Value engineering was always going to find its place in contemporary construction practice but the ongoing economic climate has elevated its adoption to a not-so-fine art, with the sector seemingly driven by one factor and one factor only price.
Wikipedia defines value engineering as a systematic method to improve the value of goods or products and services by using an examination of function. But specifications are being switched in favour of cheaper products and systems on principle alone.
Those are the findings of a survey of members of Armstrong Ceilings Omega network of approved installers to clarify the extent to which specialist sub-contractors are involved in the design and specification of products.
Education sector specialists Sound Interiors have worked with main contractors such as BAM, Shepherd, Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Willmott Dixon and Wates on such projects as South Cheshire, Burnley, Bolton and Stockport Colleges.
Managing director Howard Winter said: We automatically look at value engineering, especially on larger projects and particularly in the current climate, but this has been our approach for at least the past 10 years.
Framework agreements have started to wobble due to pricing pressure over the past 18 months. Some main contractors currently do not seem to consider anything else other than price, even risk management appears secondary. They are so price sensitive they seem to disregard the manufacturers accreditations and the specialist contractors financial stability.
Sound Interiors like to get involved at the earliest possible stage, tracking down specific projects and find out from the main contractors bid team who is involved with the project particularly the quantity surveyor and/or the design manager.
Mr Winter said: Main contractors and architects ask us for advice when considering acoustics, fire performance and of course value engineering. In the majority of cases they welcome advice, particularly if it is cost effective. The benefits of early consultation to all involved are cost and conformity of specification which will avoid any surprises.
We are back in the old days of price means everything. The current uncertainty of material price increases means some main contractors, to get a fixed price, are now trying to place orders early rather than todays practice of last minute.
He added: The current economic climate has made it very difficult to predict what the future will hold. People are making financial decisions that they would not have made 18 months ago.
This price predilection is supported by Belfast-based Contract Ceilings who have worked on a variety of projects including Belfasts City Hospital and Ulster Hall and Newtownabbey College.
Managing director Andrew Montgomery finds the degree to which they are involved in the design and specification of ceiling systems depends on whether they are small or large projects.
On the smaller ones, the architects or developers come to us for advice on products to use on each particular method of installation. On larger projects, an open specification may be created and this would be fine tuned by us at tender stage as we would promote the product best suited to the project. The benefit to all is generally more suitable product for the end user and a cheaper alternative for the main contractor.
This trend has risen more to the fore over the past five years, according to Contract Ceilings, as prior to this specifications where clearly adhered to after they had been created at tender stage.
The regulations have changed to allow an open market place where the specification is open to many manufacturers and products as long as they meet the criteria. Architects do ask the questions but we find main contractors are not interested in the product, only the final figure, ie cheaper product.
He added: In some instances, even after our advice, the main contractor will still go to another sub-contractor if he feels he can save a few pounds. We have met main contractors who are determined to change the specification as long as the criteria are adhered to.
Sub-contractor AT Jones, who have four offices and have worked with Kier, Interserve and Sir Robert McAlpine on projects including Milton Keynes Academy, St Mary's Hospital, Portsmouth, and Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, find their involvement in the design and specification of ceiling systems is down to longstanding relationships with main contractors and so their involvement has grown along with the relationships.
Managing director Barry Beesley said: We tend to get involved at the early stages of the tender process so we can assist with designing out any problems that we may think exist. We guide them with the best products and requirements to suit their needs in terms of price, quality and design. Value engineering is always part of the everyday development and commitment to the tender process.
He added: Main contractors respond positively to our suggestions, especially if it is relation to a problem overlooked by a competitor. If our suggestions are for the greater good of the project and save time and money, then all mediators are happy to listen and take into consideration any changes and alternative methods.