In design, when is a site visit necessary?
There are really three variables that play in when we as a designer or an engineer need to visit a job site.
The three factors that come into play are what is our company standard, what are our client's expectations, and what are our contractual requirements.
Today, I'm going to talk about visiting a job site as a designer or engineer from a consultant's angle, then from a contractor's perspective.
So first, from the perspective of a consultant.
A consultant being someone who is only doing design, no installation or construction work, and is preparing drawings and a scope of work so that contractors can review the scope and put together a bid.
For new construction projects, it would be rare that a site visit would be needed for fire alarm or fire sprinkler design.
The information we can gain from visiting a job site would probably be less in the field with just a bare insight than we can get from calling a civil engineer or checking their site utility plans.
For renovations or additions on the other hand, a site visit is almost always needed.
That would be true for code and life safety work, fire alarm design, or fire suppression design.
We want to go and see what's there and what’s existing.
On the fire alarm side, we want to know what type of panel is there. What’s the age of the panel? Can it be expanded? Are there major deficiencies with the existing layout?
On the suppression side, we want to know what is existing, what was the existing originally designed to protect? Do we have an old ordinary hazard pipe schedule system that’s now protecting 20 feet of plastics? What kind of condition is the system in? Are there any deficiencies in the existing system? What’s the size of the zones? If we have to expand the system, where can that be done? Where do we attach? Where does it need to be fed from?
Fire alarm systems, as long as the panel isn't outdated, can usually be expanded with the new expansion panel or something like that and there's no limits to how much area in the building a fire alarm system can cover. There's usually device count that a panel will max out, but there's not a hard square footage limitation like there is for sprinkler systems.
On the suppression side, when we have a say, we have an existing office building that is 50,000 square feet that only has a single sprinkler zone and we're adding another 10,000 square foot addition. Then, that's going to put us over our limit. We're only allowed to have 52,000 square feet per zone for a light or ordinary hazard system. We have to add a new zone. Can that new zone be tacked onto the original riser? Where's that feed coming from? Where is the original riser?
If we expand it, how does the fire department connection now feed both zones? Those are things that we've got to check out when we're looking at renovations and additions. So, from a consulting perspective whether a fire alarm or sprinkler, we're typically always going to have to do a site visit. See what's there and what our ability to modify that existing system is.
That's good for the design phases of a project but what about when a project is actually in construction? What about inspection and acceptance testing?
The answer becomes very company specific, client specific, and contract specific.
For example, some of my consulting work with the military explicitly states how many times I as a Fire Protection engineer have to observe construction during the construction phases of a project. I also have to be there to witness preliminary and final testing. In the project requirements, this is hopefully explicitly stated.
Not all projects carry that same level of expectation though. Despite being involved in the design phases and reviewing contractor submittals, some building owners don't carry their architects and engineers through the construction phases of a project. They want the design, and then they cut them loose. If you don't know on your project, how many visits you need onsite for during construction, ask your project manager or check the contract.
Now from the perspective of a contractor. If we are a designer or engineer working on the construction team and producing working level drawings, when do we need to visit the job site?
In some cases, it can be helpful to visit the job site pre-bid on a walk through with the estimator and get a really good idea on what changes would have to be made to accommodate a renovation.
At this stage, it would be very similar to what a consultant is looking for. Can a system be expanded? Can we reuse parts of the existing system? What shape is it in?
However, not all designers and engineers have the time to go and review a job when it’s pre-bid. If a contractor doesn't win the job, all the time spent on a pre-bid walkthrough is wasted. Some contractors will have their estimators visit a job site on a pre-bid walk and get familiar enough with the scope of work, then pull in the engineer or designer to get clarifications and coordinate from there.
Once the contractor is awarded a job, then for really any renovation project, a designer engineer will need to visit the job site, take measurements, and check out portions of the existing system, producing working level drawings from that visit.
Even in a rare case when we are bringing in a brand-new retrofit system and have plans for the entire existing building, in my opinion, it's still worth a site visit for designer and engineer to check field conditions. There’s so much information that we gain from actually looking at a building than what is provided to us on plans.
Some installers can get really frustrated with design when we don’t account for what's real-world in the field. A lot of that frustration can be directly attributed to what is shown on plan versus what is reality. Things like cable tray, roof drains, conduit, or framers going wild can make actual field conditions look very different versus the minimal amount of information that we can gather just from plans. A great designer and engineer can anticipate what field conditions will actually be like and see red flag areas whether or not those areas are detailed well on the plans.
When I'm doing shop drawing design, my personal expectation is that I need to visit any job site that is existing and is requiring renovation. Not all contractors operate this way. If a scope of work is small enough and the contractor can have a fitter or project manager pulling enough information from the field with measurements and all of that, and they can provide that to the designer, then maybe it can be handled by someone else. Someone is still doing the site visit, but it may not be the designer engineer specifically. I see this coming up with small tenant remodels or one or two head relocations. And there's really only a very limited amount of information that is needed from the field in order to do design. That's usually the exception rather than the rule though.
What about once installation is underway and we're into acceptance testing?
I know of a contractor here locally that is adamant that their young design staff goes out and actually walks the site with the installers that worked on that job. They do this when the system is just about complete. This is a great opportunity to see in the field what worked and what didn't. They also get feedback from the fitters about what was good about the design, what was bad about the design, with the goal to be improving all the time. Always improve, always move forward. I find this to be relatively rare, but I think it's a phenomenal idea to improve and develop the young designers and engineers and get us thinking about real world realities in the field, not just the information we get on plans.
So from a design standpoint, when do we need to visit the job site?
It depends very much on your company, your client, and the contract for the project. In order to start the design, at least one visit as needed the job site. If it's a renovation, verify what's there and what can be modified. Once the construction begins, then that answer is heavily dependent on those three factors, your company, your client, and the contract. If you don't know for your project, ask for your project manager, your client, or check your contract.
I'm Joe Meyer, this is MeyerFire University.
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