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Client’s Guide to Selecting an Engineer

Published August 25, 2017 by David J. Michniewicz

Whether you’re a homeowner new to construction or a seasoned builder or developer, selecting the right engineer or engineering team for your project is a critical early step that will affect the project from permitting through construction and completion. Below are a few tips to help you make a better decision on your next project.

Do Some Homework

It should go without saying that any time you are hiring a person or company to perform engineering services for you, you should check into them. How long have they been in business? What’s their reputation? Have they had any complaints filed against them? Today there are abundant online resources that make learning about and checking into the background of a potential engineering consultant easier than ever. Look around the company’s website. Check a license with the Board of Registration. Review complaint history with the Better Business Bureau. Traditional sources of information include the building inspector, health agent, conservation agent, or town engineer at your local town office, asking the architect, attorney, or other consultant on your project team what they know about the engineer you are considering, and talking with past clients. If the project you are undertaking will require public hearings, go to the town’s website and watch some public hearings to see how the engineer presents a project. If your project is large or complex, you may want to interview the prospective hire to learn more.

Check Your References And Licenses

How long have they been in business? What’s their reputation? Have they had any complaints filed against them?

It’s Not Just The Fee That Matters

It is understandable that you want to be cost-conscious. But falling into the trap of hiring an engineer for your project based strictly on fee will most likely have some undesired consequence. When you need an operation, you want the best doctor. You don’t shop around to see who will perform the operation for the cheapest fee, nor should you do same with engineers. When you need legal representation, you want a lawyer that will provide the best representation, again, not who will be the cheapest.  Like doctors and lawyers, engineers are professionals with many years of specialized education and training.

It’s important to remember that you are hiring a professional consultant, not purchasing a commodity. Unfortunately, many clients treat engineering as a commodity, and suffer unintended consequences. We are familiar with a case in which an engineer, apparently unaware of applicable state regulations, developed a design that was constructed and later failed, resulting in the owner being cited and fined by the state for not having the correct permits. In another case, a registered sanitarian, as allowed by the state sanitary code, designed a sewage disposal system and prepared a site plan for a new single-family home on a vacant lot. Regrettably, the location of the house was a natural low point that received runoff from the surrounding area. Apparently, the sanitarian, not trained in hydrology, overlooked this fact and the basement flooded in a large storm event.

A good engineer looks at the big picture when developing a solution to your problem and is here to tell you what you need to know, not what you want to hear.

Even if there is not a technical flaw with a design, there may still be expensive consequences.  A good engineer looks at the big picture when developing a solution to your problem. What will it cost to construct the design? Is the design constructible? What are the alternative solutions? Going with the cheapest design fee may save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars up front, only to cost you tens of thousands of dollars on the back end during construction.

Know Your Roles

As mentioned above, your engineer is a professional consultant. Part of his or her role is to evaluate potential solutions and recommend a preferred option. As the client, your role is to make the decision how you want to proceed. You should beware of an engineer that does not provide you with options, or one that makes decisions for you.

Another role of your engineer is to tell you what you need to know, not what you want to hear. Your engineer should be willing to advise you against proceeding in a certain direction if that direction would not be beneficial to the project, or if what you want to do is ethically objectionable. An engineer willing to simply do what you ask is not serving his or her role your consultant, nor serving their profession.

Client Meeting

Mid-size firms often offer multiple engineering disciplines under one roof. The end result is that a project can move more quickly into construction.

Goldilocks Was Right

Project size and complexity vary greatly. You don’t need the mega-firm for a simple engineering project – too big. Likewise, a sole proprietor or very small firm may not have the breadth and depth to handle more complex engineering and permitting assignments – too small. In most cases a mid-size firm has the staff size capable of responding quickly to your needs and a breadth of knowledge and experience capable of handling all but the largest or most complex engineering problems – just right.

Mid-size firms often offer multiple engineering disciplines under one roof. Being able to obtain services such as land surveying, civil engineering, and structural engineering from one provider helps to streamline the project design and permitting processes. The end result is that a project can move more quickly into construction.

Final Words

Selecting an engineer for your project requires that you invest some time up front. Research the engineer or firm to learn how long they’ve been in business, what services they offer, and how big they are. Check references. Check credentials and licenses. Ask around – talk to contractors and other design professionals. Interview the engineer or firm if your project warrants it. Whatever you do, never choose an engineer based solely on fee. The money you save in design may end up costing you far more in the end.

Get in touch!

Please contact Coastal Engineering Co., Inc. for a full review or with any specific questions you may have.