Redefining the term consulting engineer

Engineers who play a more integrated role on a project team can add real value and find new inspiration in their jobs.

By Donna Miller, PE, P. Eng, LEED AP, WD Partners December 2, 2016

"That’s the way we’ve always done it."

"We’ve used this plan for six other locations so there’s no reason to change it now."

"If it works, don’t change it."

The statements above are familiar to engineers (and those who work with them) on large-scale retail projects. The role of the engineer in these scenarios has been somewhat limited – they’re asked to implement previous store designs to affirm that they are code compliant and constructible. Beyond any problems identified, engineers generally have not been given any room for creativity with regard to retail designs.

Lately, however, engineers have been serving as a much more valuable resource for finding new efficiencies, new approaches, and new solutions that add to a client’s bottom line. This engineering approach is just as focused on improvement as code compliance and constructability. With their knowledge of the latest developments in technology and new products, engineers play a more engaged and consultative role opposed to being an uncreative necessity.

This collaborative trend reflects the cross-discipline integration that has risen with Building Information Management systems such as Revit. There is more interplay and creative exchange throughout the planning and design process with single building projects, as well as, multiple location projects.

A fresh perspective, hundreds of thousands saved

A number of large, international retailers have streamlined their design processes so they can realize efficiencies across multiple sites. Some retailers have developed a model that has seen outstanding success in every market they enter. They constantly seek more cost-effective and energy-efficient solutions to enhance their bottom line.

When retailers bring in WD as consulting engineers for new store development, the base design is examined to see what new cost-effective or energy-efficient solutions can be incorporated into the design. For instance, many North American stores are in regions where heavy winter snows must be taken into account. Engineers will make note of that because there’s only very light snow at a deep south location, and there is no longer a need for the quantity of structural steel called for in the standard building design. An adjustment to the structural design can translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings on the project. For one of our retailers, we noted their use of custom-made rooftop HVAC systems, when much less expensive and perfectly appropriate standard equipment solutions were readily available.

Keeping millennials in mind

When engineers begin to think more creatively, other good things happen. We also see a shift away from the templated approach to multiple locations. Each retail location is an identical layout or mirror image of every other one with common structures, floor plans, traffic flows, product placements, lightings, HVAC, and so on. However, today’s consumer is driven by the tastes and growing economic power of Millennials, and it is challenging this approach. These customers seek and are more loyal to a more localized, authentic look and feel to their favorite stores. Engineers are a key part of any store design that hopes to retain this demographic while maintaining the code compliance and constructability and achieving a uniqueness that helps the brand grow.

Whole Foods is a great example of how a retailer can become cutting edge while maintaining their core operating procedures. Over the past several years, the lifestyle grocer has been treating each store as a unique experience while looking for new efficiencies. Anthropology, a women’s clothing retailer, is another retailer where store variation has become part of the brand itself. Each location presents new opportunities for uniqueness.

Keeping abreast of the latest

Playing a more consultative role requires engineers to stay current with the latest developments in materials, technologies, and concepts in design. It also requires an eye for finding new ways to save the client money and improve performance. This investment of time and effort can pay major dividends – the more consultative the approach, the more vital they can be on their teams. We’re also seeing higher job satisfaction. The consultative role allows engineers to see each new project as more than the previous design. They’re an opportunity to work collaboratively with architects, designers, and other engineers to identify the best way to design a project.

As cross-discipline collaboration becomes the norm for those in the retail design world, the role of the engineer will increasingly become that of the consultative engineer. This evolution will bring new ideas and increased efficiencies to the entire process, as well as, whole new layers of creativity and profitability. 

Donna Miller is vice president of engineering with WD Partners. WD Partners is a CFE Media content partner.