/ Column / Structural Solutions: The State of the Engineer Address

Structural Solutions: The State of the Engineer Address

Douglas Fitzpatrick on September 30, 2015 - in Column

Adversities and challenges, particularly when they don’t end well, provide the opportunity to reflect on decisions and figure out what happened. Governments have “state of the union” addresses that explain perceived difficulties in the market as well as chart a path for future growth. Large corporations have quarterly reports to educate investors on the company’s past and future performance.

Sometimes the driving factors and challenges are internal. A company may have the wrong people on the bus—it may need to make difficult staff adjustments to get performance back on track. A company may be stuck in old ways, because that’s how it always did business. Then, out of left field, other more-nimble companies have overrun them with new technology. You see it all the time with the Internet and the proliferation of apps written by companies (sometimes as small as a couple of people) that displace large corporations from their seemingly insurmountable position to disrupt the status quo.

Sometimes the factors are external and beyond the normal control of a company, but they still affect corporate performance. All corporations have such outside influences, ranging from local traffic issues to national tax structures to international pricing pressure on materials needed for their business to the economy.

Engineering Issues

The engineering community is similarly affected by internal and external forces. The economy hasn’t been friendly to most engineering companies the last six years, and even now when the “talking heads” insist the economy is growing, many engineers still see challenges: budgets are tight, each new project demands shorter schedules, and there’s continued erosion in the fees we charge.

To make matters worse, the ability to plan for upcoming work is no longer easy. Projects regularly start and stop. One minute you think you’re covered up, the next you don’t know how to keep your people busy. Long gone are the days of having projects that keep the office busy for months or years. Today, a simple phone call can squelch even the best-laid plans.

Something Has to Give

Unfortunately, with the economy’s continuing lackluster performance, the number of available projects to bid on has decreased significantly from pre-2008 heydays, leading firms to take projects for fees below “normal” just to get something in the door to keep employees busy and avoid another round of layoffs. Because every company has to run at a profit, taking a project at a below-normal fee means something has to give—that usually means some part of their normal service has to be reduced.

Such cutting could be through limiting scope and excluding some non-engineering service that was provided as goodwill for an ongoing relationship. It could be monitoring scope creep more closely and asking for more fees if/when scope changes. It could mean delegating engineering services to another downstream subcontractor in the construction chain, like requiring the metal-stud supplier to provide a “signed and sealed” set of shop drawings or the post-tensioning supplier to design a floor based on design criteria specified on construction documents.

Most of these tactics are bad for the engineering community. It becomes a downward spiral that results in engineers losing their status, if you will, as a contributing member on the design team. The design and construction industry sees engineers’ dwindling services and perceives that they’re not participating as much as they should.

Don’t Cut BIM

Given our inherent risk aversion, engineers won’t be featured on a postage stamp for being the most progressive bunch. Coupled with reduced scope, because “we aren’t getting paid to produce BIM,” engineers are forcing others to do our job. That might look good for profitability on paper today, but it’s a long-term problem that will be detrimental to the profession.

Contractors have realized the benefits of BIM and are willing to hire third-party staff to model structures for clash detection. Think about that: hiring someone else to do what could/should be engineers’ job and paying extra for it. Our value as a profession gets blemished when we don’t keep up with the times and allow others to find a way to replace what we should be doing.

Am I suggesting contractors might take the next logical step and start hiring engineering staff and do everything inhouse? It’s not unthinkable if we don’t own up to our duties as engineers.

BIM isn’t that difficult, but it doesn’t come for free. With a little research into what works best for your office, some internal process changes, serious commitment to find a solution and some soul searching, BIM just might make life a little easier (and more profitable) for your office. And, embracing BIM might help restore the engineer’s role in being part of the solution, not part of the problem.


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About Douglas Fitzpatrick

Douglas G. Fitzpatrick, P.E., is the founder, president and practicing engineer of Fitzpatrick Engineering Group, a 14-year-old structural engineering firm specializing in commercial and healthcare building design.

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