Role of the Engineer

Engineers don't need to be told how vital they are to the success of built structures. They already know. Engineers bring to projects their unique abilities to analyze alternative systems and arrive at optimal configurations for the project, based on client time and money requirements. But the importance of engineers goes beyond the immediate projects that they work on.

By Scott Siddens, Senior Editor July 1, 2003

Engineers don’t need to be told how vital they are to the success of built structures. They already know. Engineers bring to projects their unique abilities to analyze alternative systems and arrive at optimal configurations for the project, based on client time and money requirements. But the importance of engineers goes beyond the immediate projects that they work on. Their suggestions can be an incentive to the development of product innovations.

But even if engineers know all that, it’s still good to confirm one’s beliefs once in a while with some hard figures. A survey commissioned by CSE , The Role of Building Project Professionals in the Commercial, Industrial and Institutional Markets, bears out the hypothesis that in a time when building technologies are becoming increasingly complex, the other members of the building team—owners, architects and contractors—see engineers as playing an increasingly important part in the building process.

Not only does the survey reaffirm the vital role of the consulting engineer, it also raises issues about marketing strategies for engineering firms. The survey was designed to produce an objective view of the consulting engineer’s role in the process. A wide range of industry professionals were asked their opinions on systems specification, selection and substitutions. For the sake of comparison, the responses from architects, owners and M/E contractors were tabulated separately from those of consulting M/E engineers.

A comparison of the two sets of responses demonstrates that engineers and non-engineering building team members are generally in agreement with respect to the vital part played by the engineer. There are, however, a few key points of difference.

Designing Engineers

A total of 1,250 questionnaires were mailed for each of the four groups. There was a 15% response from architects, owners and contractors, while 24% of the engineering firms responded. The sample was limited to firms that do 70% or more of their work in the nonresidential market and bill for more than $1 million per year.

The survey yields a picture of the engineer’s role from the general to the specific. Industry professionals were asked about the relative influence of the various building team members in all project stages: project feasibility and goals; schematic design; design development; construction documents; bidding and negotiation; and site construction. Engineers and non-engineers agree on the important part engineers play in the development of design and construction documents, with 75% of non-engineering professionals saying that engineers played a key role in this area and 85% of the M/E engineering respondents indicating that they exert major, or a great deal of, influence in these kinds of activities.

One particular area of difference concerns the influence M/E engineers have on determining project feasibility and goals. While only 25% of owners, architects and contractors indicated that M/E engineers have major influence—or at least a great deal of it—at this project phase, 38% of the M/E engineering respondents felt that this was the case.

These percentages have important implications for how engineering firms market their services. Engineers understand the importance of getting involved as early as possible in the process—not only to educate clients about M/E equipment, but also to teach them about project delivery systems.

“We attempt to engage with clients early in the project development process,” says Miriam Sanders, director of business development at Atkins Americas, Oklahoma City, “so that a realistic budget can be developed to meet clients’ expectations and to shape the project execution strategy. Most clients are not well-versed regarding the advantages and limitations of construction management (CM)-at-risk, design-build and agency CM vs. the traditional design-bid-build method.”

Confirmation of the importance of early pre-design involvement comes from yet another Oklahoma City-based firm, C.H. Guernsey & Co. “We always host a pre-design conference and discuss the project in full detail in order to develop a clear understanding of the scope of work, client needs, goals and expectations,” reports marketing coordinator Justin Proctor.

Cahal Stephens, P.E., president of Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, Albany, N.Y., explains that a pre-design process allows an opportunity to spend time with the client before any design takes place to help articulate overall goals and how best to implement them. “This works especially well with our college and university and our science and technology clients,” he says, “where ‘100-year facilities’ can be designed that will reinforce and contribute to an institution’s future while maintaining its present requirements.”

Nuts and Bolts

But when it comes to the question of who has major responsibilities for specifying and selecting the mechanical and electrical systems that go into a building project, engineers are the hands-down winners. Table 1 (above) gives the percentage breakdown for responses from owners, architects and contractors as a group, when they were asked who has major involvement in the specification and selection of these systems. It is clear from the results that while other members of the building team are understood to provide input, an overwhelming majority of these non-engineering respondents believe that the engineers have a major influence in all of the various specifying activities listed.

For all specification activities defined in Table 1, an average of 85% of non-engineering building professionals say that engineers are involved in a major way, with the exception of one activity. As one might expect, when asked about brand substitution, the percentage drops significantly, with only 61% of the non-engineer respondents indicating that engineers have a major impact here. It is the contractor that these respondents perceive as functioning in this area, with 71% of the non-engineer respondents claiming that contractors exercise a major influence in this regard.

Compare these responses with those of engineers. When asked who has a major influence on the specification of mechanical and electrical systems, like other building professionals, an overwhelming majority of the engineers—close to or above 90%—rated their involvement in all of the defined activities as major or great, with the exception of “propose brand substitution.” Only 50% of engineers suggest that they play a major role in this activity—a logical response, given that it is usually the contractor who initiates the kind of value engineering that would lead to a product substitution.

Brand substitution doesn’t always result in inferior product. But engineers like to see that the equipment they recommend is what gets installed. Table 2 (above) bears out that more than 85% of the time, on average, according to survey respondents, those specs stick.

But agreement on how often systems are installed as specified contrasts sharply with the difference in response between engineers and other building professionals when asked how frequently brand substitution requests are accepted. In fact, the responses from these two groups were, in ways, exact opposites. While 62% of architects, owners and contractors say that brand requests are frequently accepted—and another 18% say they are occasionally accepted—it was the reverse for engineers. For the engineers, only 20% said that these requests are frequently granted, while 63% state that they are occasionally accepted.

The survey further reveals that when participants were asked for reasons for brand substitution in M/E equipment (see Table 3), availability is the main reason given by the architects, owners and contractors. But M/E engineers feel that lower cost is the primary issue.

Similar results were found with regard to the factors involved in specifying and selecting equipment (see Table 4). One can see from the table that the views of engineers often contrast with their non-engineering building team colleagues. The architect, owner and contractor group tends to place greater emphasis on cost and on-time delivery, while the engineers emphasize items such as support and services from the vendors.

Engineers score pretty well in these findings but could certainly do better, particularly in improving the perception of their importance in key areas.

But what exactly can engineering firms do to increase their importance and make sure that their specifications stick? Do a better job of educating clients. “Our key strategies for educating clients are presentations and face time,” says Michael Raddon, communications coordinator for Spectrum Engineers, Salt Lake City.

Rather than champion particular equipment brands, the greatest opportunity may lie in explaining the benefits of advanced technology to a largely non-technical audience of managers. “Our strategy is to maintain clear, concise communications, without inclusion of unnecessary technical jargon, in order to translate the benefits to the client in real world examples that the client can appreciate,” says Tina Malas, marketing assistant at H.F. Lenz Company, Johnstown, Pa. The firm’s marketers take the time to understand a client’s business and how it operates. Then, they proactively involve the client in the development of appropriate solutions and help them understand how well the available alternatives satisfy the project’s own unique, prioritized set of objectives.

Buildings get sophisticated

Almost all respondents to the CSE survey feel that buildings have become more technologically sophisticated over the last five years, and most of these respondents believe that M/E engineers have played a major part in making it so. Of the non-engineering respondents, 95% say that buildings are becoming more sophisticated, while a slightly smaller percentage of engineers—91%—believe it to be the case. The slight variance is open to speculation, but one can guess that the engineers’ more advanced state of technical understanding makes them less inclined to see an increasing complexity in the technological aspects of systems. After all, they have been working closely with these systems all along.

In fact, when asked to rate the degree of responsibility that various building professionals have for making buildings more technologically sophisticated, 82% of non-engineering building professionals said that M/E engineers had a major responsibility, while 91% of the engineers came up with this response. These percentages were far above those for the owners, architects and contractors. In other words, building professionals across the board look to the engineer for advanced and sophisticated technical expertise.

Of course, consulting engineers are well aware that they are perceived as the “techies” of the industry. Many of the most successful firms report that their marketing strategies are not so much a matter of selling clients on their abilities as educating them about the technologies. Included in this approach is the need to educate in-house personnel so that they, in turn, can present to the clients. Moreover, there is the understanding of going beyond educating clients with respect to specific projects and offering them more general technical education opportunities.

“We believe that sharing knowledge with clients and peers, as well as internally with each other, to be of the utmost importance,” says Kim Gilboord, EYP Mission Critical Facilities, New York. Nancy Kristof, Swanson Rink, Denver, concurs. “All of our employees are responsible for maintaining and developing client relationships,” she says.

In the past few years, Swanson Rink has added a number of specialists in areas related to traditional mechanical and electrical engineering services—audio/video, fire alarm and life safety, lighting, security and telecommunications. “We’ve held a number of internal meetings led by these specialists to educate all of our employees about all the services we are now able to provide,” says Kristof. “This way, for instance, employees who provide mechanical services can inform a client of our availability in other disciplines, thus helping us become a full-service engineering solution to our clients.”

In addition, Swanson Rink’s marketing department has taken the initiative to set up “lunch and learn” sessions at selectively targeted firms. A marketing representative gives a general overview of all services and brings along an engineer to specifically talk about one of the firm’s areas of expertise. “We always offer to come back with an expert in one of our other areas of service if the client is interested,” Kristof explains.

Similarly, EYP Mission Critical holds two complimentary technical seminars per year, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast. “Our most recent seminar was entitled ‘New Realities in Mission Critical Facilities: Meshing High Reliability with Your Bottom Line,'” says Gilboord. “With 170 clients, prospective clients and affiliates in attendance, the day was a success and very informative, according to the [course evaluations] received.”

Jeanne Shapiro, business development manager with Syska Hennessy Group, New York, indicates that her firm uses a similar educational approach to teach clients about engineered systems. “We utilize an integrated program of client communications, including the following elements: active participation as speaker or panel moderator at targeted regional and national conferences; monthly client breakfast briefings featuring technical presentations by senior staff on trends and issues impacting specific markets (AIA members receive CEUs); a regular electronic communication program involving market specific technical newsletters sent via e-mail to clients and prospects; and regular update of technical information included on the firm’s external web site.”

But it isn’t just the largest firms that are using these strategies. Some of the smaller firms are working to educate clients as well. And some are going outside the boundaries of the building team to include code officials.

“We conduct monthly training seminars both in our offices and at remote sites for continuing education of owners, contractors and building officials,” says Todd Burgart with Fire Systems Design, Inc., Hurst, Texas. “These seminars are popular and well received by all attendees.” The classes are designed to be informative and focus on code and product training to inform attendees of industry trends, product innovations and code issues, both current and upcoming code changes.

Some engineers believe that it is important to get non-engineering professionals involved in the selection of M/E systems. According to Roubina Nalbandian with BR+A, Boston, there is a need for “more communication, more interaction. An educated client is the best client. We make clients participate in the selection of major systems. We do the work to enable their participation.”

But what happens once the client has been thoroughly educated and accepts the systems that have been specified? There are still ample opportunities for changes and substitutions to the M/E systems as specified. At this point, the question becomes one of how great a role the engineer plays in safeguarding design integrity.

Interestingly enough, according to the Role of the Building Professional survey, there is a marked contrast between the engineers and the other members of the building team regarding this issue. For architects, M/E contractors and owners as a group, 56% believe that the architect is most responsible, while 38% indicated that M/E engineers were. The engineers, however, rated themselves as much more important. Of the engineering respondents, only 38% said that the architect was most responsible for preserving design integrity, with 60% of the engineers saying that they are most responsible.

Engineering in a technical world

No matter how engineers understand their role, and how their building team colleagues see that role, one lesson to be learned is that, without a doubt, in a world of increasing technological complexity, the engineer occupies a central place in the building process. But the key is more than simple possession of technical knowledge. The engineer must convey this knowledge to owners, architects and contractors in ways that they understand.

Table 1 – Major Involvement in M/E Systems Specifications
(According to Architect, M/E Contractor and Owner Respondents)

Architect M/E Contractor M/E Engineer Owner/Developer
Write specifications 42% 22% 90% 29%
Evaluate brands and suppliers 35 33 87 36
Recommend product/system types 44 37 89 38
Specify brands and suppliers 36 32 89 34
Propose brand substitution 22 71 61 27
Approve brand substitution 42 22 87 53
Preserve design requirements 59 31 87 37
Run feasibility studies on equipment 19 29 80 18
Are responsible for system design 37 32 95 19

Table 2 – Average Percentage of Project Types Where
Mechanical/Electrical Equipment was Installed as Specified

Architect, M/E Contractor, Owner/Developer Respondents M/E Engineer Respondents
Commercial 86% 84%
Industrial 87 88
Institutional 89 85

Table 3 – Reasons for Brand Substitution for M/E Equipment

Architect M/E Contractor Owner/Developer Respondents M/E Engineer Respondents
Availability 73% 61%
Lower cost 66 76
New/improved product after specification 40 34
Change in supplier preference 39 39
Energy saving/lower life-cycle cost consideration 38 26
Redesign of systems, requiring other equipment 35 27
Lower first bid from company not originally approved 31 37
Existing supplier relationship 29 37
Change in code or government regulation 20 11
Change in technical standard in industry 19 13
Liability considerations 4 4

Table 4 – Important Factors in Selecting One Equipment Manufacturer Over Another

Architect M/E Contractor Owner/Developer Respondents M/E Engineer Respondents
Suitability of product for project 97% 97%
Design, materials and workmanship of product 94 93
Performance history of similar equipment 93 95
Manufacturer’s reputation 87 90
Manufacturer’s reputation for complying with specs set for product/project 86 86
Cost in relation to quality 84 68
On-time delivery of product 83 66
Availability of engineering data on product 76 88
Product certification by third party 69 78
Local supplier/rep’s reputation 62 65
Manufacturer’s sales support 57 71