The Evolving Engineer

How important is the consulting engineer to the building team? In the 1970s, a typical reply probably would have been somewhat important. However, if one were to ask this question in the year 2001, a more likely response is very important.Yes, it's true.

By Barbara Horwitz, Associate Editor January 1, 2001

How important is the consulting engineer to the building team? In the 1970s, a typical reply probably would have been somewhat important . However, if one were to ask this question in the year 2001, a more likely response is very important .

Yes, it’s true. Engineers have largely triumphed in proving their worth and value within the dynamic world of building systems, project meetings, code inspections and energy efficiency.

But just how have consultants managed to boost their role and influence in the building process? What major challenges still loom large for mechanical and electrical engineers? And what lies ahead for the ever-evolving engineer?

With more than 160 years of combined experience in the industry, six Consulting-Specifying Engineer consulting editors-many of whom sit at the helm of leading M/E firms-share their thoughts.

Wielding influence

“The role and the influence of consultants has definitely increased over time because of the increasing complexity of building systems,” states Alfred R. Borden IV, IALD, president of The Lighting Practice, Philadelphia. Whereas the architect used to pen a good deal of a facility’s design, the technical sophistication of building systems has made the engineer’s services much more needed and appreciated, he explains.

Raj Gupta, P.E., president of Environmental Systems Design, Chicago, agrees. “The focus used to be more on aesthetics, but now there is more of an emphasis on the infrastructure. Now engineers are brought on board at the same time, or even before the architect.”

So instead of dominating a building’s design process, an architect may merely produce an artistic vision of how the structure and image are to take shape and how the space should lay out, and then rely on specialty consultants to fill out that vision with the systems to make it work, continues Borden.

According to Norman Kurtz, P.E., president and CEO of Flack & Kurtz, New York, the professional engineer is now enjoying the spotlight more as a result of three major trends spanning the last three decades.

“With the advent of energy conservation in the ’70s, everybody was desperately looking for expertise to deal with energy shortages and enormous spikes in energy costs. Then the advent of intelligent buildings flowed through the ’80s. That set the stage for IT [information technology] dependence and the need for a building’s infrastructure to be high-performing and reliable,” Kurtz explains.

The third trend has been sustainable design in the 1990s, which is essentially the energy conservation from the 1970s now in a green wrapper, he says. “This whole chronology has raised the importance of the M/E engineer in the building team.”

Noted achievements

Dovetailing with the engineer’s increasing role have been many achievements of note. Frank Valvoda, P.E., an independent consultant based in Berwyn, Ill., lists some of the major accomplishments of the engineering community, such as the improved utilization of electrical capacity, a greater understanding of the environmental factors that influence M/E systems and a better adaptation of M/E products and methods.

For example, innovative products-variable-air-volume controllers and building-automation systems-were introduced by engineers 20 or 30 years ago and are now standard in facilities. “A lot of product development has come from the suggestions of consulting engineers,” says John F. Hennessy III, P.E., chairman and CEO of Syska & Hennessy, New York.

Even though Hennessy parts from his colleagues, postulating that the role and influence of the consulting engineer has in fact decreased over the past 20 years due to the rise of the construction manager’s influence, he also says that this is beginning to change. Similar to how engineers spur product development, Hennessy points out that they are also indispensable when it comes to figuring out solutions to problems.

At the same time, Hennessy and Valvoda both say that an engineer’s innovative design may often be compromised when it gets into the hands of the budget-conscious construction manager, especially in design-build projects. In such cases, the engineer is put on the defensive, and it becomes very difficult to influence the owner.

Another increasingly difficult challenge facing the engineering industry today is the warp-speed pace at which consultants are expected to whip out facility designs.

“For some reason, the amount of time to complete a project-especially in the design phase-has shrunk to a ridiculously small amount of time, less than half of what it once was, and things are more complex,” says Borden. “To have fresh ideas, be thorough and do it at lightning speed is very difficult.”

As a result, engineers have often been forced to crank out lots or “ordinary engineering,” according to Kurtz. “People think that the architect waves a wand and then the builder builds it. They don’t understand that, in between, we have a tremendous amount of work to do.”

The “now” syndrome

Along with the tighter time constraints, engineers are also being forced to deal with unprecedentedly high client expectations. “Nowadays, clients will send an e-mail and then call in five minutes expecting an answer,” explains Martin H. “Mickey” Reiss, P.E., president of Rolf Jensen & Associates in Framingham, Mass.

Similarly, Kurtz notes, “Everybody is under this huge pressure to constantly respond to requests. There is no time to think.”

According to Reiss, it is critical for a firm to buffer its engineers from job-related stress and intensity of project-delivery time pressures. “The capital of the firm is the knowledge of your people, so you have to protect your people, provide the environment they need and make sure they don’t burn out,” he explains. “This may even mean saying no to a client.”

Another flaw in the process is that end-users often fail to give engineers credit when designs are executed successfully. “M/E/P engineers make a building live and breathe, but our work is really only evident by its flaws. Therefore, people only notice when things aren’t working right,” Hennessy points out.

Hennessy also says that because every building is a prototype, one would think that logically, many more problems should be occurring. The fact that such glitches are relatively few and far between is evidence of a good design and consultants really must take the credit.

Educating the client

However, the question remains: What can engineers do to facilitate better relationships with their clients and help them better understand all that’s involved in delivering a successful project?

In Kurtz’s opinion, the best approach is to educate clients as to why a certain amount of lead time is necessary for executing a high-quality design. In addition, he says it is important to avoid using too much lingo and instead communicate in a way that the client will be able to understand.

“You have to speak in the owner’s language,” says Hennessy. This means emphasizing what a system will do-the time, money and energy it will save-as opposed to getting caught up in the technical jargon of how the system is designed, he explains.

Because engineers bring much value to projects through their unique ability to analyze a number of different alternatives and come up with the best one, it is crucial to also have the skills to communicate this information, Gupta points out.

Maxing out

The good news is that engineers are not expecting the pace of projects to get any faster because it is not practical. Consequently, this introduces an opportunity to focus on adjusting to the current pace and learning how to manage it better.

Borden forecasts that the building process will smooth out as people get better at prioritizing, organizing and communicating. “We should see a strengthening in the teamwork approach,” he posits.

In the grand scheme of things, Kurtz envisions that the role and influence of the consulting engineer will continue to grow, but that this growth could be limited to higher-end projects. On the other hand, when it comes to run-of-the-mill, traditional buildings, Kurtz predicts that design-build will encroach upon the market, resulting in the cranking out of many low-fee designs.

Another trend, Kurtz predicts, is that larger firms will become more dominant, because the infrastructure required to run a firm-computer-aided drafting software, Internet access, project management software-is becoming so much more extensive.

“The little guy may be in trouble because it’s so expensive to be in business,” he says.

When Valvoda looks into his crystal ball, he suggests, “The future belongs to those M/E engineers who engage in community dialogue, increased involvement in professional associations and legislative action.”

At the same time, Reiss, like Borden, simply believes that engineers will continue to see more of the technological advancements that have been escorting the engineer toward a more prominent, influential role.

“As the complexity of the marketplace continues to grow, there is going to be more and more of a need for us,” Reiss concludes.