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ReEngineering the Engineer: Don’t Just Say No

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

One of my long-time architect colleagues teaches a graduate-level architecture class at a local university. One part of their curriculum requires them to talk to their students about soils-related items in their projects. Rather than fumble through that discussion himself, my friend asked me to spend some time with his class explaining a soils report.

The point wasn’t to explain the process of gathering soil samples or classifying the soils or determining the area’s geology—a geotech expert would be much better at that than a structural engineer. The discussion centered on helping them understand what they should be looking for in a report and finding the things that may directly help them understand their project site better so they can make informed design decisions.

A Guided Discussion

I shared snippets from a nice, thorough report so we could discuss the main things we structural engineers typically look for to help us with design decisions. They included general boring-log info, foundation recommendations, lateral earth pressure values behind walls, slab on grade recommendations, site preparation if there are poor soils onsite, proximity of groundwater, and the site seismic classification. All that information could have budgetary impacts to their project.

A lot of poor site soils could lead to expensive foundation recommendations or a significant amount of “remove and replace.” But there also could be some opportunities. Perhaps the building could be located in a different area on the site to avoid or reduce some of the costly soils work and keep the owner’s dollars working for the building instead of buried in the ground.

As it turns out, there was an ulterior motive to my attendance. Their project for the semester was “renovating” an existing parking deck. The students had the ability to do what they wanted to the building and site, but my friend also wanted me to help guide them with real-world structural implications of their decisions.

The goal was to let them run with crazy design ideas but also temper that with the grim reality of cost implications for structural modifications. It was a lively discussion. They had some really interesting ideas on repurposing this deck, but most came with structural implications. Some ideas had simple solutions. Some were complicated and required much debate. There was a lot of “Structures 101” discussion.

The goal was to help them understand some basic things they needed to consider. Almost all their questions were pushing the envelope on what you think you could do with an existing parking deck. Unfortunately, we ran out of time, but I think they got a lot of information to help them move forward with their designs.

A Thoughtful ‘No’

The whole class reminded me of how we work with our clients on a regular basis. One of the reasons I enjoy engineering is the opportunity to work with architects who push the envelope; they make us think outside the box. Cookie-cutter designs might be good “bread and butter” work, but the fun really starts when you get to head off into the weeds a little.

One of the things I’ve discovered through the years, however, is that people rarely like to hear someone simply say “no, you can’t do that.” The first place we run into this is as a child, when we ask our parents to do something. Usually, the “no” was followed by a reason. The reason was generally legit and given to help us learn and better understand the consequences of our request and perhaps tailor a better question the next time.

The same should hold true for our clients. One way to help take some of the sting away from a negative response is to offer an alternate solution … or two. In the process of outlining the alternates, provide them the knowledge of why the original thought was challenging, and how these alternate solutions help diffuse—or even eliminate—the challenges of the original thought.

The Power of Explanation

A few things happen when you explain something. First, the person feels like you care about their problem. You’ve taken the time to not only think about their question, but you’ve also invested some of your time in trying to help them find a solution. Think about how you feel when someone offers you a couple alternatives to a problem you might be wrestling with; it feels pretty nice.

Second, you’ve given them a little mini-lesson. Knowledge is a great thing. Clients gravitate to consultants who are willing and able to share their knowledge with them. You’re not giving away the farm here; you’re simply helping your client be a better designer by giving them some engineering know-how.

Finally, you’ve helped reinforce your own understanding. I’ve found my understanding of a subject matter is greatly enhanced after I’ve tried to explain it to someone. When you have to walk someone carefully through a decision, you become organized and careful with your words so they “get it.”

So embrace those opportunities to educate your clients by offering alternatives instead of just saying “no.” Teach them something new and reinforce your own understanding.
It’s a win-win for everyone. 

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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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