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Third-Party Design Firms

Avoiding the Pitfalls

“Hire another company to design a project for me that we will be installing? Are you nuts?” These were my first thoughts as a contractor on the idea of hiring someone to help us with our design needs when we were busy. At that time, however, I thought back to projects we had estimated and, at times, turned away where the number one question we had was how we could accomplish things in the timeframes given to us with the first step being design and submittals? Our price was not the concern to the client and yet at times we still had to turn the work away.

Over the years, we were approached by third-party design companies looking to help us out. Eventually our workload climbed and we were forced to take a serious look at hiring out some of our design needs. We ended up hiring a firm that helped design projects for bid in our area as they seemed very knowledgeable and up-to-speed on codes. At that time, we were not worried about a lack of talent or knowledge, but later learned that wasn’t all it took. We proceeded to hire them for two projects at the same time. At first, we were very happy to defer some workload off of our staff so they could focus on other duties that were in dire need of being done. One plan went through the submittal process without a hitch while the other got hung up several times by our staff at the “check set” phase as we had several ideas for downsizing piping, eliminating valves, etc. 

This was when our excitement for the use of such firms turned to frustration as our suggestions were met with judgment and personal opinions that we felt should be decided by a reviewing authority versus someone hired to work in our best interest. Yes, adding additional control valves would be “nice” for the client. Yes, 40-psi safety margins would be great for the customer. But in today’s competitive market with general contractors looking at one thing on a quote (the lowest number at the bottom of the proposal), we needed to bid the project per code with as few of these “nice to haves” as possible because our competitors would not be including them in their quotes. Our frustrations further turned to outrage when we received a bill for “additional revisions.” Apparently, to provide a set of drawings we liked, with pipe sizes and zoning the way we wanted, cost extra per this firm’s standards.

The other project that went through plan review with ease went south when our field staff showed up. We received a concerning call from the foreman wondering why we were using 155°F freezer sprinklers as he had always seen 200°F sprinklers used in the past on similar projects. In checking the plans prepared by our sub, we found that the sprinklers ordered by our project manager were correct; however, a cross check with the specifications found an error on the submittals. Therefore, our order was placed incorrectly from them. A call to our subcontracted design firm resulted in a finger-pointing session and a few abruptly slammed phones on my end of the conversation. Apparently, this firm also believed that it was our job to double check their work against the specifications to ensure things were correct prior to ordering. They also felt that the nearly $10,000 worth of 155°F, non-returnable concealed dry sprinklers and the need to reorder the correct sprinklers were also my problem.

I assume anyone reading about our experience with a third-party design firm can guess the next time we got excited to try this again was. Fortunately for us, we found our way to a firm that we had the completely opposite experience with a few years later. The only reason we even attempted this again was because the company we tried the second time ended up being a designer who had worked for our firm for a couple years, so we knew that quality and customer service were at the very top of his list of qualifications as well as the knowledge he possessed.

The biggest drawback to hiring this individual was just that he was an individual, not a group of people. I asked him several times why he didn’t hire someone to work with him or for him so he could take on more workload, but he had no desire to do so. Eventually, he and I talked and decided to join forces. He had a great knack for design detail and training others, but lacked an interest in hiring new staff or dealing with all the other little details that go along with running a business which piqued my interest. We decided to start a design firm that could deliver the quality and attention to detail that he could deliver, and also handle the workload that companies like the one I worked for needed at times by adding a staff under us.

I have spent a good amount of time talking about my experiences both positive and negative. I would now like to dive a little deeper into what to look for in a firm when a contractor finds themselves in need of hiring out some design. The first item I feel I covered at length in the above text because I feel it is the most important one—the quality of service you are getting outweighs many other considerations in my opinion. This is a difficult one to gauge; however, until your firm actually hires someone to work with you. You will not know how well they will deliver until you work with them.

The second thing on my list is another very difficult thing to know until you are in a bad spot, which is how well they will stand behind their work. Let’s face it, our design contracts would not be able to cover the loss of a major screw-up once a project is fabricated and on site. We are a very small portion of the overall sprinkler contract and an even smaller percentage of the project. We, as designers, live on constant guard against making mistakes by following the sometimes-contradicting codes out there paired with more and more reviewing authorities.

In talking with a potential subcontracted designer, pay attention to how they respond while talking with them. You should be able to get a feel for them when obtaining a quote. Are they responsive to your calls and emails in a timely manner? Do they review the drawings or even ask to see them? Or do they just ask you for a head count and shoot you a price? Do they type up a proposal with what they are including and, even more important, what are they are excluding? Nothing is more frustrating than finding out later just what wasn’t included in their price. Have they talked with you about exactly what you would like from them or are they assuming you are just like everyone else they have worked with in the past? That is one of the things we have learned the hard way. Between my partner and me, we have worked in the industry for over 40 years and even more including how many years’ experience our staff possesses. We should know just how to design and list materials for everyone, right? Wrong! I am still amazed at the number of ways people find to do things in our industry. Everyone prefers to pipe things differently in what seems to be a never-ending set of building scenarios that architects and engineers present us these days. 

Each new customer we work with presents us with several new challenges. We need to figure out what type of products each company likes to use from which manufacturer and what fitting and piping strategies they like. How detailed does each client like their detail pages to be? Do they print in color or black and white? Does the customer expect hangers to be fabricated? What program do they run? Do they want us to stock list and fabricate their systems or would they prefer to do it themselves and, if so, is the program we are using to design their system compatible with what they use in house? I remember early on we sent off a drawing only to find out they wanted us to design it in a completely different software so they could use the file for as-builts or future additions to the facility. Each time, we need to find out what edition of standards the local authorities are using and, on top of that, do they have any amendments to the code that we need to be aware of? Does the project we are quoting require seismic bracing? Another huge one is do they need any building information modeling (BIM) done and, if so, to what level of detail are they required to go to? When are submittals due? When does the project start? What is the review turnaround time in their local area? Who is the insurance provider? Is it FM Global and, if so, do they have a site contact to discuss expectations with? 

In addition to the technical and customer service aspects, there are several other characteristics you should ask about when hiring a firm outside of how it directly ties to the design you need done. You should always confirm they are insured. You should also make sure you talk payment terms with your designer of choice to ensure you aren’t held hostage to receive plans from them prior to paying them in full. You should probably also ask about their experience level—what they have designed in the past and for some references. I suggest you ask some of this prior to sending them a project to price. It’s easy to say their “wheelhouse” is designing hotels when you just sent them a hotel, especially if they need the work. Asking how many designers they have on staff will also help you identify if they have the capacity to get multiple things done at once or if they are just a one-man show. Either way, I would suggest asking a bit about their current backlog. I would also spell out some time expectations on your project with a deadline in writing. The clearer the expectations are, the better for both sides of the agreement. 

Once you have selected a firm, you should ask to check their progress along the way. Don’t just take them at their word that they are close to completion, not having seen a thing from them. I would suggest asking for a check set of plans through the course of the project until you have a good comfort level with them. It’s very frustrating to receive a set of plans that look nothing like the way you explained it to them in the beginning. It’s even more frustrating when you must decide between getting them to redo them or having your submittals in on time when they ran you up to the deadline.

If I had just one last suggestion to make to you: don’t assume anything with a design firm you are looking to hire. Making assumptions can lead to a very poor experience. Also don’t assume the design company you are hiring knows what your expectations are. Tell them in detail and preferably in writing. 

I hope in reading this, you will now be equipped with a few questions to ask your potential new subcontractor prior to entering into an agreement with someone you may never end up meeting face-to-face in today’s digital world. There are other concerns and questions each individual contractor may have in addition to what I have listed, and this is by no means an all-inclusive list. By utilizing this article, you should be able to get a better feel for who you are hiring to help you on a very important and difficult part of your project. There are some great design firms out there that provide a great level of service. You just need to do some shopping to find one that fits with how your company operates.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jared Van Gammeren is with Driven Fire Consultants, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He has been in the fire sprinkler industry for 17 years. Van Gammeren holds a NICET Level III certification in Water-Based Systems Layout and a NICET Level III certification in Inspections and Testing of Water-Based Systems. He is the Registered Managing Employee in Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska; is an NFPA 33 committee member; and a volunteer firefighter for his home town fire department in Inwood, Iowa. Van Gammeren’s professional training consists of courses of fire pump applications, inspection and testing, hydraulic calculation, and analysis and design of fire sprinkler offered by the Oklahoma State University and the University of Wisconsin. Van Gammeren can be reached via email at jaredv@drivenfire.com.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The article and its content is not a Formal Interpretation issued pursuant to NFPA Regulations. Any opinion expressed is the personal opinion of the author and presenter and does not necessarily present the official position of the NFPA and its Technical Committee.

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