ReEngineering the Engineer: Celebrate the Clever Things
I have worked my entire career at two small firms, and I really enjoy working on a diversity of projects. My previous firm, at that time, had a relatively small band of project types it worked on. When I started out on my own in 2004, my main goal was diversity. I’d been around long enough to see other firms (engineering and architectural) get hurt by lack of diversity when certain building types went out of favor.
Although diversity requires different building types and materials, there is cross-pollination among them. The fundamentals are the same; we’re always dealing with loading, shear, moment, load path, etc., so you’re not reinventing the wheel all the time. It’s just different ways to deal with those factors among the different materials.
Having your own firm, however, throws in an additional mix of diversity. New challenges include project-management software, engineering software, accounting, payroll, client relations, troubleshooting project issues for others in the office, professional registrations, continuing education, office morale and marketing. There’s not a whole lot of cross-pollination among any of those.
When you’re starting out, managing all these moving pieces isn’t particularly difficult. However, as your firm—and reputation—grows, so does the complexity of everything else. The most-recent thing for me has been related to marketing, notably answering requests for proposals (RFPs).
In the early days, we had great relationships with a couple clients and actually did much of their work. The RFPs started out as simply sending the client a scope of work and a fee for them to include in their proposal to the client. Eventually, as our reputation grew, the size of projects we bid on grew. And as project size grew, so did the sophistication and effort required to answer an RFP.
There typically are several firms invited to respond. Some may be your size, but some won’t be. Everyone has to answer the same questions and provide the same qualifications; not so hard to do when you have a marketing department, but a small firm typically doesn’t have that luxury.
It’s Good To Be Different
Differentiation typically is a necessary approach. Identify the things that would lead a client to value your firm over the competition. I’ve been fortunate through the years to have low staff turnover, particularly the folks who do the heavy lifting on larger projects, and I make a point of noting that in my response. I think clients value such consistency.
Of course, you have to highlight your projects that are of similar size and complexity to the RFP. The client needs to understand you have the familiarity and capacity for the project in question. Generally, however, if you’ve been invited to the party, your reputation probably precedes you, and they already know that. Then it’s just one firm’s big projects against another’s. That’s probably not going to be enough to get a small firm over the finish line.
Enter the small-firm project diversification. A wide base of building types typically brings with it some challenging problems; the type that really make you think—out-of-the-box think. That critical thinking is worth a lot. Anyone can design a large building from scratch, but how well can they deviate from the norm or adapt to solve a challenging design request. That’s differentiation!
No Laughing Matter
One of our clients had a comedy club moving into an existing single-story retail building. It was a relatively low structure to start with, and the club needed tiered seating for visibility to the stage, further aggravating the clear height. Although overhead clearance was a key issue, the floorplan was the real problem. The client wanted a large open area for stationary seating and booths, but there were four building columns in the middle of this space, blocking views to the stage and definitely inconveniencing traffic flow. The new clear-span space needed to be about 100 feet. That distance couldn’t be economically spanned within the existing structure depth of 3 feet. Taking up more depth was a nonstarter.
After some serious head scratching and analyzing a couple different options, we landed on spanning two new 100-foot trusses above the roof, each picking up two columns. We added new columns and footings at the ends of the space, designed identical 10-foot-deep trusses and made four penetrations through the roof to grab onto the existing columns from above. After everything was installed and inspected, they simply cut out the columns below. There was no reduction in headroom, minimal demolition work, and it could all be constructed without shoring any of the existing structure.
That type of creative thinking can go a long way to differentiating your firm from another, even if they have a larger portfolio. If you know all of the respondents will be interviewed, you could save a detailed description of something such as this for the interview when you can use visual aids to help them understand the creativity involved in your solution. So start thinking of all the clever things you’ve done in the past and start leveraging them to get you to the next level.
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.