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ReEngineering the Engineer: Sometimes It Has To Be You

Douglas Fitzpatrick on March 24, 2023 - in Articles, Column

I admit it has been rewarding watching our young engineers grow from working on pieces of projects to managing an entire project from start to finish. However, this technical side is just one piece of their growth. They’ve also learned how to manage schedules, clients and owners.

There’s a fine art in balancing structural needs with client expectations, and that skillset is best learned by letting them watch/hear how you handle difficult situations. Let them sit in on meetings and phone calls. It can be as simple as lobbying for the most-efficient structural framing scheme or as difficult as smoothing over some ruffled feathers. Helping them navigate the nuances of client relations goes a long way to maintaining healthy long-term relationships.

Seemingly Routine

We recently designed a four-story hotel that was steel framed with composite floors. The building was long enough that the contractor decided to break the elevated floor pours in half.

About a week after the first pour, our project engineer received a call from the field about “excessive” deflection of the floor slab. Puddles had surfaced following a rainstorm, and they had concerns about the floor’s capacity.

We developed a list of items that needed to be checked in the field, which included getting official surveys of the top of slab elevations as well as the bottom of beam elevations in the area that had been poured and those that had not been poured. We also asked which process the concrete sub used to pour the slab.

The word back from the field confirmed the deflection ranges initially mentioned. The process used to pour the floor and the field survey of the steel for the unpoured area also confirmed our suspicion of why they were seeing some large deflections.

By this time, the owner’s representative was involved and so was the architect. We discussed the findings internally and determined where we thought the deflection was coming from. Our project engineer conveyed the information back to the team.

Rearing Its Head

We thought the concern had been put to rest, but several days later the issue resurfaced. This time, the questions were directed more toward me. I spent quite some time writing an email that explained how the project arrived at the current situation so everyone could refer to it if necessary. There were several contributing factors, and the idea was to explain them without getting too bogged down in the minutia of “engineering speak.”

That then led to a conference call with the owner’s rep, general contractor and architect. I essentially reiterated the same information but was able to answer questions as I went through the explanation. Again, I thought the issue had been resolved.

Several days later, late in the afternoon, I received an email from the general contractor indicating they would have their folks onsite at 9 a.m. the next morning and was hoping I could attend in person. Nothing like a little advanced notice.

I decided the right thing to do was to clear my calendar and go to the site. When I arrived, there were about eight people there: the superintendent up to the principal in charge at the general contractor’s office. The conversation began a bit adversarial, but as I started going through all (the same) bullet points in person, everyone seemed to relax.

The conversation then transitioned to how they could pour the second half of the building to avoid a repeat performance. The subcontractor skillsets in this particular area aren’t particularly savvy, but we developed some ideas that satisfied structural loading while also giving them a flatter floor within the constraints of the subcontractor’s capabilities.

As the discussion of the deflection issues wound down, the principal from the contractor pulled me aside and genuinely thanked me for coming to the jobsite that morning, despite the short notice. It meant a lot to him for me to drop everything and meet them onsite. The superintendent had a couple things I needed to look at while I was there, and then I left for home. The principal made it a point—a second time—to thank me for coming and told me how much he appreciated the team effort.

Evaluate the Situation

I thought a lot about that interaction and the previous couple weeks leading to it on the ride home. Although I know my project engineer was capable of explaining the issues like I could, there are some clients who just want to talk directly with a principal. While it doesn’t quite seem fair, it happens, and recognizing those times is important.

I think the outcome for this particular issue could have been different if I hadn’t been willing to hop in the car and meet with everyone on the jobsite. Perhaps the result would have ultimately been the same, but I don’t think there would have been the same “taste in everyone’s mouth” at the end. And it probably would have affected relationships going forward.

You still have to allow your engineers to develop their own “street cred.” If dad steps in every time someone asks a question, your engineers can’t grow. But if you ignore the signs of a client who needs to be speaking with a principal, you run the risk of jeopardizing a relationship—perhaps more than one. Pay attention to the signals you receive from clients, and be ready to step in when needed. 


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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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