5 Ways To Use A Site Survey To Your Advantage

Updated: Nov 4

We have heard more times than we can count, "I thought I could keep my existing equipment," or "Why do I have to replace my HVAC?"

Many tenants go into a tenant space, look at face value of the space, and sign a lease. Then as the design starts to develop, they learn more about their building systems and oftentimes blow their budget.

Getting a site survey by an engineering firm early on in the process is a key piece of your due diligence. Here are 5 things the survey will answer that are critical for tenants to know:

1. Do I have enough power?

You need to know if your electrical power equipment needs to be gutted completely or if anything is salvageable.

  • If the space you are looking at is less than 10 years since major renovation and has the same use as your business, chances are the building services will be adequate for your space. But if you want to put a restaurant in a previous office space, you are more likely to need service upgrades.

  • The team in the field typically evaluates your service based on the nameplate ratings listed. This tells most of the story and helps quickly read how likely a complete overhaul will be required. Some services require more investigation (demand study of existing connected loads, opening panels to evaluate conductors, etc.), but the nameplates usually get you most of the information an engineer needs to estimate the suitability of existing equipment for your intended use.

2. Can I reuse the existing HVAC system and/or ductwork?

Mechanical Diffusers

  • One of the key questions here is what was the previous use of the building? The different building uses require different ventilation, heating, cooling, and exhaust designs.

  • Are you adding a gym? Or classrooms? Or large conference rooms? Is new commercial kitchen ventilation equipment going in? All of those are the kinds of uses that add major ventilation loads into space. The differences in ventilation load requirements can often double the total tonnage requirements.

  • The engineer may also evaluate building envelop at a high level to assess if there may be major contributing load factors due to improperly insulated (or not insulated) areas of the building. This is not always readily observable but is important information. A large single-story building with little to no roof insulation could add hundreds of thousands to your HVAC budget. (note: the energy code generally requires insulation, but there are some exemptions for historic buildings as well as smaller renovations depending on your jurisdiction).

  • An engineering survey can provide you with initial assumptions on the condition of existing equipment and likely hood that it can be kept. (Learn more here about comfort and your HVAC budget.)

3. Will my water meter be adequate?

Gas Meter

  • Water meters can be one of the most surprising $25k bills you experience in a construction project.

  • Spoiler Alert: If you have a 5/8" or 3/4" meter, plan on a fairly expensive water meter upgrade.

  • Senior Plumbing Designer, Phil Brock, has written an in-depth post on the things that go into this decision.

  • The challenge in evaluating your water meter is that the code is not explicit on how to approach the calculation. The IPC guidelines in the Appendix even go so far as to say you must achieve minimum pressures and flow rates. Still, it does not necessarily dictate the exact method for deciding on appropriate water meter sizing. AWWA has published standards that are generally accepted by most jurisdictions.

  • What about gas? Gas is probably the easiest utility to deliver high capacity levels at a relatively low cost. Most mains inbound from the city is suitable for delivering all kinds of volumes with a simple meter and regulator swap. You may have to replace and add piping to the system to deliver appropriate pressure to each fixture. Your engineering team will help walk you through this during design. The good news is: that gas is rarely a show stopper on projects. HVAC, water meters, and electrical services are usually the most painful if not adequate.

4. What equipment needs to be replaced?

Led light bulbs

  • In addition to the large MEP systems, many buildings have existing equipment and fixtures that you may want to reuse.

  • Important: the more you want to reuse in space, the more you can expect your engineering fees to be (at nearly an exponential rate). Why is that?! Simply put, you expect a professional to affix their seal on a construction document stating that existing equipment is suitable for reuse. That is a great deal of legal responsibility and risk. This is not an easy judgment to make, considering most of the system is buried behind walls and above ceilings. It will be quite expensive in consulting fees when attempting to save money on construction fees by detailing complicated and high-risk scopes.

  • CAUTION: The cheaper the fee for these kinds of projects, the larger the spec and delegated requirements. This means the engineer is putting a substantial responsibility on your subcontractors to do investigative work as part of the construction project. This is often overlooked and can lead to unpleasant change orders and a lot of finger-pointing. This is to be expected when the engineering fees are quite low (in other words: they are full of exclusions). The engineer is making the minimum amount of effort required to justify legal professional supervision. Ensure your contractors are familiar with all of the language of the construction package (even the fine print).

5. Alright, PermitZIP. Can you take a look at my building then?

  • We offer virtual surveys along with each proposal to put engineers virtually in your building for a fraction of the cost of paying a team to drive to the site! Just fill out an instant quote for a price.

  • A virtual survey is a survey that you, or your representative, host from their cell phone while they are in the field on our behalf. We will join you through a teleconference and direct you to where to look and what pictures to take. Be ready to climb ladders, and you may need a hard hat!

  • The great part about a virtual survey is that you have our whole team on the line with you. That means you, your architect, or your GC can hop in and listen to us discuss the space and have an opportunity to ask your own questions as we document the conditions remotely.

  • Don't want to go virtual? No problem. The instant quote includes a price for one of our field team members to do the survey on your behalf. The engineers will still be remote as our trained field surveyor walks them through the building.

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