The Case Against Commoditized Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing Design

Throughout the last few years, I’ve been struck by the number of building owners who consider mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) services a commodity—a service with little differentiation that exists in a marketplace where the best choice is the one that costs the least. While price is of course an important factor in deciding who designs MEP systems, commoditization threatens the advancement of design and long-term problem solving.

Commoditization threatens the advancement of design and long-term problem solving,

The Risks Inherent to Commoditization

A product or service can be considered commoditized when all things are equal and price is the sole differentiator. Consider gas stations and how the vast majority of consumers prefer to fill their vehicles with the cheapest available product, lining up to save as little as five cents a gallon. We display little concern for product quality in a case like this—not caring whether gas from station A lasts longer or is of higher quality than station B—but the effect its price has on our choice illustrates a commoditized marketplace.

When manufacturers and service providers look beyond price and invest in quality, they begin to escape commoditization. However, this alone is often not enough to pull themselves out of an established commoditized marketplace. Consider someone in need of a hammer. Even if a more ergonomic and tougher hammer was available on the market, the difference wouldn’t be worth the premium. This higher quality product would therefore fall prey to its lower-priced, commoditized counterparts.

When quality-focused manufacturers and service providers fail to break from a commoditized marketplace, it forces them to find cost-cutting alternatives. This state of mind may put safety at risk and reduce the importance of innovation by developing “one size fits all” solutions.

MEP professionals

Escaping Commoditization Requires the Best Total Solution

Escaping a commoditized marketplace requires nothing less than a best total solution. Developing the best total solution is what Elon Musk has done with Tesla Motors. Instead of designing a more efficient gasoline engine that helps consumers save money by reducing fill-ups, he cut gasoline from the equation entirely. Elon Musk separated his product from a commoditized marketplace by providing a best total solution that solves more than immediate needs.

Providing the best total solution as an MEP professional involves taking into account a building’s entire life cycle and the original purpose of every component within it, thus bringing to the table a number of important variables beyond cost. We were recently one of many firms asked to submit design approaches for one of two project options (A and B) that would address a public research university’s immediate needs. After giving our best offer to perform A and B’s requested services, we introduced a third option (C) that would fix all the problems at hand along with a host of other long-term issues, while staying within budget and on schedule. By escaping from the lowest-bidder-wins mentality, we freed the university from its preconceived focus on commoditization and were able to present the most optimal solution (that’s currently being implemented).

MEP professionals

The Struggle to Look Beyond Commoditization

Safety and innovation do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive from price, but the “cheaper is better” mentality can quickly become a massive distraction. In this age of consumerism, I urge engineers—young and old—to take responsibility for the continued advancement of our MEP industry and always strive to find the best total solution for every client’s project.

  • Shepard Hockaday
    Shepard Hockaday
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