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PMP Associates Blog

Posts Tagged ‘engineering’

Engineering Services are not Commodities

Friday, January 29th, 2010

A recent article in the Point of Beginning magazine, “Dynamic Pricing
by Larry Phipps, PLS talked about professional surveying services being treated as a commodity, like buying a bunch of bananas. That article could have also been written about the general public’s perception of engineering services.

With the housing market and the overall economy at an all time low, it is obvious that people will try to get the best “lowest” price when making a purchase. Everyone loves a bargain!

Engineering services are not really understood and for the most part, considered to be basically the same from firm to firm. These consumers are told they need an engineer, so they hire an engineer in the same manner as buying a bag of cement. While looking only at the price, they don’t understand that every engineering firm is different and the services offered are very different.

A good example is the need to have engineering design services performed for a replacement septic system for a family that is selling their house and moving. The family wants to limit their costs in order to “get out of Dodge” as quickly as possible. They shop around for an “engineer” like they would shop for a bag of cement and select the lowest price. They get what they paid for and then the “extra” costs start to add up beyond the amounts proposed by the established engineering firms. The quality of the plans, while meeting the basic requirements, did not show enough detail that allowed bidding contractors to fully define the construction costs, which typically results in the contractor seeking additional money for “unanticipated” extras. The family is caught in a trap and they pay more than they expected.

What happens to this low-priced “bag of cement” engineer? Nothing! The family becomes totally frustrated, pays the extras and moves out of town. Future consumers have no one to contact so the cycle continues.

There is a clothing store called, Syms, that has a slogan, “An educated consumer is our best customer”. That slogan is also true for customers seeking an engineering consultant.

When engineering services are not treated like a commodity, everyone benefits.

Economic Stimulus Package

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

P.M.P. Associates, LLC has created their own, non-taxpayer funded, economic stimulus package!

On January 17, 2009 a series of e-mail blasts were sent out to over 400 Real Estate Professionals and Business Contacts outlining our approach to stimulating the economy.

The e-mail announced that, until July 1, 2009, the Massachusetts licensed septic system inspectors in the P.M.P. Associates office would perform a free preliminary Title 5 Septic System Inspection for qualified property owners in the Towns of East Bridgewater, Bridgewater, West Bridgewater, Halifax, Hanson, Middleborough and Easton. These towns are within a reasonable driving distance from the P.M.P. office.

Typically, a Septic System Inspection would cost about $250.00 plus the cost for pumping out the septic tank or cesspool. In Massachusetts, you must have your septic system inspected before you sell your property. Older types of septic systems, such as cesspools, typically fail their inspection. A preliminary inspection can usually determine if the system will not pass the inspection without having to perform the full inspection procedure and then add the cost of the pumping on top of the inspection fee. (See my blog, “12 steps to replace a Septic System“)

The offer to perform a free preliminary Title 5 Septic System Inspection did require the need to arrange for an inspection appointment.  The appointment requirement allows our office to coordinate the inspections with the other project engineering work schedules.

The intent of this offer was not to eliminate the need for an official septic system inspection, but to help a property owner save a little money when they know that their septic system is marginal and would like to have it pre-inspected.

Free Engineering may be costly

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

It may be human nature to want to get something for nothing. Free samples. Free trial services. Free membership. Buy one, get one free.

With tough economic times, why not try to get something for free or a a great discount? Comparison shopping is becoming the rule and not the exception. There is nothing wrong with this.

What about free engineering or discounts for engineering services? Does the consumer really get a discount or engineering services for free? A favorite author of mine used the acronym “TNSTASFL” (There is no such thing as a free lunch). I am a firm believer that when it comes to professional engineering services, there is no such thing as free engineering services.

For example, a potential client will call to request a proposal to provide engineering design services for a replacement septic system. During this call, we listen to his request, ask specific questions to gain a better understanding of his needs, answer his questions and based on his request and generally describe the professional engineering services that we offer. We then follow-up with a detailed written proposal outlining our services and associated costs that are specific to the potential client’s property and situation.

Since this process of engineering and replacing a failed septic system can be overwhelming, we contact the potential client to discuss the proposal and answer any questions.

This is where the concept of free or discounted engineering services enters.  The potential client has a family member or friend that told him that our prices are too high and he knows a guy that will “do it” at 2/3 of the price, or some other low number.

Are the services being provide by the “guy” the same? Are they clearly spelled out in a written contract?

What I have found, when I have lost a client to the “guy” with the discounted price, is that he did not include the construction phase services and had to charge extra. The “guy” never returns a telephone call or is hard to contact. The “guy” takes “forever” to complete the design. In some instances, the “guy”, in order to reduce his costs, he provided the client with a standard minimal design, even though it may not be suitable for the individual property.

To perform services at a reduced cost, the amount of time being spent has to be reduced (no one works for free). When this happens, the quality of the design is compromised. The reviewing authority may question the design and require revisions prior to approval (careful, these revisions may be charged back as an extra). While the basics are provided on the design plan, the details, specific to a client’s property may not be clearly shown.

Maybe the “guy” has reduced overhead costs and can pass these savings onto his clients. For example, the “guy” may not have any Professional Liability Insurance or General Liability Insurance.

So the client now gets a set of plans at a discounted price, then asks several contractors for a bid price for the installation. While contractors know the costs for installation of various components, each design for an individual property needs to be reviewed and priced. When the plans are vague and the details are not really or clearly presented, the contractor will need to include extra costs in his bid. A complete set of plans that are well presented will minimize the need for a contractor to include a large contingency in his bid.

What was “saved” on the design plans can easily be spent during construction. So much for a discount.

There is noting wrong with comparison shopping among qualified engineering consultants. The consumer however, may not find out until it is too late, that the discounted price actually cost him more.

Land Development 101 – An Overview

Sunday, August 10th, 2008

By Michael E. Perrault, P.E.

So you have a few extra acres of land and want to sell off some lots. Before you post a “Lots For Sale” sign on your land, there are a few steps that need to be followed to transform your raw land into actual building lots.

These steps are based on my personal experience gained in over 30 years in land development civil engineering and are my own opinion. We all know that opinions are like noses, we all have one, so you will have to decide if my opinion is worth anything.

Probably the most important first step is to perform a “due diligence study”, which is a fancy term for “doing your homework”. This study is basically researching a bunch of data, rules, regulations, etc. that relate to your land. For example, is a public water supply available to serve the new lots and what are the requirements for extending the water system to the lots (permits, materials and don’t forget costs). A basic due diligence study will evaluate local zoning requirements, subdivision regulations, utilities, health codes (when on-site septic systems and or drinking water wells are needed), wetlands, endangered species, soils, local permitting as well as state & federal permitting. The goal of this due diligence study is to allow you to make an informed decision to proceed with the development process.

Now that you decided to go ahead, the next step is to prepare a “conceptual design”. Generally, your property deed is used to prepare a worksheet plan of the perimeter of your land, since not all deeds make a reference to a detailed property survey plan (this is especially true in New England). The local Zoning requirements and subdivision regulations are applied to create a concept plan. This plan can include other general information such as wetlands, general topography and available plan data. The “conceptual plan” is an important, low cost, planning tool. You do not need to spend money at this time on a perimeter or topographic survey, since you are still trying to determine if you can develop your land. The “conceptual plan” allows you to ask the “what if” questions and look at alternatives. At this stage, general initial budget numbers can be established for the two major components, Engineering / Permitting and Construction.

Before spending a lot of money and time, there are a few steps to take to help you decide to move forward.

The first is associated with wetlands. There are Federal and State Wetland Regulations that limit land development. To make matters more complicated, local municipalities are also adopting Wetland By-laws and regulations that prohibit work in the wetland buffer zones. Before doing anything, have the wetland resource areas on and adjacent to your property delineated. While you may not have a wetland on your land, you may be within a buffer zone of the wetland on your neighbor’s property which would impact your development. An assessment of the extent of the wetlands, without performing an on-the-ground location survey, will help you determine if your development project can move forward. In some States, there is an application process that allows you to have the wetland resource area approved, which basically freezes the wetland line for a period of years, allowing you to proceed with the permitting process without having the wetland line shift and causing a major re-design.

Another of these initial steps has to do with properties that do not have a municipal sanitary sewer system available and have to rely on individual on-site septic systems. The soils on your property has to be suitable to allow for the design and construction of these septic systems. Soils mapping can only give you a general indications of the surface soils and general geology. The conceptual design can be you guide in performing some initial test holes to obtain actual data regarding suitable soils and percolation rates as well as the elevation of the high groundwater. If you land needs to have septic systems and it does not have suitable soils, then unless you can extend a municipal sanitary sewer to your land, you have a very serious problem with going forward.

The next step is the “Preliminary Plan”. Each local planning agency has their own set of rules regarding the format and content of “Preliminary Subdivision Plans”. While these preliminary plans are intended to present general design information, some communities have insisted on having more detailed design data shown at this phase. For those projects that present unique ideas for the laying out of the roads and lots, which may not be looked upon in a favorable light with the local planning agency, it may be wise to schedule an informal discussion with the planning agency during one of their meetings. The updated conceptual plan can be presented for comments and questions. The results of this informal meeting can be used in the preparation of the “Preliminary Plan”.

In order to prepare the “Preliminary Plan”, the perimeter of your property needs to be determined, the physical features and topography surveyed as well as the locations of the wetlands. The local Zoning and Subdivision Regulations evaluated and applied in the design of the subdivision roadway layout and lots. The “Preliminary Plan” also needs to show, in a general manner, the public water supply, storm drainage, etc. The local planning agency will schedule a formal meeting to discuss the “Preliminary Plan”. Some communities require all abutters within a certain distance to be mailed a notification of this meeting and a notice published in a local newspaper. There are certain legal benefits in having a local planning agency approve a “Preliminary Plan”. Just to be clear, the approval of a “Preliminary Subdivision Plan” does not mean that you will get an automatic approval for the “Definitive Subdivision Plan”.

The “Definitive Subdivision Plan” step is where all the formal design plans are created for your land development project. There are multiple drawings / plans that make up the “Definitive Subdivision Plan”. There is a plan created for the geometry of the roadways and lots (this is the plan that gets recorded at the Registry of Deeds ), a plan showing the existing and proposed topography, a plan & profile for the roadways, a plan & profile for utilities not within a roadway layout, and a series of plans showing details for the road and utility construction. The layout design for the various utilities (infrastructure) is presented on these plans. Also included on separate documents are lot & roadway geometry calculations, drainage calculations and specific environmental reports mandated by local planning agencies.

A formal “Public Hearing” will be advertised and held to discuss your subdivision plan. The abutters and certain agencies are all given written notice of this public hearing. Other municipal agencies are provided copies of the plan to review and make comments. Some communities have an independent peer review performed on the subdivision plan. The public hearing can be continued over several meeting nights to allow for comments to be addressed, which may result in revisions to the design plans. Once the planning agency is satisfied (if they are not satisfied, they can deny your project) that your plan is complete and acceptable, they will close the public hearing and vote to approve the “Definitive Subdivision Plan”. Most communities have an appeal period that follows this approval, which allows for a legal appeal of the decision.

If the project falls within the jurisdiction of a local or state agency regarding work in or adjacent to wetlands, a formal permit application needs to be made to allow the project to be built. I am a firm believer in doing this wetlands permitting in parallel with the “Definitive Subdivision: process. This approach allows you to gain review comments from two permitting agencies at the same time. These comments can be addressed and shown on the revised drawings / plans during the public hearing process. The overall result will be one set of approved final plans that do not require you to go back to get re-approved by the other agency.

These steps, as presented, are only an overview of the more common permitting tasks in converting raw land into building lots and does not include any construction phase items.

As an example, the drawing below is an “Open Space ” residential subdivision that I designed. The project involved all of the above described steps and more! Each of the lots has their own on-site septic system with drinking water provided by a municipal water supply.

Wampanoag Estates, Wrentham MA

Here is what the site looked like in April 2005.

Aerial Photo Wampanoag Estates

As you can see, as of the date of this aerial photo, the majority of the project was complete (it is now fully completed).  Hard to believe that this residential subdivision was once a gravel pit!

This blog was intended as an “overview” to the land development process. I intend on creating a series of blogs with more detail on the individual steps and tasks.

New Stormwater Management Regulation

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

On January 2, 2008 the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s Stormwater Management Regulation went into effect. The Regulation, based on a tremendous amount of work by the Department Staff and multiple volunteer professionals, have taken the original two volume policy document and “kicked it up” several notches to form this Regulation.

Basically, the Regulation supports Low Impact Development (LID) design and greater recharge of rainwater, which is a benefit for all. The Regulation now establishes a standard format for engineering calculations and for the engineering report that must be submitted. Over the next few months both the engineering community and the local Conservation Commissions will be going through a learning process. For some, this process may be painful.

As of the writing of this blog, our office has made two submissions under the Regulation with our presentations at the public hearings turning into a teaching lesson, instead of a project presentation.

Thanks to the Southeast Region “Circuit Rider” with MassDEP Wetlands & Waterways Program, here are the links to follow.

Regulatory Revisions to Stormwater Management effective Jan 2, 2008
Summary of WPA & WQC Revisions:
Revised Wetlands Protection Regulations: http://www.mass.gov/dep/water/laws/regulati.htm#wl
Revised Water Quality Certification Regulations: http://www.mass.gov/dep/water/laws/regulati.htm#wqual
Stormwater Handbook including Report Checklist: http://www.mass.gov/dep/water/laws/policies.htm#storm