prefabrication forward (remember that technology-savvy workforce?). More owners are requesting prefab, and GCs are seeing the benefits of that. And adoption of prefab and modular construction are still in the infancy stage – there’s time to jump onboard.
Now, don’t go screaming into the sunset when you read this . . . construction is becoming more about cooperation than competition. It’s time for trades to embrace change in the industry – the mind shift from holding things close to the vest to giving up some control in order to be transparent. There are opportunities for electricians, sheet metal workers, pipe fitters – the trades in general – to find a way to work together. For those in the MEP industry, this is the best time to pull a chair up to the table and take a leadership role. Embrace the challenges, and be part of the solutions.