Review Category : CASE Business Practices

The Importance of Project Management

Structural engineers take classes in calculus, physics, statics, mechanics, structural analysis, and structural design during their undergraduate years. In graduate school, they take courses in structural dynamics, earthquake engineering, advanced structural analysis, and advanced structural design. In theory, with this knowledge, the newly minted graduates are ready to make the transition from academia to the realities of working in an engineering firm.

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Structural engineers of record (SER) are always under some external pressure on projects. Is there enough fee? Is there enough time to complete the work? Is the project becoming more difficult and complex because of bad decisions made without SER input? Are the Owner’s expectations unrealistic? Is there scope creep because other team members are passing the buck?

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Indemnification clauses are the number one source of problems in contracts for professional services. Structural engineers are frequently presented with very one-sided contracts drafted by their Client’s attorney, who may not understand contracting for design professional services or merely wishes to maximize the contractual benefits for the Client. These contracts may contain an indemnification clause like this (real) one:

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Our everyday lives are fraught with elements of risk – driving our children to school or ourselves to work, walking on the sidewalk, or even the public places we frequent. As practicing structural engineers, we deal with risk every day. The nature of our profession is to utilize our understanding of risk and mitigate it based on our experience, knowledge, and mastery of science and engineering principles. We design structures and structural systems that provide for the public welfare (safety) as well as achieving the functional and financial goals of our clients.

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Most structural engineers understand that they should perform their engineering services with no less than the skill customarily exercised by other structural engineers in similar circumstances. Most likely, their employer or a colleague told them so at some point in their early careers, or they overheard other engineers discussing the issue in the context of a legal action.

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How CASE Can Help Resolve the Friend or Foe Dichotomy

Throughout history groups of people have created organizations to improve the lot of the members of the group and of society at large. Factors that triggered the formation of such organizations vary. The medieval guilds were a response to the need to maintain a competitive edge and quality standards in the face of competition facilitated by increasing mobility within Europe.

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I had a conversation with a colleague recently while developing a fee proposal for a seismic project which was to use a national structural engineering seismic standard. Our discussion eventually got around to that often repeated question, “why are these provisions so constraining, rigid and detailed, leaving me no flexibility to make engineering judgments?” My colleague told me that the answer was that the writers of codes and standards are trying to force engineers to do the “right thing” in all situations, via the technical provisions.

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Most high-performing firms that are successful over the long term are those which truly embrace strategic planning. If you have been part of a strategic planning process in your firm and are still skeptical about the importance of such a process, you should revisit the goals of your firm’s last two strategic planning sessions and assess how your firm has changed as a result. You will likely be amazed!

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Survey of SE Firms’ Contracts Practices

In preparation for a presentation on Contracts for Structural Engineers at the SEI Structures Congress last year, the presenters surveyed members of CASE to determine how they dealt with several contract issues that pose business risks to their firms. Topics included: dealing with onerous contracts, getting paid by architects even when a contract is in place, use of limitation of liability clauses, use of standardized CASE contracts, and who within a firm writes and negotiates contracts. The following are those results.

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This article is the second in a series from CASE to help structural engineering firms become more profitable by using contracts effectively, focusing on how a young project manager can write and use contracts to achieve more successful projects.

In the hands of a young project manager (or any manager), a well-written contract is a valuable resource. A well-written contract can reduce uncertainties in scope, perform double-duty as a project work plan (including manpower breakdowns if scope is itemized into different tasks), start communications with the client off on a good path, and make identification of additional services-worthy items more clear.

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