The construction process may seem straightforward, but a significant portion of the associated work happens in the background, even before activities begin at the project site. Architectural and MEP engineering design services ensure that functionality and safety are built into the project; and meeting building codes and permitting requirements is mandatory to carry out the project legally. Skipping requirements may result in hefty fees for the project owner, while professionals and contractors are exposed to this in addition to a possible license suspension or revocation.
Engineering and consulting services are often viewed as unavoidable expenses, but they can be considered an investment once their long-term benefits are considered. Although these services represent a small percentage of total project expenses, typically between 1 and 10 percent, they have a significant influence on project cost and success. Normally, the price premium of hiring expert services is compensated through enhanced performance and reduced ownership costs over the project’s lifetime.
Should You Hire an Architect or an MEP Engineering Expert?
Architects and engineers carry out complementary roles in projects, and the services of both professionals are required in most cases.
- Architects have basic knowledge of civil engineering concepts, but they specialize in space optimization, functionality and aesthetics. Architects with a LEED certification from the US Green Building Council can also provide guidance on passive measures to enhance energy efficiency; they charge more, but the energy savings over the building’s lifetime more than make up for it.
- Engineers focus on meeting technical requirements and providing safety factors in building operation. This professional field is broken down into several specialization areas such as civil, mechanical, electrical and electronic engineering. Just like in the case of architects, engineers with professional certifications bring added value to construction projects.
According to Home Advisor, you can expect to pay between $85 and $125 per hour for the professional services of an architect, and between $100 and $150 per hour in the case of engineers. As you would expect, senior professionals charge the highest rates, especially if they have certifications from industry associations or other authoritative bodies in their professional field.
We strongly advise you never attempt a project without the services of the corresponding professionals. In the first place, you will not be able to proceed legally because all construction permits in a city require the application to be filed by a Registered Architect (RA) or Professional Engineer (PE). In addition, projects executed without proper design and supervision tend to be more expensive, with plenty of technical errors, and even dangerous for occupants.
Once you have a set of approved plans and specifications, you can hire a contractor to file the work permit and initiate the project construction phase. In engineering projects, there are several recommendations that apply regardless of the type of project, and by following them you can maximize the success rate while controlling costs.
Get Quotes from Multiple Contractors
When selecting a contractor, you will want a reasonable project budget; it should not be excessively expensive, but unreasonably low quotes should be avoided as well. Therefore, getting quotes from multiple providers and contractors is highly recommended, making sure they provide detailed specifications. This way, you can filter out proposals that are too high or too low:
- If you get an overpriced bid, there are two likely possibilities: maybe that contractor made a mistake when quoting, but there is also a chance they may be trying to rip you off.
- Underpriced bids can be due to mistakes as well, but perhaps a contractor wants to win the project at all costs, even if it means having very low profits. In these cases, quality is often compromised, and unexpected expenses may render the contractor unable to finish the project.
Ideally, you should select a proposal that offers quality and performance at a fair price. When in doubt, remember you can always ask for the opinion of your architect or engineer.
Hire Supervision Services
Having a properly designed and specified project is just half of the story; making sure that plans and technical requirements are met on site is equally important for project success. The supervision role should be carried out by a third party with the adequate technical qualifications, and project designers are normally the best candidates for this role:
- They will be supervising their own design and are more likely to detect errors and oversights.
- They can answer any doubts by part of the project owner or contractor, providing guidance when there are conflicting interpretations.
- Modifications become less likely, preventing their associated cost.
Supervision services are normally billed per hour or as a percentage of total project costs. When in doubt, you can request pricing for both alternatives to compare them directly, paying special attention to any applicable terms and conditions.
Define Payment Terms Clearly and Upfront
Before you start the project with your contractor of choice, you must make sure you are on the same page regarding how the MEP engineering project will be priced and what payment terms will apply.
Most engineering contracts are based on three general types, possibly introducing modifications and clauses that are specific to each project:
- A fixed price contract is one where the total sum stays the same regardless of the materials and time consumed, as well as unexpected expenses. The contractor assumes the full risk in this type of project: any savings achieved go to them, but any cost overruns are directly subtracted from profits. If you will pursue this type of contract, review your contractor’s track record on fixed-price projects; less-experienced contractors may be unable to estimate the real cost of a project and may struggle to finish. Although this option offers the lowest risk for the project owner, contractors may only agree to work under these terms if the project scope is clear enough to estimate costs with precision.
- A time and materials (T&M) contract is the opposite to a fixed price contract. As implied by the contract’s name, the client is billed based on the materials and man-hours needed to complete the project. The advantage in a T&M contract is that the payment and work done correspond exactly, but supervision plays a critical role in ensuring the contractor does not extend the project unnecessarily. To reduce risks for the project owner, these contracts can also include a guaranteed maximum price by part of the contractor.
- A unit price contract is one where the project is broken down into a series of items and the contractor provides a price for each. This type of contract offers a balance between the two previous types, since there is flexibility in terms of total price, but the materials and labor associated with each activity are fixed per unit of work. Unit price contracts may establish prices per meter, per square meter or per piece of equipment, to mention a few examples.
A recommended control measure for all contract types is to introduce a clause that establishes penalties for late delivery, ensuring the contractor gives due priority to the project. To be fair, this can be complemented with a clause establishing a bonus for early delivery.
An engineering project is often paid through a series of disbursements, and the conditions regulating payments should be established upfront. The following terms apply in most projects:
- In projects that involve high upfront expenses by part of the contractor, a partial advance payment may be negotiated, typically calculated as a percentage of total costs. This advance payment is then deducted proportionally from all subsequent disbursements; for example, a contractor may receive a 10% advance payment, and all intermediate payments are then reduced by 10% to keep the final price constant.
- Intermediate payments are normally paid based on a percentage of the work completed. Progress reports are normally reviewed and approved by supervisors before the client releases payment. Intermediate payments are easier to calculate and review in fixed-price contracts, since the project budget format can be used again to quantify work in progress.
- Having a retainage fee is also common, where the client keeps a certain percentage of each payment, and the funds accumulated over the project are released once the project is completed and approved. The main goal of a retainage fee is to prevent the contractor from abandoning the project before the start of operations.
In general, MEP engineering projects are carried out with less conflict and a higher chance of success when all parties involved are aware of project costs and payment terms. Of course, this cost certainty is only possible if project plans and specifications are clear, hence the importance of hiring qualified engineers and architects for design and consulting services.