What makes a good engineer?

What makes a good engineer?

So what does make a good engineer? Well, first of all, let’s get the term engineer right.  In this instance, we’re talking chiefly about a structural engineer. (Although much of what’s discussed here will apply equally to civil, mechanical, hydraulic, and electrical engineers). An engineer is not a software programmer.  Nor an air-conditioner repairman.  And not a guy in overalls shovelling coal into the locomotive’s boiler.  In very broad and crude terms – and certainly for the purposes of this little article – a structural engineer is someone who makes buildings stand up.

Of course, a “good engineer” means different things to different people. To an architect, a good engineer might be one who understands their objectives and strives for structural solutions that won’t compromise the desired form or aesthetic. To a builder, a good engineer might be one who better understands how construction elements fit together and who appreciates the sequencing (and hard work) that is often required to build in three dimensions what the engineer so conveniently sketched in two dimensions. And, to a developer, a good engineer might be one who conceives a cheap, no-frills design that can be costed and built with a minimum of co-ordination and detailing.

The problem, naturally, is that you can’t be all things to all people. There is conflict even within just the three examples outlined above: After all, the cheap, no-frills solution that satisfies the developer is unlikely to please the architect.  And the ornate, tricky, and highly detailed solution requiring extreme planning, workmanship, and co-ordination on site might please the architect but not the builder.   It’s a challenge for everyone.  With all that in mind, how do you choose an engineer?

Today’s structural engineer needs to have a few tricks up their sleeve and more than a few strings to their bow. Of course, it goes without saying that an effective and successful engineer has to be good at maths. But maths alone does not a good engineer make!  Solving quadratic equations in your head and successfully deriving stress diagrams is all good and well, but if you can’t communicate effectively with a builder or come up with a helpful solution for an architect, then – to be frank – you ain’t much use at the coalface!

So what are the attributes of a good engineer, and what skills make an engineer effective?  Here are five key indicators…

1. Creativity

One of the biggest injustices against the engineering profession is that many clients and industry people view their engineer as just a commodity.  To some people, structural engineering is merely just a basic service that they think is uniform and homogenous across the board, no matter which engineer they turn to or engage.  The inference is that all engineers are equal and will come up with the same solution or design for a given problem. Needless to say, such thinking is exceptionally flawed.  Oils ain’t oils.

Without wanting to step into politically incorrect territory or make gross generalisations (or feed a stereotype!) most engineers are left-brained; that is, that category of person who is analytical, logical, mathematical, and thinks linearly. That’s in contrast to right-brained people whose thinking is more imaginative, visualised, artistic, and creative.

Engineering study and tertiary training is geared towards maths and optimising, and the profession itself tends to attract (some would say “self-selects”) left-brained individuals. From the earliest days of university, engineering students have it drummed into them to make it “efficient”, “optimal” or “economical”.  No one likes fat in their design, but it follows that putting the blinkers on and merely striving for efficiency tends to stifle creativity, artistic endeavour, and the ability to conceive multiple or sensible solutions.  As a good example, consider being tasked with an “alterations and additions” project for a house. Imagine you have to design a lintel beam over a new opening that will be cut into a single skin, brickwork partition wall, in order to create a more open-plan living space between the kitchen and dining area. Too many engineers burn energy, time, (and fees!) refining their design down and satisfying themselves that they got a 200UB25 to work instead of a 250UB31…only to completely overlook that the flange widths of either solution is wider than the 110mm brick wall that the beam lands on and is replacing! The flanges will thus stick out into the habitable and visible space!  The solution is efficient, but entirely inappropriate.

No, a good engineer is one who can think non-linearly. One who can see outside the bounds of the immediate issue and navigate their way through problems…not just deriving solutions, but identifying alternatives and having “big picture” vision. They view and explore how their solution fits in with other project parameters (e.g. aesthetic, budget, compatibility), rather than merely focus on getting their solution to stand up. In short, good engineers are those with a good dose of “right brain” to complement and expand their analytical skills. Make no mistake: The profession needs both left and right-brained individuals – but the good ones are those that can draw on both traits.

Consultants around the design table

Be creative at the design stage. The engineer can contribute far more to the discussion than just the nuts and bolts.

2. Communication

Almost every job position advertisement in any profession will say “Good communication skills essential” but what does this really mean for an engineer? A good command of written English goes a long way. Today’s engineer is required to write all manner of reports and instructions, e.g. Inspection Reports, Defect Reports, Expert Witness Reports, Site Instructions, and to make recommendations and conclusions.  Nine times out of ten, these will be read by laypeople or clients unfamiliar with the lingo and the significance of “bending moments” or “shear stresses”. Furthermore, much of the design, co-ordination and documentation process on a project these days is handled via email.  (Everyone seems so reluctant to pick up the phone and talk these days!) Thus, being able to express yourself and communicate clearly and concisely in written form is paramount.

3. Availability, Timeliness, and Responsiveness

Are these really skills, or are they simply just good manners and common courtesy?  One of the biggest complaints commonly levelled at engineers is that they’re all “too busy.” “She never gets back to me.” – “He takes forever to respond.” – “She never answers her phone”, and words to the effect of, “I gave him the drawings three weeks ago and I’m still waiting for his design!”.  Time is money, and never were truer words spoken than on a building site. If a builder is chasing you for a detail, a sketch, or an instruction, then an engineer’s lack of willingness to respond in a timely fashion can cause real headaches and significant time delays and costs.

For the most part, engineering consultancies are time-charge businesses. People pay you for your time…the corresponding part of the contract is that you give it to them.

4. Be pro-active

Most people tend to fall into one of two categories, either passive/responsive or pro-active. And engineers are no different! The passive engineer is one who only responds when asked or prompted to. One who does the bare minimum to respond to the request or the project brief. In contrast, the pro-active engineer is on the front foot and steers the process, rather than reacts to it. Sound scary? Relax, it’s actually not difficult: Offer solutions unprompted; help and assist in areas outside the immediate brief or focus; go the extra mile by not just explaining your solution over the phone to the architect, but prepare an illustrative sketch as well.

As an example, an engineer might be asked to advise how deep the floor joists will be for a new bathroom in a proposed house renovation project. An average engineer will simply look at the most efficient span direction and supply a minimum joist size. However, a good engineer won’t just respond with the required timber size; he or she will look at both directions and go on to prompt and suggest the best orientation of the joists so that plumbing and services can more easily be run through the floor.  S/he’ll suggest setting down the joists to give a flush floor at the threshold once you’ve allowed for tiles and a grout bed, yet still ensure the joists’ depth doesn’t exceed the allowable floor zone. S/he’ll suggest both natural timber and engineered timber solutions (e.g. pine versus LVL) so that the builder can choose the optimal product based on cost, availability, and ease of use on site. S/he’ll think to ask if the client is contemplating an oversized bath or spa and then design or position stronger joists to cope with the additional load. S/he’ll think to note where the floor wastes are and check that there’s still room to accommodate the necessary falls. If there’s a problem with what’s proposed, s/he’ll alert the architect during the design phase, rather than just assume the builder will “work it out on site”.

On almost every project and for almost every building element – be it the basement retaining wall; the concrete columns; the beam over the driveway; the façade wall system; the roof framing; and the layout and selection of the floor system – there is opportunity for a good engineer to not just satisfy the requirements for strength and deflection, but to pro-actively conceive and suggest details, enhancements, and additions that will improve the design’s response to the architecture or assist the builder in his task.

Make suggestions at the design table; offer up sketches and alternative ideas; lend a hand to the steel fixer; forward the drawings on to all parties instead of just assuming the project manager will do it for you; and be a positive contributor to the project team. Think about the end user and how your solution might impact the owner or occupant of the structure in 10 years’ time. It’s called being a good engineer.

A good engineer on site with a builder

 Engineer + Architect + Builder = Team 

5. Don’t be the “no” guy.

Engineers have a reputation for being inflexible and unwilling to bend or amend their designs. Or, when asked for their opinion on an ambitious proposal, to boldly claim, “No, that won’t work” or “Sorry, you can’t do that.” Sometimes, it’s easy to just say no. This might be to save yourself some long and tedious calculations, or – if we’re honest – it might be because we don’t know the answer or how to go about it.

When it comes to the design and construction of buildings, engineers chiefly concern themselves with just three simple things: Strengthdeflection, and durability. In other words:

  • It has to be strong enough so that it stands up and won’t collapse or blow over.
  • It has to be stiff enough so that it won’t droop, sag, or vibrate.
  • It has to continue to do both these things for (say) 50 years without compromising its form and performance, or require expensive maintenance along the way.

In the design process, particularly during discussions with the architect or the builder, engineers have many questions and challenges thrown at them that might compromise the structure’s ability to satisfy the above three requirements.  On a daily basis, we’ll be hit with questions like:

  • Can we use brick instead of reinforced, core-filled block?
  • Can we use a different type of concrete?
  • Can we put the column here instead of there?
  • Can we site-weld the connection instead of bolting it?
  • Can we use this beam instead of that beam?
  • And – most commonly of all – “Can you make it smaller?”

Admittedly, it’s tempting to just say “no”. You’ve done the design; you’ve done your calculations; you’ve optimised your solution so that there’s no fat left in it to trim; and you feel you’ve completed and delivered the brief.  Job done, right? But this is where it comes back to the first item we discussed: Being creative and being both willing and able to see and think “big picture”.  There will no doubt be other criteria and requirements for the element in question that go beyond your own involvement and contribution. What about the architect’s vision and preferred aesthetic? (Have you specified something that’s out-of-tune with the architectural theme, or is just plain ugly?) What about the builder’s ability to deliver it? (Have you chosen and specified a product that has a long lead time and might delay the build? Or have you specified the most expensive product when a significantly cheaper alternative might be just as suitable for the task?)

Don’t default to “no”. Sure, at times, you’ll have to dig your heels in and stand firm. Just don’t let “no” become your first-choice response. Be open to suggestions; be willing to question or review your design; don’t be afraid to ask “why?”, and – whatever you do – don’t arrogantly assume that the architect or builder doesn’t understand the problem or appreciate the structural mechanics at play.

A design meeting with architects and engineers

What can you bring to the table at the design and co-ordination phase that will make the architect’s life easier?

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There are obviously plenty of other traits and examples – all of them valid and no doubt applicable across other professions, too. The key is to remember your role in the project and the process: You’re an engineering consultant. You’re being consulted for your expertise and skills, and you’re being paid to enhance the project. If you pay respect to what that means and requires of you, you’ll find respect is paid back. And you’re being a good engineer.


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