Guest Opinion: The Multi-Discipline Myth—Do Clients Benefit?

By Consulting Specifying Engineer Staff October 25, 2004

By John D. Gaskell, P.E.
Gaskell Associates
Warwick, R.I.

When selecting design professionals for any construction project, there are several important choices:

  • Should an architectural or engineering firm be hired to head the project?

  • Is the project best served by in-house engineers or outside consulting engineers?

  • How about the issue of single-discipline vs. multi-discipline consulting engineering firms?

Any complex project needs to be headed by a single professional firm that can take overall responsibility and coordinate the efforts of all disciplines. Should the prime consultant be an architect or engineer? The answer is simple, but not always obvious to a building committee. If the project is primarily architectural in nature, hire an architect. If it’s an engineering project, hire an engineer.

Most buildings are architectural projects: schools, offices, libraries, etc. On the other hand, roads, bridges, fire-alarm systems, emergency generators and electric service upgrades are engineering projects, for which the prime consultant should be an engineer of the appropriate discipline.

In-house or outside?

Building committees are usually favorably impressed to hear that an architect has in-house engineers. However, in fact, this arrangement has few advantages and many disadvantages.

Architects and engineers are probably the two most diametrically opposed types that you will ever meet. Architects think in the abstract and most are visionaries. Engineers, on the other hand, see things in black and white. They come from a scientific and mathematical background and take a practical view to each project. Partnerships between architects and engineers are seldom harmonious.

In-house engineers are often limited by the experiences of the architectural firm that employs them. When the architect takes on a new building type, the in-house engineer also is new to that type of project. On the other hand, if outside consulting engineers are used, they can be chosen based on their experience with the particular building type and can offer much to enhance the overall project.

Projects are often delayed because a particular in-house engineer is overloaded with work. Workload can be an important factor when selecting an outside consulting engineer and will help to assure that deadlines are met.

Although most architects are slow to realize it, all engineers are created equal. Most can do an adequate job, but some are a lot better than others. The very best and most talented engineers will not be satisfied as employees of architectural firms, and will eventually open their own engineering firms.

Economics is another reason that most architects use the services of outside consulting engineers. On most projects, the consulting engineer can be retained for a fee that is somewhat less than the portion of the architect’s fee proportioned to that discipline. Therefore, the architect always makes a profit using outside consulting engineers.

Single-discipline vs. multi-discipline

In the early days of architecture, the architect did all aspects of design, including engineering. This is even true today for basic houses and simple buildings. However, as technology has advanced, our buildings have become increasingly complex. Most buildings now require special consultants: acoustical, educational and environmental—to mention only a few. No firm has every possible discipline in-house.

Some regions of the country are dominated by multi-discipline M/E/P firms. Other areas, such as New England, have predominantly single-discipline firms. At first glance, the multi-discipline option seems to have the advantages: one-stop shopping and better coordination. However, these perceived advantages are only a myth. Most multi-discipline firms are not balanced. Either the mechanical engineer is strong and the electrical engineer is weak, or vice versa. In many cases, only one is a registered professional engineer. Why not take the time to individually hire the best, most experience mechanical and electrical engineers.

Another concern is proper coordination. Being under one roof doesn’t assure good coordination. The only was a single-discipline firm can stay in business is to offer superior coordination.

For example, early in my practice, I developed a series of questions that I call my “HVAC coordination sheet.” Who provides disconnects, automatic starters, manual starters, control wiring, interlock wiring, etc.? The mechanical engineer and I agree on each item and give a copy to the architect. In this way, things are not overlooked or duplicated. I also have coordination sheets for plumbing, fire alarm, elevators, etc. I have never known a multi-discipline firm to bother to document these decisions.

The best and the brightest are drawn to single-discipline firms. They don’t want to be a small cog in a big wheel. They want to work for a firm that specializes in their discipline, where their talents will be fully appreciated and rewarded. If you want the best and the brightest, hire single-discipline firms.

The client’s needs are best served when architects are hired for architectural projects and engineers are hired for engineering projects.

Outside consulting engineers can be chosen based on their experience with the particular building type and can offer much to enhance the overall project. Firm workloads can be evaluated to meet deadlines and the best, most qualified engineers can be selected. And, when architects use outside consulting engineers, they always make a profit.

When you hire a multi-discipline engineering firm, you are forced to take the “package.” One discipline may be strong, attentive to details and easy to get along with; the other may be weak, inattentive to details, difficult to deal with and may not even be a registered professional engineer. Instead, hire each discipline separately. You can choose the most experienced and reliable engineers to best serve your clients needs and you are more likely to get the best and the brightest.

Editor’s Note: We welcome responses to Mr. Gaskell’s article, which we will gladly publish in future editions of the “Business of Engineer” online newsletter. Please send all replies to