“They’re Engineers, They Don’t Do Anything”

By: Brian Sullivan

In a recent meeting with a potential new client, our lead contact made this statement, with a wink and a nod to us, while explaining to his protege that we handle the design and engineering services not the actual construction. We’ve heard this similar sentiment many times before, and of course, we don’t take offense to it. I even use a similar line myself when explaining to potential clients who want to gain a better understanding of the scope of our building envelope restoration services. Also delivered with a wink and a nod, it goes something like: “we don’t do any of the fun work, just the paperwork.”

So why is an Engineer necessary in construction projects? For the benefit of the reader, I use the term “Engineer”; however, Architect or Design Professional could also be used. Additionally, Board Member, Property Manager, Owner’s Representative, etc. could be used for “Owner.” Engineers seek to understand the Owner’s desired results, the budget, analyze the existing conditions, and identify all available options in the marketplace to solve the issues at hand. If an Owner dealt directly with a contractor, it’s likely that contractor will recommend options they are best capable of performing. As an independent advocate for the Owner, an Engineer can objectively recommend materials, methods, and specific contractors, that are best suited for a specific project. Through communication with manufacturers’ representatives, building code officials, industry colleagues, continuing education, membership in professional organizations, and experience working with many contractors, Engineers are often aware of new products, pending code changes and alternative construction methods that the contractor is not.

Throughout a project, the Engineer will ensure that the client is receiving what they paid for, that the project meets all code requirements, and that the most effective means and best practices are being put into effect. Additionally, an Engineer can act as an initial mediator should disputes occur, or simply as an interpreter if communication is strained between a contractor and an Owner who is less familiar with construction jargon or practices. To ensure an Owner’s expectations are being met, an Engineer should understand what those expectations are from the onset. Next comes the tough job of clearly explaining to the Owner all of the issues that can impact a schedule (weather delays, holidays/events that require work stoppage or reduction, etc.), all anticipated disturbances (e.g. noise, dust, vibrations, workmen on scaffolds outside of windows, etc.), and all budgetary concerns or shortcomings. It’s the professional responsibility of an Engineer to honestly and straight forwardly assist the Owner in realistically determining expectations for a project.

An Owner’s resistance to hiring an Engineer is understandable, especially if a work permit is not required. For example, if you want to build a wall, and go straight to a contractor, you’ll get a wall. However, an Engineer will provide a set of drawings. This might be perceived as unnecessary and more costly. However, when it comes to your new wall, you can now be assured that the proper specified materials were used, that all work performed was monitored, and that the finished product is code compliant. The Engineer also obtained proposals from several contractors as part of their construction administration services; therefore, you can be confident that the installation costs of the wall were fair. In summary, and most importantly, an Engineer’s involvement guarantees the quality of the finished product, and that an Owner got exactly what he paid for and expected.

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