GAJ on the benefits of keeping MEP in-house

GAJ partner for MEP Alaa Abdelmohsen discusses the perks of keeping things in-house.

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Godwin Austen Johnson MEP partner, Alaa Abdelmohsen.
Godwin Austen Johnson MEP partner, Alaa Abdelmohsen.

A prominent call from the construction industry in recent times – not least from the MEP sector – has been for a more joined up approach to the building process.

A breakdown in communication and misunderstanding across disciplines and firms was blamed for countless hitches – ranging from minor to major – on sites across the GCC in 2019.

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Meanwhile, contract disputes punctuate the region’s construction landscape, with the pursuit of fatter profit margins jeopardising not just quality, but time-sensitive deliverables, and even developments in their entirety.

It is part of the reason why Godwin Austen Johnson MEP partner, Alaa Abdelmohsen, is so pleased to report that 90% of GAJ developments are undertaken by his in-house team.

Speaking to MEP Middle East, Abdelmohsen said it was clear that the industry has a communication problem, with clients often dictating the direction of progress despite the best efforts of consultants and contractors to guide them into a more efficient route. 

“It appears in term of the relationship between the consultants and contractors that there is a natural reluctance (to work more closely together),” he said, adding the caveat that there is always an exception to the rule.

“This is based on the idea that the contractor always thinks the designer is designing to the highest cost, but that is not always the case.

“Also the consultant thinking that the contractors aim is to get low quality and low pricing – but again this is not always the case.

“The problem is the market is very much influenced by clients who prefer the traditional way of agreeing contracts, rather than having cost-plus contracts or new collaborative contracts that allow both parties to benefit from the project and final products. But again this is not always the case.”

At GAJ HQ, the emphasis is very much on a joined up approach. The multidisciplinary firm achieves this by involving all disciplines even at the earliest stages of design.

Keeping all departments on the same page from the beginning seems an apt solution, and one Abdelmohsen believes benefits stakeholders at all levels.

“We had cases where we engaged the contractor during the schematic stage of design, and they gave us a better idea in terms of build-ability, cost efficiency, product selection, and specification for those products,” he explained.

“This helped achieve client intent and requirements. It is not an easy thing in a very competitive market where the price is the main issues, but at the end of the day there is opportunity to have more collaboration between the consultant and contractors, which in due course we have to have.

“This is what we believe, and it has been proven in the past few years: apart from the obvious thing which is better co-ordination and better communication across disciplines, and also co-ordination in terms of MEP spaces and integration of these services inside a project, it also made our engineers think differently or have a different perspective in terms of not only designing MEP services fit for purpose or achieving their function, but actually achieve the intent from the architecture or interior design point of view, which has been very beneficial for us and our clients.

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“We have a couple of very good examples of this in our portfolio, namely heritage projects. MEP services designed for such a project is not an easy task in terms of not affecting the overall feel.

“You need to have the MEP services, but in a way that serves the design intent and architecture.”

But does GAJ’s approach leave the firm open to missed opportunities? Why would a client not opt to go with the self-proclaimed MEP specialist, an alternative company that focuses solely on that area of expertise?

Abdelmohsen did not agree with the notion that a ‘Jack of all trades’ could not also master the lot.

“We are experts in what we are doing in terms of each discipline we have,” he said.

“I had been an MEP consultant for years before I joined GAJ; I used to be a subconsultant before I joined GAJ to become head of the MEP department. 
“The client really values what we can offer, they can understand and see the difference. This is something that affects their final product.

“We believe in our specialist teams, and we believe that they can deliver for us and minimise the risk of exposure.

“In our experience we have engaged with subcontractors, and I won’t say the risk was higher than what we have [internally] but at least we have better co-ordination, better communication between the team, and the final project is what really matters in terms of quality and co-ordination – the client is who benefits from this.”

So how does Abdelmohsen and his MEP department pull off a concept that seems so simple in theory?

The execution sounds equally straightforward, with that aforementioned joined up approach running through the firm at all levels.

“We have clear planning from day one through the disciplines. We have a clear collaboration and co-ordination between our architects and engineers.

“We have something called area co-ordination, in which the MEP spaces and requirements are considered from the concept. When our architects are delivering at the tender stage, the client can see that what he has seen on the concept is delivered during construction.

“We’ve been doing this for some years, it was really successful in terms of delivering high quality projects.

“At GAJ we are intent on end to end quality from design, during construction and at the end of the project. Our clients can see this; we always try to engage our senior people to oversee the work during construction, taking their knowledge into the project. This is the best way to safeguard clients’ interest.”

And GAJ’s success has not gone unnoticed by rivals.

Abdelmohsen said: “Other architects are starting to see the quality and level of deliverables we are delivering from our in-house MEP teams specifically, and we’ve been engaged by other architects to do certain projects where they feel they need our expertise in terms of heritage projects, high-end projects. This has been beneficial for us and for them.

“All our team for the last five or six years have been working in 3D modelling.

“All our architects, engineers and specialists are all operating in a 3D environment, a BIM environment. This is an amazing thing for clients, and they have appreciated [this advance].”

Ultimately, Abdelmohsen and GAJ believe that keeping things in-house ensures the MEP and fit-out departments are able to get in and complete their duties without unforeseen problems.

Being the last teams on site, MEP and fit-out are often faced with issues that have been kicked down the road.

Not only could this have massive implications for contractors who face potentially damaging late-delivery payments, but it creates an environment fit for the breeding of blame.

This is something Abdelmohsen wants to see eradicated from developments en masse.

“You are spot on and I cannot agree more,” he said.

“Always the MEP and fit-out teams deliver at the end of a project, and without proper co-ordination, proper 3D models which have been there from the early design phase and delivered to the contractors, it won’t save time, save issues, or even save the project.”

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