Week of June 13, 2005
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How to Drive an Engineer Crazy

How do you drive an engineer crazy?

A.†††† Put him in a roundhouse and tell him to calculate its hypotenuse.

B.†††† Secretly apply a light coating of pancake syrup to her calculator buttons.

C.†††† Give him some clothes actually in style.

D.†††† Dart your head around during conversation to make it impossible for her to avoid eye contact.

E.††††† †Have him do calcs, then keep changing the project.

The correct answer is ďE.Ē Trust me.

I admit it, I am a nerd. I love to wear shirts someone bought me in the '70s. My favorites are those with mauve and burnt orange in fantastic geometrical patterns: triangles, squares and rectangles. My wife, however, has just about culled all those favorites and given them to charity (lucky buggers), and has replaced them with lots of boring solids. But, a-ha! She has not yet absconded with my pocket protector! It is a classic, probably a good 15 years old, made from sturdy, durable plastic. It has been in and out of my pocket so many times, the writing is barely discernable, not to mention that itís ripped in a couple places (nothing some tape and staples hasnít been able to fortify). Can you imagine how many ink spots my ďPens From Enduro†ó ASI 52470Ē has spared me?

But I digress. About 10 years ago I came to a conclusion: Engineering is a good profession and a nice way to make a living. But if I wanted to make real money, Iíd better think of something else. Which I did.

Why, though, canít a guy or gal make serious money as an engineer? Or as a builder? Or architect, or most any profession in our industry? The answers are many; however, in this column, Iíll address one recurrent stinger.

Jobs go to the lowest bidder, thus limiting profit. Fine, I can live with that. But what I canít live with are clients who are always in an all-fired rush and provide half-baked instructions or plans. We provide bids based on certain assumptions, the most critical being that the job scope is clearly defined and wonít change. But it is never clearly defined and it always changes. Yet, our clients think it is our duty to redo things however many times, all for the original bid price.

Sure, we can concoct change orders. But clients donít like or trust them. So with every change order, an element of friction is introduced.

And yes, we can draft bulletproof contracts listing every assumption and exclusion under the sun. But clients donít generally read them, and if they do, theyíll likely be scared off and take the next bid. The last thing you want is to take a client disagreement back to the fine print of your contract. Regardless of who ďwins,Ē youíll lose in the end.

Although I donít do much actual engineering any more, I do enough to be reminded of why I got out of it 10 years ago. For example, Iím working on a remodel (always the nastiest from an engineerís perspective) which actually had a decent plan-set up front. Or so I thought. I did my analysis and got it through the building department only to find out that the architect didnít actually crawl around in the attic or crawl space to correctly show how the framing went. He assumed everything. What?! Every architect should know that loads come down through buildings depending on how the framing is arranged. Change the direction of roof rafters, and all the window headers and beams underneath have vastly different loading. Assumed 2x6 ceiling joists are a heck of a lot stronger than actual 2x4s. And so on. Iím on my fourth revision now and hotter than a pistol. Not only does this force me to go back to the client for more money, it severely disrupts other projects on my plate. Not to mention that, with every change, the builder is hung out until my part is redone and approved. Thatís a lot of stress on him and on me.

What is the answer? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Only work with competent consultants and subs.
  2. Make sure you clearly discuss with the client face-to-face the big three: cost, scope and timeframe.
  3. Immediately follow the above conversation with a straightforward written contract.
  4. Avoid ďbad clients.Ē Believe it when reputable people give you that heads up.

Tim Garrison of ConstructionCalc.com, is a professional engineer, author and software producer for the building industry. Send e-mail to
buildersengineer@constructioncalc.com. Tim reads every one.

This column cannot be reprinted without permission from the author.

The views expressed in this article represent the personal views, statements and opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views, statements, opinions or policies of the National Association of Home Builders. NAHB does not necessarily endorse any of the views expressed by the author and NAHB is not responsible for any direct or indirect consequences arising out of the views expressed in this article.

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