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ReEngineering the Engineer: Don’t Overuse Boilerplate Specs and Details in Engineering Documents

Douglas Fitzpatrick on February 10, 2019 - in Articles, Column

In fall 2018, I was asked to go to a meeting to help one of our clients. It was a small project but rather unique: a 100-foot-long structure to support a sanitary sewer line across a creek. We had completed a couple of these for other people through the years as well as one recently with this particular client.

The RFP for the project included some bridging drawings (no pun intended) prepared by another engineering firm. I didn’t get to see the bridging drawings myself, but I had been told they were for a stock product for this other firm—and not a support structure for sewer lines.

The project was located in an area subject to atmospheric icing, and the existing sewer line was located just above the floodplain for the creek. In our previous designs, we located the supporting structure above the floodplain to avoid the flood analysis (and cost) as well as designed for the icing, which was a relatively significant load in this case.

Meeting Gone Bad

Our client had been awarded the project but wished to build the structure differently than the bridging drawings. During the meeting, I had a chance to briefly scan the drawings provided in the RFP. They were littered with typical details, typical notes, typical elevations and typical plans as well as a couple of notes about design loads: both gravity and lateral. The sewer line also was supported on top of their structure.

When the presentation finished, I asked another engineer at the meeting if the lateral load he provided in the notes was a dynamic load for the water flow since the structure was located 3 feet below the floodplain. Deer in the headlights. Top-chord or bottom-chord loading? Not sure. Did the gravity load include icing? More fumbling through the drawings; he’d have to look into it and get back with our client.

Two things were going on here …

First, this engineer didn’t instill a lot of confidence in the design when he couldn’t explain where the design loads came from on the drawings. I doubt he was the EOR, but he was a principal in the firm. That doesn’t mean he has to know everything on every project, but he definitely could’ve been better prepared.

Second, and one of my pet peeves, is the use of “boilerplate” specs and standard details copied from other projects (and yes, we have them in our office). When sending out preliminary drawings for pricing, you want to cover the things you think might significantly affect the project cost. That’s great, but does anyone go back and double check the overkill? It’s the follow through that counts.

In this particular case, however, the boilerplating was pretty blatant. The proposed solution didn’t fit the project requirements, and there had been no attempt to tweak the design to fit. I don’t know if the city picked up on that.

Avoid the “Kitchen Sink”

In the end, simply throwing a ton of details and specifications at a project is not responsible. At the very least, it’s confusing to anyone trying to work on the project. Worse yet, you run the risk of everyone catching on to the idea that half of what’s in the specs and details doesn’t apply to this project, and they become numb to looking for the real information. Yes, you had the information on the drawings so you’re “covered,” but if something bad happens, and you end up in court or litigation, nobody wins except the lawyers.

It also chips away at credibility. Including everything you can think of just to be safe suggests you don’t really understand the project requirements, and that’s never a good thing. Engineers need to maintain public trust and demonstrate we’re in responsible charge. Having a concise and coordinated set of drawings and specs is a great place to start.

Young engineers need coaching through this pitfall. There’s some comfort in thinking everything is covered when they include the “kitchen sink,” but they need to understand what really should be included in their project. Like Goldilocks, we want just the right amount of information: not too little, not too much.

So use “boilerplate” specs and details when it makes sense, but be sure to go back through them and cull out the parts that don’t apply so your construction documents have just the right amount of information. And take a cue from the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared. If you’re representing yourself or your firm on a project, be sure you have a good understanding of the engineering behind the drawings and specifications.

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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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