More Influence? Survey Says So

Talking to mechanical and electrical engineering firms these days, one gets the impression that engineers hold more sway in building design and construction than ever before.

By C. C. SULLIVAN, Editorial Director January 1, 2001

Talking to mechanical and electrical engineering firms these days, one gets the impression that engineers hold more sway in building design and construction than ever before. And while any professional group would claim more influence, is this actually the case for the consulting crowd?

Quite possibly, judging by the results of Consulting-Specifying Engineer ‘s latest National Engineering Survey (NES). Engineers are holding that influence in key areas and even gaining newfound primacy in domains traditionally driven by contractors, such as design-build and construction management.

So it seems that the engineers’ collective claims are more than mere collegial backslapping; in fact, the numbers bear out the boasts. Consider:

  • More engineers are licensed P.E.s. Nationwide, firm principals report an increased emphasis on engineering credentials and professional registration. Based on NES results, 92.4 percent of responding engineers are either registered P.E.s or are working toward a license-a figure that on its own is remarkable, but even more so when compared with the 71 percent that indicated likewise two years ago.

  • More are involved in design-build markets. Another indicator of growing clout: Engineering firms are more likely to take the lead on design-build project delivery than they were in 1998. Of the survey’s 1,300 respondents, 70 percent are regularly involved with design-build projects, for a firm average of $12.3 million in pure design-build contracts alone-two numbers that have been growing steadily for the past four years.

In addition, designer-led design-build has increased, improving the overall quality of designs and also alleviating engineer concerns. Growth areas in design-build include warehouses, data centers and telecommunications facilities, although most engineers report involvement with office buildings and light manufacturing.

  • Engineers wield more authority over specs. Not only that, consulting firms are presiding over an average of 64 projects per firm-up from 58 in 1998-for an average total construction value of $68 million-up from $59 million. And that growth has been divided equally between new construction and retrofit, helping to explain why about 20 percent more suppliers are calling on engineering firms than were two years ago.

And those specifications are stronger than they ever have been. A mere 6 percent of reporting firms use open specifications with no engineer approval, whereas 24 percent use open specs with engineer approval required. The most popular format is closed with multiple approved sources (25 percent), followed by performance specs written around one manufacturer (14 percent). Totally open performance specs and closed specs with alternate are used by about 10 percent of firms, and closed single-source specs are employed by about 9 percent.

  • Contractors spend more time reporting back. The main reason M/E/P firms are exercising their design prerogative with renewed vigor is to restrict “substitutability” (see “Stronger Specs for Desired Effects,” above). That’s because when products are substituted downstream, the effect is inevitably bad. To ensure compliance with specified designs, more firms than ever-nine out of 10 firms-“insist on approving contractor brand-substitution requests.” About 80 percent of firms approve shop drawings, and some 75 percent conduct periodic on-site inspections.

Amazingly, engineers are spending more time following up on their designs-in spite of the fact that “project delivery and scheduling” is their top challenge. The efforts are paying off: On their most recent projects, an average of 84 percent of M/E/P equipment was installed as specified.