The discipline of value engineering applies a results-oriented methodology to find cost savings and optimized solutions to infrastructure project designs. In this interview, Municipal Water Leader speaks with Strategic Value Solutions (SVS) Principal and Executive Vice President John Robinson about what an independent dream team of experts can bring to the project design process.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
John Robinson: I got into the value engineering business about 35 years ago. I joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers here in Kansas City as an engineering intern, but within a few months, I was offered a permanent position in the district’s value engineering office. This was a fantastic experience, and I quickly gained a passion for what can be accomplished through the value engineering process. I stayed with the Army Corps for about 7 years before joining a municipal engineering design firm headquartered in Seattle. I served as a value engineering project manager and team leader for the firm for 5 years before starting a new value engineering consulting firm with two of my close friends and mentors. Our firm, Robinson, Stafford & Rude, became one of the top value engineering consulting firms in the United States. After several great years in this partnership, my wife and I became fully dedicated to growing SVS into a world-class value consulting firm. As you can see, my whole career has been dedicated to the value industry and helping project owners maximize the value of their infrastructure projects by offering them alternatives to achieving the required functions at the lowest capital and life cycle cost.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about the history of SVS and the services you offer.
John Robinson: I started SVS in 2000, working at it part time during my time at Robinson, Stafford & Rude. In 2002, my wife, Korene Robinson, joined SVS full time and assumed the role of president. In 2005, I left my other partnership to join Korene, who continued to serve as SVS’s principal and president, to focus all our energy on growing SVS. Our business took off, and we found ourselves needing to add employees. Over the years, we’ve really focused our business on infrastructure, including water, wastewater, highways, bridges, dams, levees, vertical infrastructure, hospitals, and governmental buildings. We have an extremely broad spectrum of project experience that includes almost any kind of project in the built environment. Today, we have 22 employees, and we’ve nearly doubled in size every year for the last 3 or 4 years. Even during the COVID‑19 pandemic, our business grew, which is surprising when you consider that our entire business model revolves around conducting workshops in conference rooms with teams of subject-matter experts. We quickly adapted our workshops to a virtual format. Fortunately, probably 50 percent of our work is now carried out in person again, but we’re still doing some fully virtual and hybrid workshops. While value engineering is still our primary business line, we have also expanded our services to include a suite of other value-adding services, such as risk management, construction planning and analysis, construction cost analysis, independent technical reviews, and organizational optimizations.
Municipal Water Leader: How would you define value engineering, and how does it differ from the services that other engineering or consulting firms might provide?
John Robinson: Value engineering is a misunderstood term. Most companies in engineering, design, and construction management believe that they’re doing value engineering at some level. However, in many cases, their form of value engineering is really just cost cutting. Further, many owners believe they are already paying their designers to give them the best project, but in our experience, owners really do not want to pay designers what it would really cost them to explore all the options. Design budgets and hours are typically limited such that designers need to find the first solution that is acceptable to the owner, which is rarely the optimal solution. Value engineering provides a time-efficient and cost-effective way to further optimize the design solution and give the owner and designer other options to achieve the project goals.
The value engineering process is specifically designed to look for solutions that increase value by assessing the performance of the project functions and the resources it takes to achieve those functions. This is accomplished using a specific, structured process. One of the key steps is function analysis. This is something most engineering and construction firms don’t do. It takes a lot of practice to get good at it—to really be able to look at a given project and understand its specific functional requirements. These functions come from focusing on what the project must do to be successful rather than how to do it. It is human nature to jump in and solve the problem, but unfortunately, we often don’t fully understand the problem. Function analysis changes the team’s perspective and makes sure we are solving the right problem. Once we have clarity on what the project needs to do, then we ask the question, “How else could that function be performed?” The team is encouraged to challenge project assumptions, constraints, criteria, standards, and so on to expand the potential solution set. Then, they select the ideas that offer the greatest value improvements and present them to the owner and designer. One of the key lessons that I have learned is that if you want to be helpful to the project team, bringing new ideas to the table is essential.
Municipal Water Leader: At what point in the process does value engineering come in?
John Robinson: The early stage of a project is the most opportune time to engage value engineering. Many years ago, we launched a process called value planning. We find that it is extremely helpful to lay out all the possibilities to owners and design teams early in a project’s development, before a lot of decisions have been made. Ideally, we’re brought in during the planning stages of the project, during conceptualization, when there’s still a lot of room to look at alternatives. Historically, though, value engineering has predominantly been used at the 30–35 percent level of design, when the design is pretty well defined but there are still opportunities for optimization. Sometimes, it is used at the 65–75 percent level of design, when the focus is more on optimizing design details and looking for constructability-related issues. We have also adapted the value process into more of a constructability-review approach in which we look at construction planning, construction phasing, and the packaging of projects and think about how the project is going to get built. We also look for obstacles or risks that haven’t been considered so that the project team can address them.
We have found that the process works best when it is conducted by a team that is independent of the design team, so that the project can be seen with fresh eyes. We look for senior-level experts, typically with a minimum of 15–20 years of professional experience. We bring those subject-matter experts together in a workshop format. Going through this defined process is a high-intensity effort that can take anywhere from a few days to a couple weeks, depending on the size and complexity of the project.
Municipal Water Leader: Who are some of your clients, particularly in the water, wastewater, and storm water fields?
John Robinson: We work with federal, state, and municipal clients. We do a lot of work with the Army Corps on its civil works projects, such as flood control, coastal resiliency, and ecosystem restoration projects. We also work for water and wastewater districts around the country. We are currently doing quite a bit of work with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and over the years we have worked with the San Jose–Santa Clara Wastewater District and the Cities of Los Angeles, New York, Portland, and San Diego, just to name a few. We also work with municipalities throughout Canada.
Municipal Water Leader: How does function analysis work, and what kinds of results does it produce?
John Robinson: First, we review the project documentation, then we ask the design team to present its design and help us understand the rationale behind its design decisions. We, the value engineering team, then take a step back and try to describe in simple language—using two words, a verb and a noun—exactly what this project must do. That’s not an easy task for subject-matter experts, such as engineers, architects, and scientists, but it can provide focus and clarity to the team. Trying to find the right two words starts to open up new ideas, and occasionally, you realize that the function is not what you initially thought it would be.
One example that comes to mind is a project that involved the replacement of a historic hydropower plant. When we asked the team to explain what this project must do, it seemed obvious that the function of the project was to generate power. But as we talked about and scrutinized the project, it became evident that the real issue wasn’t generating power at all, but protecting water rights. The client wanted to make sure that this water could be used for municipal and irrigation purposes, but to preserve the water rights, the water first had to be used for power generation. If it wasn’t, the client would lose the rights. There was an awful lot of effort being put into optimizing and maximizing the efficiency of this hydropower plant when, in reality, the client only needed it to generate enough power to pay for the maintenance. They were spending extra money on high-efficiency turbines that required a lot of maintenance. This realization allowed us to specify a more robust turbine that would have lower long-term maintenance costs.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you give us another example of those two-word descriptions?
John Robinson: Treat water is one example. Our team might then ask, “What exactly are we treating?” and the conversation would take off from there. We focus on the specific objectives that the client is trying to achieve. The more specific the team’s understanding of what must be accomplished, the more meaningful are the ideas generated by the team.
Municipal Water Leader: What kinds of projects are most in need of your help? Are there certain characteristics of a project that make it particularly appropriate for value engineering?
John Robinson: We generally work on larger and more complex projects. We find a lot of opportunity in situations in which there are self-imposed constraints. One example that comes to mind is a highway project we evaluated that involved taking a road up and over railroad tracks. The owner stipulated that the project had to stay within the existing road right of way. The client planned to put the road up on an embankment with 25- to 30‑foot retaining walls on either side of the roadway to get it up and over the railroad track. This is also a good example of the value of focusing on the right function to solve the right problem. It would be easy to say the function of the retaining walls was to retain earth, but more insight came from realizing that the function of the retaining walls was to avoid acquisition by limiting footprint. Realizing this led the team to challenge the constraint that had been placed on the design team and ask the question, “What if we didn’t limit the footprint?” The team evaluated an idea involving the use of simple sloped embankments. The team found that the idea would require only about a 1‑acre take of land—a 20‑foot-wide strip. Our insight allowed the owner to make an informed decision about whether to spend $10 million on retaining walls or go through the process of acquiring 1 acre of farmland.
Municipal Water Leader: Is there anything you would like to add?
John Robinson: There are so many ways of solving a problem. Often, owners and designers decide on a solution early on, one that is heavily influenced by real and perceived constraints. In many cases, project owners could benefit from stepping back to allow a brief window for divergent thinking before committing to a specific direction. We bring together high-end experts whom most owners couldn’t afford to have on the team for the full duration of the design. Getting the input of these experts through a value engineering workshop is an incredibly cost-effective way to optimize the project design and achieve better solutions and cost savings over the life of a project. Most importantly, it gives the design team and owners additional information that will allow them to proceed with greater confidence in their project decisions.