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Structural Solutions: Proper Communication – Engineers Need It Just Like Everyone Else

Douglas Fitzpatrick on December 5, 2016 - in Articles, Column

I’m sure there are many readers of this column who can remember when the telephone was the only substitute for an in-person meeting—it wasn’t that long ago. Today, we have myriad ways to communicate through the internet: talking to multiple people at once via conference calling and video conferencing, talking and watching via screen-sharing apps, and writing via e-mail. And where would we be without chatting, blogging, texting and messaging?

One thing that hasn’t changed is the need to communicate effectively and concisely, especially for engineers. A single misplaced word or poor choice of words can totally change the meaning or interpretation of a sentence or thought. And although sloppy and abbreviated writing may be acceptable for chatting and texting, it doesn’t work for engineers. We’re held to a higher standard than the rest of the public because of our technical background. Cutesy shortcuts, broken English and poor grammar may be acceptable for social media, but not for us.

Get Specific

My biggest communication pet peeve is the overabundant misuse of vague words such as “this,” “him,” “that,” “them,” “these” and “it.” Regardless of the amount of detail provided in earlier sentences, a bunch of nondescript words can quickly leave the reader/listener totally confused or, worse yet, getting the wrong message.

I notice it more with spoken communication. If you’re listening to someone giving you information, and you start wondering who did what, you can usually trace it back to nondescript wording that quickly loses track of which person goes with which action. Although it may seem redundant, clarifying exactly who or what it is you’re talking about is important.

Engineers frequently write technical information—summaries, surveys, opinions, statements, etc. We also interact with other design team members and owners. To convey our meaning concisely, having a few extra words that leave no doubt to exactly what we mean goes a long way to making communications clear. We can’t afford to have information or instructions misconstrued.

Clear Construction Documents

Communication isn’t limited to letters and conversations with clients. Construction documents probably are engineers’ most-important form of communication. How we present and convey design intent on such drawings is critical to having a project go smoothly. Without clear direction, you end up with a wicked parade of RFIs, change orders or both, which reflects poorly on you and your firm.

Some of our recent work involved providing contractors with connection designs for steel buildings and tilt-up panel layout drawings. Sadly, and somewhat disturbing, the level of detail in some of the drawings we received was atrocious. I don’t know how a contractor, who knows little about structural engineering, can be expected to build from some of these drawings. There’s little dimensioning for areas that are clearly not uniformly spaced, details (when called out on plans) are just typical, extents of special framing are not defined, and the list goes on.

Perhaps some firms just stop detailing when they run out of fee, or the lack of details on their drawings is considered standard operating procedures for their offices. Perhaps they figure they can simply wipe their hands of the construction side, throwing the contractor under the bus for not building to the “design intent.”

Any way you slice it, that’s really bad business practice, doesn’t meet the standard of care the industry expects from the engineering community, and makes us all look bad. Developing a buildable set of construction documents that clearly communicates design intent should be the goal for every project, regardless of fee.

Always Room to Improve

Unfortunately, engineers are somewhat handicapped in the communication department—partly because our minds don’t work that way, and partly because our education is geared more toward the technical side. We only get some basic communication skills from those freshman and sophomore requisite classes, but that’s not a good excuse.

Generally, drawing production communication is dictated by office standards and senior engineer reviews. Hopefully, you work at a firm that recognizes the importance of having design information well communicated on construction documents. If not, consider putting something in place. Hoping to avoid issues by blaming the contractor for misinterpreting a bad set of drawings is a bad plan.

As far as written and verbal communications: read a lot, listen to other people speak, and reread your e-mails and letters for clarity before you hit the send button. Put yourself in the listener’s shoes. Think about how a non-technical person would interpret what you’re trying to say.

Improving verbal and written communications skills is a constant work in progress—it won’t be corrected overnight. But it’s a skill that everyone needs to master, particularly in our technical world.

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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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