Partnering with the Right Structural Engineer Makes “cents”

October 27, 2014

Imagine this: You’re developing or designing a large, complex wood-frame project. You’ve selected your consultants. The project is moving forward.

But when design is complete and construction bids are in, you’re unexpectedly over budget. It’s not the scenario that anyone wants to see happen on their project. Your structural engineer can help—and not just by value engineering the project at this stage.

“A strong structural engineering firm is able to partner with their clients every step of the way,” says Rimas Veitas, president of Veitas and Veitas Engineers. “The real value in value engineering is buying that value upfront.”

In fact, knowing how to partner with your structural engineering consultant at the start can save you significant dollars on the bottom line of any wood-framed building construction. Here are a few ways that your structural engineer can provide value every step of the way:

They will deliver your definition of “value.” When you think about value, what’s most important? For an owner, it may be saving dollars up front, getting to market quickly or achieving long-term holding cost targets. An architectural firm may want a structural engineer that is nimble enough to meet compressed design schedules, creative enough to push the design envelope and responsive to the project, says Doug Carr, Principal at CUBE 3 Studio (Lawrence, MA). As an owner/developer/general contractor, Wood Partners seeks a designer that won’t fall back on a conservative approach but is driven to go the extra mile by designing an efficient, unique and practical design model," says Mark Theriault, Regional Director of Construction. “Our goal is to receive effective and economical designs that meet all building codes.”

They’ll educate you on the ins and outs of your building type. When you hire a bridge designer for a housing development, you’re missing out on valuable specialized knowledge that could save you time and money, says Ketan Joshi, Director of Estimating at Dellbrook Construction (Quincy, MA).  As a firm that specializes in large-scale wood-frame construction, CUBE 3 prioritizes specialization and considers the structural engineer to be a vital player on the design team. “It is absolutely critical that they understand stick-frame inside and out,” says Carr. “If a structural firm does 90% steel and concrete and 10% stick-frame, then perhaps they are not plugged in enough to stay on top of the unique challenges of stick-frame, and may not be the best fit for our project.” 

They can stretch your budget. “If you have a good structural engineer, they work harder, they spend more time and don’t take the easy answer,” says Frank Dicenso, Chief Estimator at Callahan, Inc. (Bridgewater, MA). “If they aren’t saving you money, you’re not getting your money’s worth.” Sometimes that time and experience comes with a higher design fee, says Dicenso. However, your choice of structural engineer can greatly impact the overall cost of the project by evaluating the build cost of potential designs before decisions are made and before consulting with contractors, construction managers or wood framers to understand the costs of various structural decisions. “You want to ask, ‘What product are you building? What does that product need to perform?’ says Joshi. “All consultants are capable, but some will say, ‘I’ve seen this type of building perform a certain way. Let me see how I can make this more affordable for you.’ There is a value in getting the right price for the right performance.”

They deliver creativity and innovation. A design that costs less to build or uses fewer materials is not an inferior design. Just like when buying a car, a BMW or a Toyota will both get you from point A to point B very well. The question is which one is right for your needs.  “In structural engineering, two plus two is never four.  It’s always between 5 and 10 because of safety concerns,” says Ken Joensson, Operations Manager at Shawnlee Construction, LLC (Plainville, MA). “But while one engineer might insist on using 8 - 2x4s for all load bearing columns, another will use 4 or 6 depending on the actual situation. It takes more work and experience to design this way.”

It’s important to consider whether using more materials is the result of a formulaic approach, a design style or not having enough time to fully analyze the building. Engineers by nature are problem solvers, and are looking for the best way to do things. Experienced, innovative engineers are bringing new ideas to the table to achieve your goals.

They’ll do a reality check with subcontractors. Getting out from behind the desk and into conversations with people who are executing designs in the field can uncover opportunities for efficiency. Some structural details will impact the longevity or integrity of a building, some will not.  "The ideal engineer is an open-minded professional who welcomes input from subcontractors,” says Theriault. “They must be able to listen and to consider ideas for design details that work structurally, but that are also economical to build.”A good structural partner is not defensive about potential changes, says Dicenso. “They welcome the discussion.”

They can eliminate costly value engineering. "Paying a slight premium for the correct design will enable you to save exponentially on the overall construction costs," says Theriault. By running preconstruction comparisons, you can discover cost savings early enough to make adjustments. For example, when Veitas and Veitas and Shawnlee conducted a value engineering structural review of a 400,000-square-foot multifamily project, they determined that the structural frame cost $4.00 per-square-foot more than what was budgeted by an experienced general contractor. Including redesign fees, it could have been reengineered for a savings of $2.50 per square foot, totaling $1 million. “We urge owners to consider—and architects to educate them— on the real cost of structural design because this money is ultimately coming out of their pocket,” says Joensson.