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Men of Steel

Take a load off, Fanny, and you put the load on me! — from “The Weight” by Robbie Robertson

It has become the customary requirement, for the past 10 years or so, to include the cost of providing a set of structural drawings in bidding nearly any project that entails exterior steel-stud framing. This contractual condition can usually be found lurking in the “cold-form framing” section of the specification manual or on the “general notes” page of the structural drawings, or both. Astute estimators are fully aware that it is much more than just a structural engineer’s fee that they are incurring when they agree to provide the skeletal design of a building’s skin. A seasoned bidmeister knows that in addition to assuming the cost of any upgrades, he and his organization are assuming the legal responsibility for the design and performance of their scope of work on a building from now unto eternity. This tactic of shifting the risk inherent in the design and construction of a project away from the architect and owner and onto the subcontractor has for years been creeping into the bid documents in various slippery forms (indemnification, named insured clauses, no-damage-for-delay clauses, to name a few). But to allocate the actual design of a structure to a subcontractor seems the most blatantly egregious transference of responsibility conceivable. Call me crazy, but isn’t design what a design professional is supposed to do?


Be that as it may, this is a reality that we subcontractors have to deal with, and so sharing a few tips on navigating these potentially hazardous waters seems in order. Obviously, setting out some criteria for the selection of a reputable structural engineer should be the initial concern of an estimator who is shopping for shop drawings, and some of these criteria are pretty self-evident. The prospective designer should be certified, have some prior experience with the steel-stud scope of work, charge a reasonably competitive fee, be amenable to hearing suggested methods, be willing to make some pre-bid suggestions, and be able to turn a full set of shop drawings around in a reasonable amount of time upon award.


Certified and experienced. Specifications will typically demand that the shop drawings will be stamped by an engineer certified in the state where the project will be built. This ensures that the engineer is licensed, insured and qualified to perform the design. However, not all structural engineers are familiar enough with the components unique to steel-stud framing to generate a constructible set of plans that yield a quality, cost-effective product. Stud manufacturers sometimes keep an in-house engineer who is expertly acquainted with steel-stud assemblies. However, there are two possible disadvantages to going this route: 1) It is doubtful that he will be licensed in your state, and 2) he is probably more interested in selling you his employer’s overpriced innovations by overbuilding your details than in being cost effective.


Reasonable fee. This is critical because the estimator will be tacking this cost on to his proposal, and the expenditures for these professional services are usually very significant. Some engineers charge a flat “per detail” rate, while others charge by the hour on-task. Either way, the prospective designer should be made to understand that his fee could be the make-or-break item that determines an award—for you and for him—and any superfluous work should be avoided. Some engineers will take a pre-bid look at the plans and give a ballpark estimate of their fee.


Preliminary work. A particularly thorough “man of steel” may even be willing to do a little preliminary, pre-bid work to give the estimator some direction in how to bid the cold-formed steel section. For example, many structural drawings issued by the architect are schematic and lack critical information, such as stud gauge, web depth, flange width, etc. With a cursory scan of the plans, a good engineer who is familiar with stud framing can provide the estimator with such critical information up front, so he is neither over- nor under-bidding the work due to the ambiguity.


Amenable to suggestions. Engineers by their very nature tend to over-design. It’s in their blood or some strange initiation oath they take when anointed that they have to build assemblies that are five times more durable than they need to be to keep from failing. A first-rate engineer will be amenable to a post-award consultation with his subcontractor client and, provided they meet the calculated criteria, accept suggested cost-effective materials and methods of installation from the sub, and incorporate them into the drawings.


Responsive to deadlines. The first words out of a GC’s mouth upon awarding a sub are: “How soon can you get me submittals?” Typically, the longest lead item for submittals is the shop drawing package, which sometimes delays the entire submittal package because the stud submittal will be contingent upon what comes out on the shops. Consequently, securing an engineer who is committed to a quick turnaround (three weeks is typical) is essential.


Given the current risk-shifting environment, it will frequently fall incumbent upon the drywall sub to provide the design for structural steel-stud framing. And considering that the cost of such shop drawings will be included in the estimate, the selection and pricing of these professional services will naturally fall to the bidmeister of the group. The above criteria provide a basic guideline for determining if a prospective “man of steel” has the mettle to meet the challenge.

Vince Bailey is senior estimator at Berg Drywall of Phoenix.

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