There are few things more frustrating over the course of a construction project than to realize that the built facility does not meet the fundamental requirements set forth at the onset of the project. But even when the facility meets the fundamental requirements, it may do so in a less than ideal manner leaving owners and the project team a difficult choice; accept as-is or apply additional efforts to remediate the issues. The obvious solution is to avoid these situations by “doing it right the first time,” and that’s where thorough, comprehensive, and integrated design reviews demonstrate their value.

Design reviews are not all the same. A specific kind of design review is called a “peer review” where a third-party qualified professional architectural and engineering (A&E) firm is engaged to perform a review of the project’s A&Es design and engineering. The focus is to validate that the proposed design is based on sound engineering. It looks to verify the design is correct, code compliant, satisfies the project programming requirements, and is based on sound engineering principles and calculations.

The third-party review typically validates that load and energy calculations are correct, short-circuit coordination studies are appropriate, equipment size and selection criteria are appropriate and conservative, and proposed infrastructure topologies can support design rated capacities (as well as low-load, Day-1 conditions) and will provide the required equipment and system redundancies. It is common for these reviews to include suggestions for alternative design strategies where warranted. Some examples could be central plant chillers in lieu of packaged DX units, static vs. rotary UPS modules, and adding photo-voltaic solar panels, etc. especially where there may be utility, government, or other incentives available.

Most design reviews (other than peer reviews) are performed by members of the project team. Again, these design reviews are not all the same. Each entity has a different focus on what to review and more importantly, what to look out for. In many cases the owner may not have experienced staff in the design, engineering, and construction industry; and even when they do they have a different perspective than the general contractor, commissioning agent, and their facilities management partners.

Owners tend to focus on the building aesthetics, occupant needs, workflow, lighting, and other aspects that have a direct impact on how the facility will be used. They look at space planning, systems furniture, offices vs. open work areas, cafeterias/break rooms, conference and “huddle” rooms, signage, lobbies, wall coverings, and colors, etc. In many instances, they rely on the designers, engineers, and architects to select the best infrastructure strategies and solutions to support an optimized and efficient building.

The facility management partner’s perspective is more focused on how the facility will be operated and maintained. They focus on the core infrastructure systems including mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems, life safety and fire suppression systems, controls, audio-visual and physical security systems, etc. They also look at workflows and how the building will be used but in a different manner than the owner. They want to ensure there is assigned space for the operations and maintenance (O&M) staff to use for their duties such as a facilities management office, library and document storage, parts and materials storage, a facility monitoring and control center, etc. They typically weigh in on which equipment suppliers and vendors get designated in the “basis-of-design” (BofD) as pre-qualified or preferred to ensure they are comfortable with which local service contracts and technicians they will rely on over the long haul.

A good practice that should be considered is to bring on a qualified general contractor (GC) during the design phase to participate in design reviews for overall constructability. An alternative is to hire a GC specifically for “pre-construction” services in lieu of hiring them for the entire project prior to having a bid-set of construction documents. General contractors can also help with overall project cost estimating, construction schedule forecasting, and identifying long-lead time equipment that may be candidates for advance purchase.

A design review by a GC is typically focused on constructability. A GC with significant experience in the construction of similar facilities should have valuable insight into what challenges and obstacles may be encountered during construction. They focus on the sequencing and phasing of work, coordination between trades, and where and how equipment and systems get stored and protected from receipt to installation and startup. Many of these questions and comments add clarity to the construction documents that help minimize the number of RFIs (requests for information) and/or construction document addendums that get issued later and can lead to change orders when not clarified prior to award of the construction contract.

The commissioning agent (CxA) should also perform a design review focused on “commissionability.” The commissioning agent should ensure the design includes the appropriate quality control aspects. This includes specifications identifying who is responsible for the compilation of critical as-built documentation (e.g., owner’s project requirements (OPR) document, BofD document, approved submittals, record drawings, acceptance testing scripts, results, and baseline operating data, and O&M staff training materials).

It also includes ensuring the built facility and infrastructure can be adequately tested including what metering is required (both permanently installed and temporary meters and dataloggers for acceptance testing), that pre-startup activities are clearly defined such as pressure testing, cleaning, and flushing, and TAB (test, adjust, and balance) for mechanical systems and meggering, hi-pot, primary injection testing of breakers, thermography, and who will provide load banks and fuel oil for electrical systems.

A professional engineer and good friend of mine named Charlie who has been doing design reviews for over 30 years says he will print out the floor plan drawings from each of the major trades (electrical, mechanical, plumbing, audio-visual, life safety, controls, and security) and then overlay them to see where there are areas of congestion (typically in corridors, risers, and other major pathways through a given facility). He then looks at the various elevations to see if there is the possibility that HVAC equipment, valves, electric panels, hot water heaters, transformers, and other equipment that will require access for operation, servicing, and eventual replacement are accessible. He also looks at the location of floor drains and condensate piping to minimize having pipes routed across equipment room floors that can become tripping hazards and block the transport of materials and equipment. He also looks to see if the manufacturer’s recommended minimum access spaces and clearances are identified on these floor plans along with door-swings and that these spaces do not butt up against a wall or column resulting in the design providing only the bare minimum access for operations and maintenance.

In a previous article titled, “The Devil is in the Details aka the Specifications,” I discussed the importance of performing a detailed review of the project specifications and not just a review of the drawings. Specifications are boring, tedious, and extensive. They also usually take precedence over the drawings in the case of a conflict.

Any design review that ignores or just glosses over the project specifications is an incomplete review. And when reviewing specifications, it is also very important to pay close attention to the division-1 specifications. This is where processes are defined for governing how substitutions and contract modifications get approved, how RFIs and submittals are processed, what quality assurance/quality control programs are required, and this is where my favorite — the general commissioning specifications — reside.

The basic purpose and goal of design reviews is to ensure the final engineering and design are optimized to meet the requirements and preferences of the owner. Any issues or deviations that can be identified, clarified, and incorporated into the design documents prior to construction will help avoid the difficult choice we started with; accept as-is or apply additional efforts to remediate. In the ideal world with the perfect design there would be zero changeorders and complete client satisfaction. We don’t live in an ideal world, but the efforts and attention put in to performing thorough design reviews will always reap significant rewards and get your project execution closer to the ideal.