Owner Beware!

Alec J. Rexroat

February 1, 2011

The world of construction is full of misconceptions, which those in the industry often do not see or recognize as such. The assumption is that everyone is fully aware of the situations that arise during the construction of a building or facility. This article attempts to shed some light on the misconceptions mechanical insulation contractors face.

The definition of misconception is: a mistaken thought, idea, or notion; a misunderstanding. The construction industry is fraught with them. During my decades in the mechanical insulation industry, I have witnessed many situations where a lack of communication caused the misconception that owners and architects were aware of changes or practices that could be detrimental on a construction project.

The Domino Effect

An architect I spoke with indicated he is tired of the changes being required to reduce the cost of a building. A case in point was the reduction of the ceiling space from 24 in. to 18 in. to save money on the general cost of the building.

But did it really? The building was already on the blueprints. The mechanical engineer had already spent time and money designing the sheet metal, electric, plumbing, heating, coaxial cable, and the other systems in the ceiling. It wasn’t until the sheet metal contractor visited the jobsite that he noticed that the ceiling space was reduced. The 20 in. duct was not going to fit in the 18 in. space—time for a redesign.

After the piping trades and the electrical contractors did their work in the diminished space, it was the mechanical insulation contractor’s turn for a nasty surprise: the insulation on the pipe will be ½ in. below the ceiling grid. What now? Reduce the insulation thickness, perhaps. Raise the pipe? Not likely; besides, there is no room.

The misconception in this case is that this change had been communicated to all the trades and that the owner understood the ramifications of reducing the ceiling space. Unfortunately, the process and the changes necessary were not well thought out and the trades were not notified. This simple change wound up costing a lot of money. Perhaps the cost was not passed on to the owner, but somebody paid. Somebody always pays.

The Costs of “Value Engineering”

Mechanical insulation contractors are painfully aware of “value engineering.” When a project comes in over budget, all the mechanical trades begin the process of reducing the cost of the building: a little less of this, a little less of that, a little less insulation on this system, remove the insulation from that system, and so on.

The misconception is that the owner is aware of these changes; in many cases, the owner has not been informed. “Value engineering” is really just “cheapening the job.” Aside from any life-cycle costs incurred by “value engineering” other mechanical trades, reducing and/or removing mechanical insulation may cost the owner many thousands, if not millions, of dollars over the life of the building.

Recently, I became aware of a “value engineered” project in which the mechanical contractor removed the insulation from roughly 15,000 LF of hot water piping. The credit for this work was around $75,000. The annual savings if the pipe was insulated with 1 in. material was around $37,000. The 20-year ROI (using the new Financial Calculator in the Mechanical Insulation Design Guide at www.wbdg.org/midg) was more than $950,000. I was under the misconception that the owner was aware of this change, but he was not. When a mechanical insulation contractor is asked to “value engineer” a project, he is usually under the misconception that all parties are aware of the proposed changes and that they are justified by the savings.

Sacrificing to the Schedule

In any large market, mechanical insulation contractors frequently preform work on multi-story buildings and are sometimes required to insulate mechanical systems prior to the complete closure of the structure. Everyone who has ever been asked to insulate prior to closure of the building knows the complications that can result from weather and water damage to the insulation: mold growth, reduction of insulation values, and possible corrosive environments. The misconception is that the owner is aware of this situation and is willing to risk the damage when water saturates the insulation materials.

Frequently, buildings of this type are under very tight construction schedules. The general contractor and perhaps the architect may risk the possibility of damage to the insulation trying to maintain the schedule. In some cases, the mechanical contractor has fallen behind the schedule and insists that the mechanical insulation be installed without regard for possible material damage and the resulting long-term issues. The insulation contractor will begin work under the misconception that the owner is aware of this practice.

Recently I was told of a project in which the general contractor started the cooling equipment (chillers, air handling units, cooling coils, etc.) prior to the final enclosure of the building and the installation of the mechanical insulation on the duct system. This was done in an effort to maintain the construction schedule. The high humidity of the area, along with high summer temperatures, caused condensation on all the supply ducts. The insulation contractor attempted to dry the ducts prior to installing the insulation, but to no avail. The misconception in this case was that the owner was aware of this practice and its repercussions and had given approval.

Who Knows What

It is astounding how little information is relayed to the owner during the construction process. The owner or the owner’s representative can tell you the color of the floor covering, the type of wall covering, and the type of ceiling tile and windows, but the parts of the building that no one sees are a different story. The misconception that all parties are aware of the significant ramifications of decisions made well below the authority of the owner, architect, and in some cases general contractor is widespread in the industry.

The problem is communication. Mechanical insulation contractors are seldom included in project decisions that may change their contracts, the costs associated with them, and the effectiveness of the finished product.

New technologies may change this situation. Building Information Modeling (BIM) will assist all parties in understanding the space and scheduling requirements of mechanical insulation. This will hold true even for the mechanical insulation contractor if that contractor is at the table.

The mechanical insulation contractor needs to understand that the assumption that all parties are aware of all facets of a building may be a misconception. If something may be detrimental to the quality of the building, the mechanical insulation contractor must protect his/her company by putting these concerns in writing. Don’t get caught up in the misconception that all parties have all the information. When failures of mechanical insulation systems occur, it is too late to say, “I thought everyone was aware of what was being done.”