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How To Pick Your Structural Engineer

I am always surprised how owners select the structural engineer for a project. 

Very often the selection is based on a long-standing, trust-worthy relationship.  This approach is most similar to the selection of an attorney, accountant or other professional service.  The personal relationship remains a valid way to approach the engineering selection process.

However, recent trends have shown owners selecting engineers for all the wrong reasons.  Such bad reasons include a lack understanding the role of the engineer, lack of understanding the service is not the just the drawings but the process, and of course low price alone.

Another common selection criterion would be picking an engineer based on building end use and market.  I maintain that an owner should look at their potential project by stripping off the cladding and removing the interiors and the evaluating what remains.  What owners will see is a superstructure based on a given structural material arranged and connected in a unique way.  If the owner could then envision what is buried underneath he would see another unique assembly of structural elements that has very little to do with end use of the building.

The structural engineer works in a world of mathematics which delivers the needed end use criteria, as defined by the owner and architect.  But the engineer evaluates the building in terms of stress and strain, using processes that are almost undefinable to an owner, but are independent of the end use.  Owners probably should not even care, except when they need to select a structural engineer.

In the practice of structural engineering seismic codes have exploded in complexity and wind building codes are doing the same thing.  The recent bridge collapse in Minnesota is a good example of what can happen in even the most a basic structure when engineering fundamentals get overlooked.  All of these trends are occurring while there is constant pressure to reduce engineering fees and there is an increasing shortage of qualified engineers.

So what is an owner to do?

My recommendation is to look for engineers that are:

  1. Process driven…this engineers the latest in technology and specifications to deliver time and material savings to the owner.
  2. Material driven…that is engineers that have specialized in the application of specific systems such as tilt-up concrete, long span structure deep foundations, post-tensioned concrete etc, but not the end use categories such as schools, retail etc.
  3. Staffing…does the firm have the ability to follow through and get it done.  With the increasing shortage of structural engineers this is a real problem for firms of all sizes.
  4. Financial ability - does the firm have the ability for the long haul?  Do they have appropriate insure back-up?  Will they be around in five or ten years when the str4ucre needs to be expanded.
  5. Innovation…does the firm offer options on building systems construction delivery methods such as design-build?  Is the firm responsive to owners while being realistic in what can be achieved?

From this list you can see selecting an engineer is not easy.  There is tremendous hidden value (and cost) in making the right (or wrong) decision.  So owners should take a deliberate and thoughtful approach.

(Look for our case study on the xyz project)

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