The Importance of Synchronous Design

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of synchronous is: happening, existing, or arising at precisely the same time. This is an expectation that has arisen in our lifetime. The world seems to spin a little faster than it did last year. We can order a package and it will arrive tomorrow (or even today). We can use an app to have a car pick us up in three minutes. We can even order a cheeseburger with our phone so that it is prepared and ready when we arrive to pick it up. Thank you, McDonald’s. So, it is no surprise that the expectations of our clients fall into this same reality.


As engineers, our first reaction to these expectations might seem like resistance. Design and engineering can seem like a linear process with the end result easily visible. In reality, the design process is more like a funnel or a screen than a linear path. We dump everything in – owner requests, building constraints, experience, expectations, and project objectives – and filter out everything that doesn’t fit. The modern design process considers all design paths, all options, all results, and out of the possible solutions that emerge, one is implemented. And this design and engineering process is iterative.


Iteration is commonly used in mathematics when you cannot solve problems with simple solutions. Similarly, our design projects are usually not solved with the first solution; rather, a solution is determined through iteration. We calculate, produce, evaluate, refine, calculate, produce, evaluate, refine… each iteration leaving more definition and detail on the paper. Any iteration can produce a deliverable. Schematic design, design development, and contract documents all produce deliverables with successive levels of detail and improvement.


A challenge we face as MEP consultants is understanding at which phase, or iteration, we have been introduced in the overall design process. For some projects we’re introduced when the client is on their third iteration – the client has built similar projects in the past, and they know exactly what they need and want. For others, we’re brought in at the beginning, when the project only exists as an idea or vision. At this stage all design paths, parameters, and constraints are undefined, and we explore a variety of solutions.


The undefined projects are our opportunity to showcase our skills as engineers. We use the iterative design process to provide definitions and constraints to the project, proposing engineering and design concepts, and testing their applicability through calculation and modeling. We hone the concepts until a final result is achieved. Through this process, it is important to pace our engineering and design efforts with the client.


Clients have come to expect synchronous design, all aspects and details of the project coming together as one, at the same time. Programs like Revit and BIM360 have become popular because they allow coordination of multiple disciplines (architectural, structural, HVAC, plumbing, and electrical) in near real-time, synchronous design.


To meet client expectations and fully participate in the synchronous design, we use our past experience to propose engineering and design solutions that may be applicable to the project. Our initial suggestions are typically past solutions that appear relevant to the current project. Once we determine a few options to explore, we start our iterative design process using Revit modeling and engineering modeling to prove their value to the project.


After a few rounds of proposed solutions, modeling, calculations, evaluation, and refinement, we have a viable solution that meets the client’s expectations and has been produced in conjunction with the client and other consultants’ designs – a synchronous solution.