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Value Engineering Can Shave Thousands Off Project Costs

Written by Brad Friedrerichs
Sacramento Business Journal
July 1997

What is value engineering? Perhaps the simplest definition is that it is cost effective engineering. That is, cost-effective at no loss in quality. In fact, value engineered projects are often stronger and better built.

Value engineering is a cutting-edge concept for structural engineers, who are concerned with the design and construction of both large and small structures. From small warehouses to skyscrapers, from highway overpasses to large bridges, structural engineers are involved in laying the foundations (the infrastructure if you will) of our society.

Unfortunately, however, many engineering designs are simply too expensive and over-designed. Of course, paying more for less is not good value.

Many projects run 2 percent more than necessary costs. At first that may not sound like much, until you consider this: When you find such savings on a multimillion-dollar project, it can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Think of what you - or your client - can do with an extra few hundred thousand dollars.

How is it possible to reduce costs while keeping quality designs? To begin with, technology has changed the way engineering firms do business. Computers allow us to substantiate the use of lighter and smaller members. We also know more about designing and building safer and sounder structures at lower costs.

To put it in layman's terms, in years past structures were built heavy for structural reliability, which is often costly. Today, these structures can be built lighter and even more reliably. Greater value in construction is possible -and should be the standard.

Here's an example of how value engineering worked for one of our clients, the University of California at Davis.

Three years ago university officials contacted our firm to design a seismic retrofit for three elevated, campus water tanks. Seismic retrofits or upgrades are attempts to strengthen buildings to resist earthquakes. In the wake of the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta and 1994 Northridge earthquakes, public officials understandably gave seismic upgrades a higher priority.

We studied all the options. Our goal was to find the best value for 4 seismic upgrade. We found that standard retrofits involving conventional bracing are expensive and time consuming - and often far less effective. In general, the reliance for structural survival is placed on the ability of the structure to dissipate seismic energy while undergoing deformations. This often results in permanent damage and significant repair costs.

Then we discovered Pall friction dampers. Just like the friction brake in an automobile, the friction damper -when used in seismic retrofits - will extract kinetic energy from a moving body (a swaying building), dissipating the energy rather than allowing it to build up to dangerous levels. During earthquakes, they "slip" before other members deform or break. After, the earthquake, they revert black to their original position.

Manufactured in Canada, friction dampers have been used in 20 projects worldwide to date. The current building codes of Canada, the United States and several other countries allow the use of friction dampers for new buildings and the retrofit of existing buildings.

For the UC Davis project, work crews began in March 1996 installing 48 friction dampers on the water towers -one' 200,000-gallon tank and two 100,000-galIon tanks. One of the 100,000 gallon towers is finished; the other two are expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Using friction dampers instead of conventional bracing will save UC Davis $245,000 on a total project cost of $950,000, or 26 percent. That's value engineering for seismic retrofits. That also marks the first time friction dampers have been used in earthquake-prone California. You would think other firms would consider using friction dampers. After all, the friction damper technology is considered stronger and less costly.

The status quo engineering world is on the brink of its own seismic shock wave, and it will be heralded by new approaches emphasizing "value" and "efficiency" in both design and construction, So why don't we hear more about value engineering? Answer: It isn't always popular with the engineering industry.

You see, value engineering involves making sure building designs are the least costly yet still quality-oriented method of construction. Value engineering is not a criticism of anyone's designs - it is about efficient use of the client's funds. However, it takes engineering time to determine value in engineering, and frequently owners don't want to pay that little bit extra, although it saves them 10 times that amount.

Here's another example: Last summer our firm reviewed the plans for a $12 million seismic retrofit project. Our purpose was to find cost savings while maintaining structural quality.

Just 20 minutes into the review, we realized the structural steel members were over-designed by 100 percent (or about 100,000 pounds of steel channel).

We also redesigned the structural steel connections, with the result that the owner could save $350,000 or 2.5 percent of the total construction cost. It's clear that what you spend on a value engineering fee you more than make up in construction cost savings.

Few people realize that value engineering is what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does on 90 percent of its projects - and it builds more facilities than any other developer in the world. The Corps can't afford to run up a bill without studying all the options.

Maybe that should be the mindset of all engineering firms - cost-effectiveness at quality levels.

It is clear that changes are reverberating throughout the engineering world, and that clients will increasingly demand breakthrough designs that cost less and that offer solutions, not problems.

VE Solutions, Inc. - "We believe that you, our client, have to be satisfied for your project to be a success"