Bringing ductwork expertise into the supply chain

Published:  02 May, 2004

Peter Edmunds
Peter Edmunds is chairman of the HVCA Ductwork Group and managing director of Ductwork Projects Ltd, Wimborne, Dorset.

Involving specialist contractors at the earliest stage in the design process can lead to reduced costs, faster project completion and a happier workforce, claims Peter Edmunds.

Ductwork firms used to be treated with a fair amount of contempt by other members of the construction chain. We were often dismissed as the low-tech’ end of the business, with little to offer in terms of creative input. Things are very different today.

Specialist skills

More and more ductwork specialists are being invited to join the initial project-design teams, and clients are starting to understand how much we can bring to the party. By involving our specialist skills at the outset, many processes during construction can be simplified and speeded up. Most ductwork fabricators use the latest automated CAD drawing facilities in their designs and so can feed directly into the design engineer’s drawings

This means we can have a greater influence over the clients and help improve standards. Ultimately, this should allow us to reach the promised land of zero defects and, if there are no defects, things like retentions should also become a thing of the past, so helping to improve our profitability.

Pioneered

The drive for greater use of prefabrication on site to cut costs and improve predictability is also great news for us. Ductwork specialists pioneered prefabrication for M&E services. We have always had to draw, design and prepare for fitting our systems before delivery to site.

What is now needed, to further cut site costs, is greater use of integrated team working. Often, the time period from tender to appointment is too short to allow the development of multi-disciplinary planning and methodology. Current practices and interfaces often create the need for excessive visits to the workface by different trades. Typically the installation of fan-coil units requires 11 separate visits by five different trades. A review in the approach to installations will lead to better co-ordination, a reduction in waste and downtime and a subsequent increase in efficiency and profitability for all parties.

Blueprint for co-operation

The HVCA’s Ductwork Group produced a blueprint for co-operation between specialist contractors and mechanical services contractors in a document called ‘Working together’* published last year. It explains a series of steps firms can take to ensure a smooth process by using one another’s skills to get the best from the project team. The document addresses basic, practical problems in an informal way so that everyone can see the relevance to them. Although it was developed for ductwork and mechanical-services firms, the problems are the same across the sector, and the same principles could be applied by anyone in a contractual chain.

The exercise of creating this document flagged up that more firms are keen to work together’ to improve the overall efficiency of a project, but that a breakdown in communications was repeatedly the Achilles’ heel.

Each organisation should delegate responsibility for communication with its project partners to a single person. It also showed that smaller firms do seem to have missed out on the benefits of the partnering culture. Clients and main contractors have partnered, but the benefits do not seem to travel well down the chain. Lack of experience is part of the problem, as people tend to look upwards and forget that you have to communicate downwards as well.

We also believe that working in our industry should be more fun. It became so stressful during the 1980s and 1990s that many people left for that reason alone. That was directly as a result of the adversarial approach adopted by many contractors. Today, with employers paying more regard for the health and well being of their staff, we need to address this issue head-on. If people are less stressed they tend to be more productive.

‘Working together’ promotes a more co-operative, problem-solving approach so that each day is not a battle to get your own way.

Cost benefits

Clients are also beginning to recognise that running a non-adversarial project has significant cost benefits for them as well as improving their chances of getting their building delivered on time. Sub-contractors try to protect themselves against the higher costs of so-called adversarial projects by quoting higher premiums to cover the inevitable design changes and disputes that will arise.

A more co-operative working environment, where all the parties understand each other’s problems and communicate openly, leads to a more profitable project for all.

However, not all clients are aware of what we specialists can do these days. We need to get past the main contractor and tell them about the sophistication in our sector and how training has moved us on in recent years.

We are now well equipped to deliver a system that is appropriate for the customer’s needs at the right price and on time. Also, if we assume greater status in the supply chain we are more capable of advising the client and giving him what he needs, rather than what he asks for.

Through the HVCA we are involved in a continual process of telling customers what we do so we can get involved in the process at the outset. Ductwork is not a low-tech industry anymore, and we can do overall system design drawings just as well, if not better, than other members of the project team.

Reduce cost

Ductwork contractors understand better than most the problems of getting other people’s designs to fit into a building. We can reduce the overall cost of the project by flagging up ductwork issues at the outset. Obviously, we want to be paid a bit more to get involved with the design, and you could always find someone to do it cheaper — but theirs will not be the best price in the end.

However, to fully engage at the business end of projects, ductwork contractors need to place more emphasis on management and commercial training. Clients and main contractors are getting better at recognising our expertise and the value we can bring to the design process, which means we are getting involved at a higher level in projects. This means a greater understanding of supply-chain management issues will be a necessity for ductwork firms in the coming years.

Peter Edmunds is chairman of the HVCA Ductwork Group and managing director of Ductwork Projects Ltd., Wimborne, Dorset.

*Copies of ‘Working together’ are available from the HVCA on

tel: 020 7313 4935/7 (gkeller@hvca.co.uk)



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