Professional Development: Aren’t All Structural Engineers The Same?

By William C. Sherman, P.E. and Jay K. Stressel, P.E.
Published in the July 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

For many facility executives, responsibility for the structural design is viewed as a detail better left to the architect. Although several architects do provide great input, to avoid false assumptions and expectations, facilities professionals should become more familiar with what they are paying for when hiring a structural engineer. The following Q&A should clarify the process for anyone confused or overwhelmed by the task.

Why do engineering services fees vary between consultants? Why shouldn’t I have engineers “bid” to perform design work? Engineering fees generally represent a small percentage of total project cost, and spending a little more on engineering could save much more over the life of the project. In fact, a low bid could cost facility managers more in the long run.

When an engineer agrees to accept a reduced budget, corners will likely need to be cut to complete the design. The engineer generally will seek cost-effective solutions, but one way to reduce design costs is to minimize evaluation of cost-reducing alternatives.

With a better design budget, the engineer can take more time to seek appropriate and cost-effective solutions. Services can differ between consultants providing engineering services.

I plan to hire a structural engineer licensed in my state. Does that mean the engineer is qualified? Maybe. Licensing requirements vary from state to state, and some states only provide a license for a “professional engineer” (P.E.) without definition as to discipline or specific experience. Other states have special licenses or titles for “structural engineers” (S.E.) which may require the engineer to document structural background or knowledge in greater detail. Where there is separate licensure, some structures may be permitted to be designed by civil engineers, and other structures may require design by a licensed structural engineer.

The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) administers two exams directed toward structural engineering: the Structural I exam and the Structural II exam, with the latter intended as a more in-depth examination of structural knowledge. A separate entity, the Structural Engineering Certification Board (SECB), was recently formed to issue certifications to structural engineers independent of the state licensing system. These programs can help a facility manager confirm whether or not a structural engineer has appropriate education and knowledge, especially in states that do not have separate licensing of structural engineers.

Since engineers must perform to the “standard of care,” does it really make a difference whom I hire as long as he or she is licensed? The answer is a definite yes. The knowledge and experience of the structural engineer relating to a specific type of work can vary considerably.

Like doctors, structural engineers can specialize in many areas. In other words, a foot doctor shouldn’t be hired to perform heart surgery. Furthermore, the levels of skill in design may vary depending on building type, height, complexity, and location. And some structural engineers may have more experience in extreme regional environmental conditions such as hurricane winds, snow, or seismic loads.

A more experienced engineer can quickly identify problems in a design that an inexperienced engineer may miss. A firm specializing in a client’s specific needs will already have the knowledge and design processes in place to work efficiently. Its structural engineers should have a better understanding of current building codes and updates. This could save money and valuable construction time equating to fewer change orders.

Facility managers should request a statement of qualifications or a resume from the engineer proposed to provide the structural engineering services. Verification of experience and knowledge is key to assuring clients receive the level of service they expect for the fee they are willing to pay.

Doesn’t the standard of care have to address Quality Assurance/Quality Control (QA/QC) requirements? Not really. There are no legally binding industry standards that clearly define these requirements. However, there are some non-mandatory guidelines available.

The publication, Quality in the Constructed Project by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) discusses the importance of communications between the owner, the engineer, and the contractor, from planning stages to completion of construction, to obtain the desired quality. Also, the Council of American Structural Engineers (CASE), a subsidiary of the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC), has produced a document entitled “A Guideline Addressing Coordination and Completeness of Structural Construction Documents” (CASE Document 962D), which provides recommendations for production of quality structural drawings and specifications.

Don’t all structural engineers check their designs? Otherwise, structures would be collapsing regularly! The reality is, checking procedures can vary considerably between consultants. Not all structures are fully loaded to their design level, and applied safety factors minimize the frequency of failures. But failures are not that uncommon when maximum loading events occur, such as structural damage after peak wind or seismic events. Having defined QA procedures, such as detailed design checking requirements, can reduce the likelihood of structural damage due to such loads. Procedures for cross-checking of interdisciplinary drawings can also reduce field construction problems and related costly change orders.

Why do some structural engineers want to stay involved in the project even after the design is finished? Although the primary engineering effort is in performing calculations and developing construction drawings and specifications, the engineer’s responsibilities generally will continue throughout construction, as agreed to by contract. Questions come up during construction that require engineering input, and the structural engineer can help ensure that the structure is built in accordance with the design depicted on the drawings and in the specifications.

Such involvement can help ensure that money spent for the design doesn’t go to waste because the work in the field wasn’t done well. Facility managers at least need to identify who checks what during construction. Be wary of allowing an architect to check structural detail compliance or rebar placement. If a client is paying a structural firm QA fees, that firm should be the one checking for compliance, not the architect.

Won’t such experience levels and QA/QC procedures cost more money? Yes and no. The fee for engineering services may, in fact, be higher when such factors are emphasized. But the long-term costs may be lower and translate into fewer construction changes, fewer maintenance problems, and more durable structures.

Simply requiring a P.E. seal and relying on the “standard of care” may not result in the best product in the long term. Experience levels and quality assurance procedures should be discussed when negotiating an engineering services agreement.

Sherman has more than 30 years of structural engineering experience and is a registered professional engineer in 13 states. He is currently employed by CH2M Hill in its Denver, CO office as the Structural Technology Discipline Leader for the Civil/Federal Engineering Design Group. Stressel has more than 15 years of structural engineering experience and is currently employed by Memphis, Light, Gas, and Water Division in Memphis, TN, in the Facilities & Loss Prevention Department, as lead engineer and project manager over facilities capital improvement projects.