Although many Boards engage engineering/architectural firms to provide consulting services on almost all major capital improvement projects, there are still some common misconceptions in the industry regarding the engineer's/architect's role in the process. Here are four of the more common of these misconceptions.
There are some absolutes about the proper way to undertake a building repair or major capital improvement project. If mortar is mixed or applied in below-freezing temperatures, for example, the work will be ineffective. If a new heating plant is not properly sized and can't supply adequate heat to apartments, residents will go cold. If a new roofing system is not designed to provide a completely watertight envelope, the materials manufacturer will refuse to provide a guarantee. These are all obvious points that any engineering/architectural firm would agree on.
But what is often misunderstood is that beyond the basic "rights" and "wrongs," there are many design variables that often achieve the same satisfactory result. This is because each engineer's/architect's experience is unique to the firm's specific projects and the particular contractors the firm has worked with. Once you have chosen your engineer/architect,there must be a basic level of trust in the firm's decisions and recommendations for the relationship to be successful. By "shopping around" your project objectives to too many different engineering/architectural firms, you can become disconcerted when the proposed solutions to your problems appear to differ greatly, even though each idea could in fact be effective.
Certainly, if your engineer/architect appears to be leading you down a path you believe is contrary to your instructions or seems to lack common sense, then certainly he or she should be called to task. In certain cases, it may in fact be prudent to obtain another professional opinion. But the urge to second guess every minor decision of your engineer/architect can become counterproductive. Since you are paying the firm good money to make engineering/architectural decisions, sometimes you simply need to let them make those decisions and assume their rightful responsibility for the results.
Unless the contract with your engineer/architect calls for a "design-build" arrangement, your engineering/architectural firm and your construction contractor will be two completely independent companies with no affiliation whatsoever. This is key to understanding the nature of your relationship with your engineering/architectural firm. Ideally, the engineer's/architect's role should be to act as your independent representative, whose only mission is to see that your project is successfully completed.
In fact, one of the main reasons why the design-build arrangement has so little popularity in the co-op/condo community is precisely because hiring your engineer/architect to provide design and construction services conflicts with the engineer's/architect's role as a watchdog for the Board, which could tempt the engineer/architect to sign off on results that are less than satisfactory. Whenever possible, release of the engineer's/architect's payments should not be tied in any way to release of payments to the contractor, and you should be able to dismiss an unsatisfactory contractor without severing your ties to the engineer/architect.
A related misunderstanding concerns the actual selection of the contractor, which some Board members mistakenly believe should be solely the engineer's/architect's decision. This is one part of the process where the Board's active involvement is expected. After the engineer/architect recommends which of the bidders he or she believes is the most appropriate for the project, it is up to the Board to thoroughly review the qualifications, financial standing, experience and personality of each contractor to decide which one appears best suited to the Board's needs. Sometimes the engineer's/architect's recommendations place too much emphasis on the construction skills of the bidders and not enough emphasis on each firm's ability to address issues that may be of particular importance to your Board, such as security concerns, extended work hours, or other special considerations.
This is perhaps the most common misconception in the industry. In fact, the concept of "supervision" is so often misunderstood that it is not only Board members who fall into the trap. Co-op and condo attorneys and even engineering firms themselves readily use the term in their discussions and contractual agreements. The reality is that except on the largest capital improvement projects (those costing several million dollars or more), most engineering/architectural contracts will require that the firm have a representative on-site anywhere from only four to 12 hours per week. Clearly, this is not a sufficient level of involvement for the engineer/architect to "supervise" the contractor's performance.
This is not a legalistic game of semantics—quite the contrary. By failing
to understand the engineer's/architect's responsibility during the construction process,
too many Boards make the fatal mistake of undertaking a project where neither
the engineer/architect nor the contractor has a contractual obligation to provide full-time
supervision of the construction. The result can be a crew of laborers without
supervision of any kind—certainly a situation to avoid at all costs. The idea
is simple: Either set up a contract that stipulates that your engineer/architect will
provide full-time supervision during construction, or insist that your contractor
assign a full-time superintendent (or at a minimum, a full-time working foreman) who has complete responsibility for the
actions of the laborers on the site at all times.
Any contract worth the paper it is written on should require the contractor to maintain responsibility for the completed construction even after the work has been signed off by your engineer/architect. This is not to say that you do not have recourse against an engineer/architect who signs off shoddy or incomplete construction. It simply means that any such sign-off does not allow a contractor to walk away from his responsibilities.
Depending upon the type of work undertaken, the contractor's guarantees can extend to 20 years or more. These guarantees are typically supplemented with warranties from the manufacturers of the various products used on the project. Since in most cases the engineer/architect sign-off is based solely upon a visual survey and sometimes only encompasses a random spot check of portions of the work, it is crucial that you obtain as comprehensive a guarantee from the contractor as possible. You should even have your engineer/architect or attorney insert a clause into the construction contract that requires the contractor to confirm that he or she has reviewed the construction documents in detail, believes the design will result in a successful project, and agrees to immediately inform the Board if any products or procedures used later are believed to be improper or inadequate. Such a clause will prevent your contractor from claiming that he or she merely followed the project engineer's/architect's incorrect instructions and therefore should not be held accountable for its failure.
Many of the false assumptions and misunderstandings regarding the engineer's/architect's role can be avoided by maintaining an open dialogue, particularly during the early planning stages when many different wheels are being simultaneously put in motion. If you are going to invest your corporation's money in a major repair or improvement project, you certainly owe it to yourself and your fellow shareholders to invest sufficient time and energy in this important relationship.
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