We are a non-union mechanical contracting firm, so I’m always a bit uneasy when we end up on large construction jobs where all the other contractors are union shops.

In this case, York (Pennsylvania) City Hall was relocating to what had been a corporate bank office building. Engineered drawings provided the road map we were to follow for the HVAC renovations. The architectural firm held weekly progress meetings, and that first meeting provided an opportunity to meet and greet everyone involved.

Submittals! Someone questioned why we had to provide submittals for approval when they were going to be providing and installing exactly what had been specified by the engineer. That led to a lively discussion, but crazy or not, “get them to us ASAP so we can obtain stamped approvals.”

To say that everyone got along well would be an understatement. Quite frankly, this was one of the smoothest jobs from start to finish in which we have ever been involved. When any one of the trades suggested changing something that needed the engineer’s approval, the answer was provided quickly and progress chugged along.

When the union electrician needed a hand pulling cables, we pitched in, just like we did when the union plumber needed an extra set of hands. The IT computer room was being relocated along with the inverter mini-split system. We needed to core drill through the 12-inch-thick concrete foundation for the refrigerant lineset and wiring between the outdoor condenser and indoor air-handler evaporator. Our lead technician called me to say the union electrician offered to core drill a larger hole than he had planned for his conduit so we could run our lines through the same borehole. Buy that electrical crew lunch today!

A few months after the job was completed, there was a callback on several plumbing items. The union plumber, who was from the Pittsburgh area (3 1/2 hours one way away), hired us to complete the repairs. 

The old city hall was also to be remodeled with the police department taking over the whole building — different engineering firm, but same set of union contractors. The engineering firm decided the mechanical contractor would have to include the sprinkler contractor’s bid in its bid, which was disconcerting because that would make us responsible for another firm’s work and performance. We contacted every local sprinkler company requesting bids, but once they learned who the engineering firm was, they refused to bid the work. I requested relief from incorporating the sprinkler contractor’s bid in our mechanical bid, but the engineering firm said no. At that point I decided we had better fish to fry and we dropped out of the bidding. I was really disappointed we wouldn’t be working with the same group of union contractors again.

Fast forward a few weeks and the bid totals exceeded the projected budget. I was asked by the city controller if there was any way to reduce the cost. By way of background, we knew the building inside out because we had done extensive work over many decades on the PHVAC systems. I also had invested many hours poring over the renovation blueprints while working up pricing for the mechanical bid.

The building itself is built like a fortress with thick concrete interior walls and floors on all four floors. From experience, we knew just how tough those walls and floors are to drill or cut through. The engineering firm completely ignored the existing HVAC air-distribution system, redesigned it as if the existing building was starting from scratch, with new ductwork run with what seemed like a total disregard for utilizing existing duct chases. What I knew, as did the head of buildings and grounds for the city, was the existing HVAC duct system was completely balanced — a feat we had accomplished many years ago. Utilizing the existing ductwork, which was in very good condition, would easily reduce costs by more than a million dollars. The city controller set up a meeting with the engineering firm.

Meeting day

We all gathered in a conference room at the engineering firm and after a number of details were discussed. The city representatives asked if I could address some ways to reduce construction costs. Following my introduction and some details regarding my background and experience, I started my presentation, but was stopped almost immediately because they wanted to include their engineer who had designed the new duct layout and system. He was brought into the meeting and I started over with my suggestions.

This time I made it about one minute longer than before when the engineer lost his cool. He let me know in no uncertain terms I was invading his turf and it wasn’t appreciated. OK, that’s cool, it was only a suggestion anyway, and I politely bowed out of the meeting.

 Fast forward a year. Bear in mind the same exact set of union contractors who had worked so well together were on this police station remodel. The city asked me to meet with them onsite. Before we entered the project, which was just a few months from completion, they informed me none of the contractors were getting along with each other, “so be careful what you say.” On the third floor, they showed me a wall-mounted lavatory sink. I’m thinking, that’s right where it was located on my drawings. “There’s no water, no drain line and no vent.”

Well, I could see that and assumed the plumber wasn’t finished. Not the case! The engineered drawings failed to illustrate water lines, drainage and a vent, so the plumber was refusing to install them without charging extra, and was insisting on an approved change order. In the bid we would have submitted, had the engineering firm allowed us to eliminate the sprinkler work as part of our bid, we had assumed it wasn’t intended to be a dry sink and had included the necessary connections.

In the mechanical room, there was a substantial gap in the steam lines and condensate return between the existing boiler’s piping and new piping that replaced all steam distribution lines throughout the building. The same gap that was clearly illustrated on the engineer’s drawings. The mechanical contractor said, “I installed exactly what was drawn — followed it to the inch.” He was refusing to fill in the gap without a change order, too!

The old buried-in-the-floor condensate/feed-water tank had been removed and replaced with a condensate-only tank — as per the engineer’s specifications. No makeup water for the steam boiler. The same engineer who acted like I’d shot his family dog was at odds with everyone involved.

I checked with the condensate tank manufacturer to ask if it was permissible to add a feed-water valve to the new condensate tank. The model number was checked and the answer was a resounding, “No!” We priced out a dual-pump feedwater above-floor tank, connection to the boiler’s return piping, potable water line, backflow preventer and vent line to the exterior. We also got  pricing for steam piping to fill in the gap from the prints, and with the blessing of the union mechanical contractor, we completed the installation. Had we not worked together on the city hall job, I’m not sure he would have been so accommodating. When we were getting ready to bring in our own motorized pipe-threading equipment, he said, “Use mine, it’s already set up.” 

They say a fish rots from the head down. Why was it the same bunch of contractors who meshed like a well-oiled machine on the city hall job were getting along like a bag of angry cats on the police station job?