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ReEngineering the Engineer: Getting Started on the Right Foot(ing)

Douglas Fitzpatrick on July 29, 2022 - in Articles, Column

As a young engineer, starting on a project always seemed daunting. I’d receive plans and elevations (or a 3D model) from the architect or MEP engineers that typically didn’t have much detailed information. I may have been to a couple preliminary meetings discussing the project, but it rarely felt like enough.

If the other designers are worth their salt, however, that early information can hold clues to the project’s major elements and help us get started on the right foot.

Designs are always easier if they can be completed in linear fashion. Redoing work not only wastes time but also disrupts the linear flow of our calculations and opens the door for things to slip through the cracks. Learning as much as we can about the building upfront helps reduce changes later. I know … easier said than done these days.

Identify the Difficult Pieces

Before you start any type of analysis, your first goal should be to identify the “big-ticket” items. Mechanical penthouses or rooftop mechanical areas can have heavy gravity loading and often are screened, affecting wind load on the building. There may be areas in the building that have heavy equipment—both floor and ceiling mounted—such as imaging suites in hospitals. There may be assembly areas that require more loading than other more-typical areas. The client may need some heavy-storage areas that can’t always be located on the ground floor. There may be slab depressions required for bathrooms. There may be concentrated runs of mechanical piping in some locations of the floorplan or mechanical rooms, which can be quite heavy. The exterior skin of the building may require support at each level and can be further complicated by expanses of ribbon windows. There may be outdoor terrace areas that have heavier live loads as well as heavy paver systems.

All these things could impact the structural system you select or the column spacing. The programming of the space also may require clear open space that could affect the selection of a lateral system. And don’t forget the civil grading plans; understanding the grades around the building also can affect structural framing and certainly foundations.

No Kids’ Game

For the most part, it’s like a big game of “Where’s Waldo,” except Waldo isn’t wearing a red and white striped shirt. The point, especially for young engineers, is to be able to learn what to look for and identify the types of things that will impact your design.

You can always get advice on how to deal with something unfamiliar. Any seasoned engineer should be willing to help you understand how to deal with any of these issues—that’s what we do best. But someone has to find the issues … all of them.

Missing any of these items, particularly early in design, can be costly to your project’s design budget. Missing something altogether is an obvious bigger problem. Through time, you’ll develop that keen eye to identify troublesome items early as well as the knowledge to resolve them.

Pay Attention

Despite finding as much as you can early, things will always crop up down the road. Every time you get a new set of drawings, it’s “Where’s Waldo” all over again. Hopefully, your other design partners are making you aware of these types of critical changes as you go, so you aren’t blindsided by them or expected to find the needle in the haystack every time you get a new model.

In fact, many problems pop up during ongoing design meetings and conversations that may not be structural in nature. So always pay attention during conference calls; you never know when something structural might inadvertently make its way into the conversation.

The good thing is this skillset, once mastered, pays dividends down the road as your responsibilities grow and change. Your career path may take you to a place of oversight. You may be supervising other engineers—all with varying degrees of experience—and you may even be sealing their work. Being able to look through a set of drawings and quickly identify the “Waldo’s” will enable you to ask good questions to ensure your project engineer understands everything about the building and hasn’t missed some big-ticket items.

This skillset can’t simply come from reading about it or looking at someone else’s drawings. Just like any other activity, you have to “get in there and play the game” to get the experience. Mastering it, however, not only makes us good engineers, but also helps us be more efficient with our time by reducing the redo when we discover something late in the game. 


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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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