Engineering and Value

I learned a long time ago that engineering is a means to an end. The process and expression of engineering should deliver value to the client, and the end user, to create safe, serviceable, components, parts, and systems, and in many forms. Engineering is part art, part science. It becomes a way of thinking as we do the work. My familiarity is with building systems and components, building science, structural and systems engineering for buildings, and most specifically for specialty systems know as curtain walls. These systems also are described as cladding, facade, architectural components, and building envelope. I am going to break down some items and factors that I’ve found to be important in executing engineering work in the proper context. It applies to the broad categories of engineering as well as the specialties I’ve noted. Value-based engineering has these types of mindsets and expressions:

Connected: It’s connected with client. It begins with the end in mind. Work backwards from the clients goals and desires, whether labor savings, redundancy, risk mitigation, manufacturing efficiency, optimization, or all of them.

Collaborative: Create a context where we are working in a shared reality with the client. Break down barriers, seek collaborative solutions. A shared reality puts us figuratively in “the same boat” or in “each other’s shoes.”

Competent: The fundamentals have been mastered so that the principles and practices can be utilized in an increasingly elegant manner, and with confidence in the accuracy of the solutions

Codified: One must be aware of the minimum requirements as outlined in building codes, standards, or applicable governing authorities.

Communicative: Keep an ongoing dialogue with the client. Let them know what is being done, inform them of our progress. Use email, instant messaging, phone calls, virtual meetings. Clients appreciate concise, informative, ongoing feedback to support collaboration. Engineers typically struggle with the idea of need to communicate regularly and just the reality of being communicative. Communication is the differentiator.

Concise: Solutions should be understandable, able to be interpreted, and as straightforward as possible to implement.

Clear: Solutions, drawings, reports, sketches, narration, should be clear and logical, simple to understand.

There’s more to this conversation and additional categories to discuss, which I will do in future blog posts. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

Work Backwards

Clients engage design professionals for the RA or PE stamp, the expertise, the capability, or the capacity. But the value does not reside in the statutory compliance and capability. I’ve met plenty of practitioners that couldn’t engineer client-centered solutions. The reason? Well, there’s a lot of them, but I say it’s mainly from not thinking like the client; not “working backwards” from the necessary or desired solutions. The engineering supports the solution for the client, not the reverse. The engineering has to be satisfied but we have to “think backwards” from the envisioned end result to the start of the design and engineering process.

Think like clients. Think like a builder or a constructor who happens to be an engineer or architect. Get inside the mind of the builder, the glazier, the installer, the fabricator. Get into the “voice of the customer.” Listen. Respect their role. Work to solutions that are simple, sequenced, practical.

We exist for the client; their problem is our opportunity. Their complexity is our unique selling proposition. Every client and every project is unique.

Work backwards to help achieve value.

Start with Zero

When my partner and I created the business, we started on day one with zero; zero dollars, two computers, some software, two clients and two projects; one project for him and one for me. We had zero revenue but we had purchase orders. That’s what we worked with. We built systems, tools, applications, and engineered work products that brought value to clients.

Fast forward to now; 25 years later. I’m getting back to this approach; to recommitting to creating new things, new services, practices, and applications, from zero. I mean, being an entrepreneur and business builder, that’s how I started; I took an idea, made it a reality, and built something that never existed prior. That’s what happens in all new businesses in some way; something comes from nothing; from simply an idea.

So we start with zero. We start with our time, our tools, and our existing infrastructure, which is way deeper than it was 25 years ago, and we build. If you want money, you’re going to have to really give me a good reason. How about selling the service and idea to the client first and coming to me with a purchase order? That’s the ultimate litmus test; the ultimate positive ROI.

Starting with zero doesn’t mean we don’t need money. It doesn’t mean we don’t get funding at some point if there’s good reason. But it does provide better accountability around creating new things and it puts everyone in the organization on a level field.

Start with zero and validate from that point forward.

New stuff

This morning I got an email informing me that I received my Texas Professional engineering license (PE.) It’s one of 9 or 10 states that I never really pursued or needed. Previously at our company we had another TX PE, but he moved on to another firm a few months ago. I decided it would be best to maintain it myself, and get another staff member registered as well.

The timing was great. We have a Texas client now with 3 new projects. It’s interesting to me how when we pursue certain activities, as a company and as a person, when we take action, expend energy, invest, and build, that stuff happens; stuff we expect and stuff we don’t. Activity produces more activity. It’s action-reaction. And there’s collateral benefit that happens as well. People talk, things happen, lives are touched and results are produced.

It’s good to act, to invest, and to see the results. How’s that going for you? Do something new today and await the results.

Compressed construction 

I mean REALLY compressed. Rarely works.

There are many brilliantly crafted plans on paper that have no allowance for the unexpected, for supply chain issues, for unintended consequences, or poor execution by someone or some organization along the way. Plus the single biggest issue I’ve seen and experienced over and over again that leads to challenges from the outset, is simply delayed decision making, and delayed release of contracts.

Compressed construction requires concurrent, collaborative, (shared-reality) communication; cultural alignment, confidence in each other and in the enterprises involved, and it requires everyone to follow through on the decisions and tasks in their domain within the proper timelines. It can’t be done with the old “throwing it over the wall mentality.” Each decision and event is not “someone else’s problem.” It’s everyone’s problem. This teamwork is difficult to achieve and it requires commitment from all parties, and to be led by the GC or CM.

The thing that happens most often in compressed construction schedules is erosion of relationship, poor profitability, and a project that still takes the time “it needs” to take to get finished. This often results in an unhappy owner asking questions due to failed expectations vs. promised goals and deliverables.

I’ll offer some solutions and suggestions on a future blog.

Solution Sets 

Schedule & budget are also determining factors in a solution set and in providing problem solving and deliverables to clients. It’s not “provide solutions at any cost and for as much time as they take.” Also speed of response, speed of performance, and prompt project delivery almost always win, and are typically the top or near the top priority for clients.

It’s hard as technical professionals sometimes to consider budget and schedule as equal variables or boundary conditions with other more direct technical issues.

We’ve got to ask ourselves “how can I get this done in the allotted time frame and budget” and use that as part of the boundary conditions around the solution and deliverable.

When we do this on every project and task within the project, it mitigates loss, makes the potentially marginal job profitable, and makes the good one really great.

Every person, on every team, at every level should have this reality in mind. They should be accountable, and also empowered, to call timeout and to take action with the project leaders and principals.

And it means not being a slave to the defined technical and software processes when there’s an issue slowing us down. Remember, procedure and technical tools are supposed to serve us, not the opposite. These days that often gets reversed, spending more time on the process and software functionality than we spend on the problem or creative aspect of the solution.

Provide serviceable solutions while staying in business.

Panels, Panels, Panels

L/60

L/120

L/175

L/180

No deflection limit?

Stress only?

Center of panel ?

Gross or net?

What about the stiffener itself?

Why the inconsistency in metal panel deflection criteria? Is it a lack of understanding on the part of specifier’s? Is there no cohesion or clarity in the panel industry? Not a clear standard? All of the above? I have my viewpoint, but I’ll be silent on that for the moment.

I’ve performed deflection and stress calculations on thousands of panels and hundreds of jobs. Allowable deflection criteria changes on a job by job basis depending on the specifier, consultant, or architect. There’s no need to have a subjective performance standard.

A panel is a flexible membrane element. It’s not stiff like glass; it’s not brittle like stone.  It takes multiple forms. It’s an infill element in a curtain wall across a pressure gradient. It’s a pressure equalized panel in a spandrel cavity. It’s a rain-screen panel over a stud wall. It’s formed, bent, part of a sunshade or louver. It’s a soffit panel or fascia. It’s composite ACM, sheet, plate, perforated, aluminum, stainless, copper. Panels take many forms.

Whatever form it takes as a facade element in the enclosure, AAMA (the American Aluminum Manufacturers Association) calls for a deflection limit of L/60 for panels under pressure (glazed-in panels or across pressure gradient.) This is the correct standard and most balanced with stress considerations for panels under load. However, some manufacturers, installers, and facade engineers don’t even want to recognize deflection as a criteria. They only want to consider stress. This is a worthy debate.

For sheet and plate that is 4mm, 6mm, 1/8″ or thicker , or gauged stainless steel, we should establish and support a consistent standard of L/60 for panel deflection.  I’ve never seen a metal panel fail at a Mock-Up or on a Project due to deflection issues if stress is within allowable limits and L/60 is used as a criteria. Just be mindful of the context (like all design considerations.)

Certainly there may be contexts where a panel should have a smaller deflection limitation, but this should only matter if it’s at a seal line or adjacent element could be jeopardized due to a typical deflection. Design professionals making subjective decisions based on lack of knowledge or fear, creates conflict and difficulty for panel manufacturers, engineers, and others that support the facade industry.

I’d like to hear from others in the industry.

A Tale of Client Acquisition

Tami: “John there’s a message on your desk from a contractor. They are looking for some documents from us from 2007. The GSU job.”

Me (not enthused): “GSU? Hmm. Let me check this out and see what he wants. I’ll call him back when I can get to it. We’ll have to get the archive company to pull the boxes and deliver to the office.”

Next day:

Tami: “John there’s a gentlemen on the line. He’s a glazing subcontractor. He’s calling about the GSU project.”

Me (slightly more interested): “OK. Thanks.”  “Hello, this is John. How may I help you?”

Glazing Sub: “I’m looking for some reference material; some calculations on the GSU project. We are removing 12 lites of glass to make way for a new bridge connection and integration of its new enclosure. The GC said that you had done some work on the project.”

Me(eyebrow raised): “Interesting; Are you doing both the demo/removal and the new cladding for the bridge?”

Glazing sub: “Nope. We are just preparing the opening.”

Me: “Hm. That sounds like a potential coordination issue. That’s a unitized curtain wall on the existing building. What is it that you need?”

Glazing sub: “I need the calculations so I can get them to an engineer to provide some anchor design and sketches for us. I need to know how to hold the remaining wall in place.”

Me: “We are an engineering firm and I was the engineer of record for the job for XXXX (no names) Glass in 2007. Have you secured someone to do the work?”

Glazing sub (future client): “Not really. I mean, I have a guy that can do it, but it’s not 100%.”

Me: “Well would you be interested in working with us? I mean, we do this stuff. I’ll send you our electronic services catalogue. I’ll include my contact information. If you’re interested, and can send me the scope of work, I can review it and see what you need. I’ll let you know what we can do, and I’ll provide a quotation. Does that work for you? What is your email address?”

Glazing Sub (interested); “Yes. That could work. It’s xxxx@xxxx.com. Thanks. Send me your stuff and I’ll send the architectural drawings to you.”

Me: “Where are you all located? ”

Glazing Sub; “Oh, we’re in North Carolina.”

Me: “Really? We have a North Carolina office and business. Do you have a need for these kinds of services on a regular basis?”

GS; “Yes actually, we do. We may need to have you guys in our system. When you forward me your info, I’ll share it with other folks here.”

Me: “Thank you. I’ll send it right over.”

Email is sent, info shared, scope of work document received, cursory reviewed. Next day; new phone call:

Me: “So describe to me again in more detail what you intend to do.”

GS: “We want to anchor above and below at the wall that remains, prior to removing the curtain wall between. We will need to have an anchor at the bottom of the top unit, and the top of the bottom unit.”

Me: “I hear you. Let me do some more digging. I think it would make sense for us to do this work for you if the scope and fee is aligned with your expectation. We know this building and the curtain wall details. Did you include budget for engineering?”

GS: “Yes we did. Any idea what you would charge for something like this?”

Me: “Hmm. Good question. Often times this type of work will be in the $2,500 range, but there is no guarantee. I can better define the fee once I dig into it.”

GS: “John, if you get me a proposal in that fee range I’ll sign it, get you a purchase order, and get you in our system. I’ll have our admin send you our information. In the meantime, we will need a W-9, certificate of insurance, and other information to get you all set-up.”

Me: “Got it. Let me get that in motion on my end.”

The next day, I review the information, pull the drawings and calculations. I know this location exactly; this 6-unit wide “notch” area in a nook of the building. There’s now a bridge intersecting it. The architectural drawings reveal incomplete detail and vague concepts at the wall system that is being removed. As I review, it becomes clear that there is much more time involved than what I outlined on the phone. I place a call.

Me: “Hey Mr. Client, hows it going? Well, there’s much more here than meets the eye and now we’ve both got quite a bit of time invested in this process. The slabs are variable depth across the three units between L5 and L6 that are being removed. The top unit is being removed right at the stack joint. Every anchor is a dead-load anchor at the floor line. The top anchor will now be exposed to the interior of the building since the stack is right in line with the top of slab. If not, there will have to be some type of mullion extension to reach the face of slab. It’ll have to stab up inside the cavity of the vertical mullion if that’s the case. The top of the bottom unit is cut at an intermediate horizontal. The verticals run-through. It’s now gonna hang  three feet below the slab. It might have to be dead-load anchored with a kicker or supplemental piece of steel spanning across the opening because there is nothing there to which we can attach. If it’s steel or a kicker, that will mean post-installed embed plates to the bottom of slab to support the steel and then some kind of knife plate or duplication of the prior anchor to the steel. Plus, the mullions will have to extend through where glass is being removed and project upwards in order to provide an anchor surface to which we can attach. We also have to re-analyze the mullions to get new reactions. Now there are two jambs with different loads as well. All the mullions are two piece assemblies. We have to check stress and deflection of the four vertical mullions remaining across the opening, define the anchor loads, and then sketch anchor concepts. This will be iterative. I can’t do it for the fee I outlined. Is that a going to be an issue?”

GS: ” Well John, I’ll be honest; I’ve got about $6,400 in this engineering budget. Can you keep it around or within that number?”

Me: “Well thanks for sharing that info. That sure makes the conversation much easier. I think I can do it for a little less. I’m in the $5,600 range right now in my tasking. That would leave some margin in the event there’s something unexpected.”

GS: “That works. Get it to me and I’ll have a P.O. in your hands by the end of the day, or 1st thing tomorrow. Can you start immediately?”

Me: “I can start next Monday (three days later) and get an engineer on it full-time.”

GS: “That works. This will be good. We are looking forward to working with you. Glad we made the connection. Thanks for taking care of us.”

Me: “It’s my pleasure. I had no idea you all existed. Shows me that no matter how much I think I know about the market, there’s always a potential client out there that has a need that we know nothing about. I’ll get that proposal to you by the end of the day.”

My take-away?

A simple phone message that I didn’t follow through on right away becomes a new client, a new project, a new relationship, a need to service, a problem to solve, a monetized activity, a collaboration, a possible future together B2B.

So……

Never take anything for granted.

Create a dialogue

Tell a story

Connect the dots

Speak from a platform on knowledge and understanding

Be clear, be concise, listen, understand

Take it one step at a time

Be humble

Enjoy the process

Curtain wall Engineering

Curtain Wall structural engineering, often referred to as “providing calcs” or “doing calculations” is far more. I started as a structural engineer in the cladding and curtain wall field in 1984 and I’ve been involved ever since, focusing on facades in total, expanding from structural engineering outward to all aspects of exterior wall systems.

Providing curtain wall structural engineering “calculations” vs. providing value-based structural and systems engineering are related, but are two different things. Properly performed, value-based structural engineering of curtain wall systems involves optimizing metal, assessing viability and ease of installation, looking for benefits in system performance that can save installer’s and fabricator’s time and money, minimize risk and more. “Good” structural engineering involves more than cranking out a set of calculations from a set of shop drawings. The work should be collaborative (there I go again with the collaboration theme) and if properly done, can save many times more than the cost of the fee. I can name many examples where clients saved tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars in material, in shop and field labor, in shipping, project management time, and more. I also want to point out that minimizing risk and providing thorough, vetted, experienced, due diligence structural engineering pays dividends down the road, which lowers insurance costs, improves performance, and makes a subcontractor’s or fabricator’s work and business more desirable and profitable.

I’ve got buckets and chapters and truckloads more of observations, experiences, insights and technical inputs to write about in subsequent discussions and blogs on this topic. Remember, never did such a “small” line item in a bid, have such a broad impact as design and engineering. It is the point through which all other work flows and takes place. “Good engineering” can make a job better. “Bad engineering” can break the job beyond the point of repair.

For now, choose your engineering firm wisely, and be collaborative.