How do we solve the systematic problem we have with fire protection bid documents?
Some, if not much of the plans and specifications that go out for bid are generally helpful.
A quality set of fire protection bid documents:
These types of bid sets do happen.
But far, far too often, they don’t.
It’s systematic, and makes every step of the design and installation process far more difficult and far more costly than it could be.
I don’t even want to pretend I’m not at fault here.
I’ve designed poor projects. I’ve slacked on coordination, and detailing.
I’ve glossed over parts of a project that I shouldn’t have glossed over. It’s been painful.
But this is something that we can change.
WHAT CONTRACTORS SAY
For some years now I’ve spoken with sprinkler contractors, architects, and consultants about this.
If you’re a contractor, especially if you work in estimating - you could provide countless examples of terrible bid documents. Bid documents that actually get in the way of you doing code-compliant, efficient work.
You could speak to this far better than I can.
In these conversations, over and over, I’ve heard one key feature that I think many consultants in the MEP space miss.
It is far better to have no fire protection bid documents, than to have bad fire protection bid documents.
NO FIRE PROTECTION BID DOCUMENTS?
That’s important, and counterintuitive.
It is far easier for a sprinkler contractor to look at a project and define their own scope, and put a price to it, than it is to try and bid a set of documents that:
If that sounds too far, ask your closest estimator friend. They see this all the time.
How many projects do we see underground feeds piped 20-ft before rising up? How many times do we see Star, Central, or Gem still specified today, in 2024? How many times do we see projects wanting a fixed-price bid yet have zero information about the water supply?
How are those documents helpful to a bidder?
The analogy that I’ve had in my head and finally am able to bring to life a little is the road, showing the different tiers of fire protection bid documents:
1 - NO FIRE PROTECTION BID DOCUMENTS
There’s the sidewalk on the left, where we have no fire protection bid documents.
Let’s say we have a single-family home with an NFPA 13D system. Scope is simple, perhaps we have no specific owner needs, and it’s unambiguous.
That type of project probably warrants no upfront, pre-bid fire protection involvement.
It wouldn’t have to just be a single-family home though.
What about an add & relocate job for a small retail space. Or a small office building.
Those can, and often do, work just fine without any upfront fire protection bid documentation.
Design-build all the way.
2 - QUALITY "PERFORMANCE SPECIFICATIONS"
Then we skip ahead to quality “performance specification” documents.
These do all the things we’ve talked about. They don’t necessarily show pipe or sprinklers, but they clearly define the scope, they communicate clearly, they answer major scope questions, they address and alleviate major issues or coordination challenges upfront, and they make it easy to put a price to the job.
That’s a quality set of “performance specifications”.
3 - QUALITY "FULL-DESIGN"
For high-end jobs, or high-hazard jobs, or critical function or high-visibility or unique jobs – perhaps we’re looking at a full-upfront design prior to bid.
Full-design isn’t free, nor quick, and isn’t necessarily the answer for every job.
But, as we’ve talked on this topic before; if it’s done well, and thoroughly, then fully-detailed plans can be a tremendous asset to a project. They can eliminate ambiguity and really dial-in exactly what work needs to be done.
AND... THE DANGER ZONE
What about the DANGER ZONE?
There’s a gap, and it’s in-between no bid documents and quality “performance specifications”. And that is the Danger Zone.
This is the lane of bad bid documents.
These are all the bad things. Inconsistent, boilerplate, confusing, inaccurate, unachievable, irrelevant, or not actually code-compliant.
What happens when we live in that lane?
We get hit by the proverbial bus.
Change orders. Litigation. Or much worse – a fire happens with major loss.
This is not the spot to be.
WHY DO WE STAY IN THE DANGER ZONE?
I’m fairly confident that those who live in that space don’t want to be there either.
They feel compelled because the client asks for fire to be included. They feel pressure because competitors are offering to do fire protection. They feel they can’t spend enough time on fire because there is hardly any fee there.
Honestly – these are all poor excuses.
If there isn’t enough money in the job to put together a quality set of fire protection bid documents – then don’t do them at all.
It is far better to have no fire protection bid documents, than to have bad fire protection bid documents.
HALF-BAKED DOESN'T HELP
Bad, sloppy, half-baked documents don’t help. They don’t solve anything. They get in the way.
If you’re the MEP who finds yourself in this area, having that conversation with an owner or architect and there’s just not enough fee to do quality work – then just exclude it entirely. If an architect insists that it get thrown in or done on a microscopic budget, then just ask them to hire a fire protection consultant separately.
Half-baking a set of documents is not worth the hassle or the liability. It also doesn’t actually help.
When you do take it on, do it well. We all benefit from that.
If you’re a sprinkler contractor or architect – I really want to hear from you.
Where do you land on this?
When projects have gone south or had major change orders – what happened?
Would being in a different tier have changed the result?
Comment below, would love to hear your take.
And, thanks, as always, for reading and being a part of the community here. We will get this right.
The majority of bid documents for fire sprinkler work is some form of delegated design. A consulting engineer frequently does not provide all of the detail about a system (pipe locations, size, hanging methods, hydraulic calculations, etc).
Why is that?
In other disciplines, the opposite is common. Mechanical Engineers regularly selects a system type and lays out ductwork in a one-line or two-line configuration on a plan before a contractor bids the system. Electrical Engineers commonly size up, calculate and provide power and lighting locations on plan with an overall one-line diagram. Even plumbing often has plans for domestic water feeds and sanitary waste.
Why doesn’t that happen for fire protection?
First, the biggest disclaimer today, I’m not advocating for all design to be upfront. Or even a majority of it.
I do see many applications where a quality FPE consultant can provide a tremendous amount of value to a project. I explored this a bit with The Delegated Design Problem and in A Practical Design Spec Checklist.
But I would like to start the conversation and get your ideas on why we are where we are today with why designs are not done upfront.
Here is why I think all sprinkler design is not completed upfront, before bid time.
#1 WE DON’T WANT EVERYTHING UPFRONT
Overwhelmingly, the sentiment I hear from sprinkler contractors about ‘full-design’ fire sprinkler drawings is that they wouldn’t want upfront designs for all projects.
Because in some (or many) cases, sprinkler contractors feel that upfront design either limits their flexibility or is of very poor quality, or both.
A design that doesn’t coordinate with other systems, or ‘leaves coordination’ for the sprinkler contractor, is problematic. It’s difficult to bid and difficult to work with after a project has been awarded.
How much needs to be ‘coordinated later’? How ‘real’ is the design? Is it less efficient than the contractor could have laid it out?
Many who have designed on the contracting side feel that real-world “fit” and doing the sprinkler layout are one in the same. You can’t ‘rough-in’ a layout without thinking about conflicts and making it actually work in the real world.
As an extreme example, I think most could agree that a basic NFPA 13D layout does not need upfront involvement by a consultant. Could they help? Perhaps. Could they provide value? Perhaps. But it does not need a high level of involvement.
Now there’s a big counterpoint to this. Just because we don’t want upfront design on all projects doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be beneficial on some projects.
Projects that have very specific needs, unique needs, high-visibility challenges, coordination challenges, or that require a specialized set of expertise could very much benefit from upfront involvement.
Maybe it’s a retrofit in a high profile historic museum. Maybe it’s suppression for an automated storage retrieval system. Maybe it’s a unique storage configuration that is outside the bounds of NFPA 13.
In these types of situations, involvement from a quality FPE consultant can address code concerns and clearly define the scope. It can help mitigate a lot of risk for contractors by doing so and help everyone bid apples-to-apples instead of a wide-open, ill-defined scope.
#2 INADEQUATE WORKFORCE (INDIVIDUALS AND COMPANIES)
Perhaps the alternative reason is the lack of expertise in the workforce.
We simply don’t have enough people, nor expertise, to take on every project.
Even if we wanted upfront involvement to a high-level of detail, we as an industry couldn’t pull it off. We don’t have enough bodies, nor enough qualified expertise.
Is it an issue? Absolutely.
Does the lack of people affect how well we advocate for fire protection itself? Absolutely.
Could the construction experience for architects and owners and contractors actually benefit from more and better individuals working upfront on project? Absolutely.
But until we catch up on the quantity of our own workforce, we simply can’t take on more involved work.
#3 LOCATION OF THE EXPERTISE
Another reason we don’t perform highly-detailed layout work upfront is the location of where expertise for layout technicians often falls – and that’s in contracting.
Anecdotally I know far more layout technicians in contracting than I do in consulting.
In our survey of nearly 500 industry professionals in 2022, of those who had roles as a designer or layout technician, 68% of them worked for contractors (another 4% were self-employed).
That’s different than other disciplines where there is plenty of design and layout expertise embedded in consulting.
#4 DOWNSIDES: COST, INFLEXIBILITY, & SCHEDULE
Involving expertise upfront isn’t free. There’s a cost associated with it.
We mentioned it before and stipulating a full layout upfront also set some parameters in place that can limit the creativity and efficiency of a contractor-provided layout.
Lastly, there’s time needed to do that work upfront. Having a high-degree of involvement may not be a positive impact to overall project schedule.
SO CAN WE KILL-OFF UPFRONT INVOLVEMENT?
It sure feels like I’ve put out a hit piece on any upfront involvement in fire sprinkler design.
The question is – does all design need to be done upfront? By an engineer or consultant, or someone other than a contractor?
That answer is no. All design doesn’t need to be upfront. We couldn’t pull it off anyways, but it could also be costly and obstructive for many small or simple project applications.
Is there value to having upfront involvement?
Absolutely - when it’s done well.
Consultants provide tremendous value, all-around, when:
Do consultants need to be doing fully-detailed layouts to accomplish this?
Often no, though sometimes it could help.
HOW DO WE RESHAPE THE WORK?
In an SFPE Magazine Article in 2022, Thomas Gardner wrote “There is a happy medium between no delegation and full delegation of the fire protection system.”
Count me in that camp.
Many times when the subject of “Delegated Design” gets brought up, we instantly jump to extremes. Either all design should be by the EOR, or no design should ever be by the EOR.
On one hand we have many military projects that specify the Qualified Fire Protection Engineer (QFPE) to be in direct charge of the layout upfront, if they don’t perform it themselves.
On the other hand, we have an ever-growing amount of residential projects in North America that have no FPE or consulting involvement whatsoever.
Both of these situations are not necessarily at odds.
We can strike the balance between the two, and we can do “Delegated Design” better than what’s being done today.
We can improve the quality of upfront documentation that defines scope and goes out for bid, and at the same time, still provide flexibility for the contractor and an overall lean project delivery.
Part of solving that puzzle is looking realistically about what different approaches mean – how they look – seeing good and bad examples – and moving forward to introduce, educate and advocate on what better “Delegated Design” means in the future.
For literally the past two decades there has been growing momentum to bring light to the issue. We’re not far from having more resources to define what “better” looks like and how we can easily get there.
WHAT'S YOUR TAKE?
We had a great dialogue about the problem of Delegated Design before, that's here.
But what's your take on why work isn't provided upfront?
Is it just tradition? Just the way things always have been?
Is it any of the reasons I've cited?
Why is our delivery method so different from Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing or Structural? What separates us from other disciplines?
Comment below - would be happy to hear your take.
Last week I wrote on the Delegated Design Problem we have in the fire protection industry. The big ugly elephant that looms over us all. And wow – what a response!
It’s a good thing (I guess) that so many others are as agitated as I am with the state of delegated design as I am.
GOOD DELEGATED DESIGN ≠ FULL-LAYOUT
One big and important point I’d like to make about the issues with what I’m calling delegated design; the answer is not full layout drawings by engineers.
Some fire protection engineering firms can, and do, excellent detailed layout drawings for fire suppression systems. In some cases (unique, high-risk, location-sensitive clients), full-layout fire sprinkler documents can help convey exactly what the owner needs to all bidding contractors. It can be well done.
But that’s not what we’re talking about when we’re talking about good delegated design.
A set of engineering documents go by plenty of names:
I’m simply calling them “Engineering Documents” and that process being “Delegated Design”.
A good set of high-quality of Engineering Documents is helpful to contractors, helpful for pricing, helpful to define and communicate the scope, and helpful to the owner as it conveys what the owner wants.
In my opinion, that doesn’t have to mean a full-layout.
In most contractors’ opinions (we’ll get data on this later), my guess is the far majority don’t believe that quality engineering documents means a full layout. If done poorly, they’re actually worse for a project.
WHAT SHOULD ENGINEER DOCUMENTS INCLUDE?
So what criteria exists today?
We wrote on this a few years ago with a checklist for things to consider in a set of Engineering Documents. That’s our go-to on what to include.
But what does everyone else say?
Ten different leading organizations in the industry addressed just that. In a joint position statement originally created by SFPE and endorsed by everyone else (ABET, AFAA, AFSA, ASCET, FSSA, NCEES, NFSA, NICET, NSPE, SFPE), the paper identifies what it is that Engineering Documents should include. A link to the position statement is here: https://www.nspe.org/resources/issues-and-advocacy/professional-policies-and-position-statements/sfpenspenicetascetncees
This is an important piece of information that (just my opinion) seems to be met by those who care about fire protection, and completely ignored by those who don’t. I would go so far as to think that most of the players who don’t meet the recommendations of the white paper probably don’t know it exists.
There’s a major disconnect there.
In some states, much of this same criteria is formally adopted into state law. Three that I’m personally familiar with (Florida, Illinois, and South Carolina) overlap much of what the joint position recommends.
These state mandates have teeth.
If an AHJ has installation drawings without upfront engineer involvement, they have the authority to reject and require upfront involvement (Illinois is slightly different in that the specific requirements are less defined).
Other states have mandates too. If you have a tip you’d want us to add to this, comment below here.
SO, WHAT IS REQUIRED FOR ENGINEERING DOCUMENTS?
Below is a table to compare the main elements of the joint position paper and a sample of state mandates.
Now, fire protection is not just fire suppression, but I wanted to start on the fire suppression side and look at this in detail since it’s the suppression side of delegated design that seems to be the most pervasive issue today.
A comparison of the joint-position statement (ABET, AFAA, AFSA, ASCET, FSSA, NCEES, NFSA, NICET, NSPE, SFPE)
and several state statues for minimum requirements of fire protection engineering documents.
In this list we find a lot of should-be-obvious things.
Identifying the scope of work.
Ask your favorite contractor – how many drawings have you seen for a renovation or an addition that doesn’t cleanly identify what work is actually supposed to be done? Are we scrapping everything? Are we going in all-new? Are we just add and relocating sprinklers?
Hazard Classifications & Design Criteria.
This one is the hammer to the head. It’s the most-important decision for the design of a suppression system. What is the hazard? What design criteria do we need to protect it properly? Again going back to your favorite contractor – how many times have you had projects where hazard classifications weren’t even identified? Or, the only place it is addressed is with a paragraph about Light Hazard and Ordinary Hazard in the specification while completely ignoring the huge storage area that’s part of the project?
Every state and the position statement all agree that water supply is an upfront, engineering document responsibility. Ask your contractor – how often do they see it?
ASK YOUR FAVORITE CONTRACTOR
As an industry – as a collective – we’re failing right now.
And I don’t want to pretend that I’m above scrutiny.
Ask someone who’s looked at my documentation. It’s not perfect. I’ve failed to meet this mark.
But I can be better – we all can. This has to improve, and I think we can build up the support and resources around this topic to make it happen.
This is the first look at simply “what should be in a set of fire protection engineering documents”. What should they be?
If you have input – tips, comments, thoughts – join the discussion below.
If you work in other areas – Louisiana, Arizona, wherever – that have state-level mandates for fire protection engineering documents – let us know below! Having a representative summary helps everyone.
Thanks for reading – hope the research we’ve compiled this week helps you think about how we as a whole can improve the way we practice.
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Joe Meyer, PE, is a Fire Protection Engineer out of St. Louis, Missouri who writes & develops resources for Fire Protection Professionals. See bio here: About