Technology for the MEP Trade
Melanie Stone posted on June 10, 2020 |
20-year veteran of MEP discusses industry changes and the state of the art.
U.S. CAD has sponsored this post.

Mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) are specialties in the building trades—the mostly-unseen infrastructure that gives us power, climate control and running water. The design of these systems is important for function, but also for collaboration and cost reduction during both construction and operations.

A significant portion of a construction project is taken up by these vital components. However, a construction project is only a fraction of the cost of operating and maintaining that space throughout its lifecycle. That percentage of MEP as a portion of project costs would go up in more complex facilities such as hospitals or laboratories.

The people designing these systems have a very complex job, requiring an awareness of regulatory needs, building codes, usage of the space, performance goals and collaboration with the rest of the trades.

Can technology make their lives easier? Which technologies? And what kind of impact can these technologies have?

Jack Trexler, Senior Technical Specialist with U.S. CAD

Jack Trexler, Senior Technical Specialist with U.S. CAD

To answer these questions, recently spoke with Jack Trexler, Senior Technical Specialist with U.S. CAD. Jack’s more than twenty years of experience in operations, design and technology support in MEP construction and prefabrication, allow him some perspective on how things have changed and how to best make use of tools available to us now.

So, before we talk about technology and how it makes design easier, do you have experience with how methods have changed over the years, versus manual or 2D design?

Jack Trexler: Manual for me, for working in engineering, was with AutoCAD. Back in 2002, I used AutoCAD MEP, which was basically a 3D design tool on 2D backgrounds. It was taught in school but not widely used in practice then.

With the current MEP design solutions out there, are there differences in how they are used?

Definitely. Quality is the biggest thing.

So, it’s not just the technology solution, it is also knowing how to use it? Being aware of the industry best practices? Not working against the software, but learning how to put it to work for you?

Absolutely. A company with some forethought into producing and having standards, has noticeably better output. You can tell quickly by looking [at a plan set] that someone has taken the time to approach the design, not someone who has blown through it.

Some major selling points of BIM have been the coordination aspects: the ability to view in 3D, conduct clash detection and have everyone working on the same iteration of the same design. Do you think that was all just BIM-washing, or does it bear out in the real world?

Especially with regard to design and engineering, we always took the stand that we want to coordinate with everybody. Everything we show, such as ductwork and pipe, will actually fit with architectural, structural and fire protection.

One of the biggest problems on the construction site is coordination. It’s a huge issue.

Being able to see all the trades, with technology, as you are designing—as long as you can see it, you can predict and avoid the clashes. You will be better off at the end. The ultimate client, the owner, is going to see that quickly between well-coordinated teams. They will want to use you more.

Revit MEP, checking a piping system. (Image courtesy of
Revit MEP, checking a piping system. (Image courtesy of

So, the client or owner saves money over reduced RFP’s and has a better-operating building at the end?

Most of the clients for an MEP design firm are actually the architects, who are first hired by the owner. They used to have mechanical contractors and direct owners hire us. On occasion, you have owners and manufacturers hire you to do work directly. You have to have the technology and the quality.

How much impact do you feel visualization has? Obviously, 3D shaded or rendered models convey something that schematics and 3D drawings do not.

That’s huge! I can’t stress this enough. I could tell you about so many projects. One example is that a large client had two simple box design projects.

One project was to be done in AutoCAD and one was to be done in Revit. Piers and beams were an issue, and after they won the design and started building it, they had to come back with over $70,000 in design changes across 400 RFI’s.

A nearly identical project that was done in Revit and coordinated across teams had 10 RFI’s and allowed the design to be much better.

In another situation, I went to demo HoloLens. We were on about the 30th floor of a new hotel that was going up. The people who walked through the digital design in the augmented reality were really wowed. But one user actually discovered an issue during the demo. They noticed that an exhaust shaft present in one restroom was missing from another.

So, being able to find and address issues like that before the building starts is obviously pretty impactful, from client perception, to budget, to reduced RFPs.

What can you say about the time to complete, when you’ve got a digital model versus when you do not?

You always discover issues on the jobsite, but it is 50-60 percent quicker on a project with technology-minded coordination. An MEP designer is cheaper than an MEP sub-contractor, when you take into account the labor, the time, the materials and rework.

How does a well-coordinated model affect the ability to budget accurately?

That’s a tough one. Budgets are always a moving target. You have to account to overages with time and materials. Estimating on the MEP really gets us close, compared to budgeting and estimating when it used to be done with a plan and a scale and feeding numbers into a calculator.

Do you feel that estimation is now an easier skill to learn?

Yes, it is easier to learn with current technologies. It’s not just a little spreadsheet. It is less technique driven and is now model driven.

The pieces and parts that are actually put into Revit can have a dollar figure and a labor cost associated to them, so when we get it together, we can come really close on our estimations.

So, making good use of metadata instead of having to hold all those facts in your head and calculate the manually sounds great. In addition to the sources of cost savings that we have covered already—tighter design, less waste in materials, less labor from rework, more accurate estimations—are there other savings that good digital design provides?

Yes. Technology has grown and caused a ton of improvement in other areas, too. If you hire an architect for a new hospital, if you don’t have as-builts then the architect would have to go out there with a tape measure and document everything they need, which could take weeks.

Now we can use a scanner and within days have a functional 3D point cloud to share with the design team and the owner. Everyone involved can share thoughts on the remodel just based on that.

Additionally, you don’t really have to have an office space, or have to travel to it, to coordinate the design. Not in any aspect. We used to go out into the field and do design coordination meetings in order to see what’s going on. But, with digital technology, we can do that from an office space or home.

Revit Ductwork for Fabrication. (Image courtesy of
Revit Ductwork for Fabrication. (Image courtesy of

One thing you work on is prefabrication. Building components in a factory-type setting, and then just assembling them on the jobsite. How does that fit in?

In recent years, I have been focused on work for piping contractors or mechanical contractors. One of their biggest issues is PreFab. It is a huge step in construction. We can control so much in a shop that you can’t control on a jobsite. Cost, materials and safety are all occurring in a controlled space. That is what is drawing contractors to PreFab approaches.

Another issue is how you track all of the things moving into and out of a shop. We have been utilizing a software solution that does exactly that. We convert the design model from Revit into a fabrication model in Revit that is coordinated with all of the other trades, push it into the shop and track the labor and materials.

None of the contractors go into the business of manufacturing or BIM. They want to focus on installing mechanical equipment. But you have to start thinking about a whole different world when you move into PreFab. Even the location of equipment placed in a PreFab job can have a measurable impact on time and cost.

Finally, do you think that Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) can help in MEP design?

Virtual reality, I don’t have much to say. It’s almost too far out for our industry. It’s really just for “Ooohs” and “Ahhhhs.”

With Augmented Reality, that’s a different animal—the combination of the real-world situation with the augmented glasses allowing them to visualize the proposed design. That’s huge.

We have done this with nurses and doctors in operating rooms. This is how your room is going to be laid out. They found that they could learn a lot from that, because it allows non-technical people to really understand a design and respond to real world viability and how they would use that space.

To learn more about making the most of your MEP technology solutions and how they can improve your process, visit U.S. CAD.

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