Friday, August 21, 2009

If you a engineer, thow yo hands up

I talk a lot about the projects I work on, but it's rare that I discuss the other people in my neighborhood: the engineers. We call them consultants, but most of them are engineers. (I guess we call them consultants because they don't drive trains or wear striped bib overalls.) They occasionally make architects drink, but overall they're good people who have lives that are just as hard as the architects do.

Your main engineers on a project are:
  • Civil: makes the building site run water away from the building, runs utilities up to the building (within 5 feet), and works with the landscape architect to get the sidewalks and parking lots in place (sometimes).
  • Structural: makes the building stand up and hold up under all the loads put on the building (live, dead, wind, snow, seismic, etc.).
  • Mechanical: figures out how to get hot and cold air in the building and specifies the units and systems that put that air in the building.
  • Plumbing: frequently the same as the mechanical engineer, runs water and gas pipes in the building, specifies plumbing fixtures, and runs waste lines out of the building and roof drain lines off of the roof.
  • Electrical: specifies the lights and figures out the power systems in the building and powers all the equipment that the architect and some other engineers put in the building.
One would imagine that engineers would be a stodgy, cranky bunch, always trying to shoot holes in the architect's divine vision and taking a metaphorical poo on every cool-looking aesthetic idea we have. My response is that engineers are like any other group of people--some winners and some losers, but the vast majority of them are just doing the best they can with what they have. Having spent the better part of nine years with them, however, I have the following stereotypes based on my experiences, and I'd love to hear from any engineers that read this blog for a reality check. (I'd also LOVE to know what makes engineers drink, especially about architects. I know we're a bunch of merlot-slurping pains in the butt.)

The few civil engineers I've worked with have been anything but that. I get my drawings late and/or incomplete, and it seems like they're completely misunderstanding the scope of the project or what they're actually required to do. They seem the least comfortable around other people, which is odd because they seem to do the least amount of calculus. Having gone to Georgia Tech and spent four years around nothing but engineers, it always seemed to me that an engineer's social skills and social comfort were in inverse proportion to their familiarity with and frequency of performing calculus. Also odd is that the women civil engineers I've worked with were the opposite--they kept in frequent contact with me, got me their stuff on time (or called when it was going to be late), and had their stuff generally right. I know I have a new or semi-new reader who is a civil engineer out in D.C--what am I missing, dawg? Have I just been burned by a couple of bad apples? Holla!

Structural engineers are the guys most responsible for the building not falling down, yet most of the ones I've met are the ones most likely to grab a keg if a building does indeed fall down. As the building shreds itself under the weight of gravity and its own mass, they're the ones recording it for YouTube and hitting each other on the arm and yelling "Ohhhman! You gotta watch this, dude, no seriously put the shots down, it's worth it!" I think they're super-friendly because you kinda have to do what they say--you move and fold around them, whereas most other fields have to move and bend around the architects. Because they know they run dis beeyotch, they're buying you liquor to ease the pain of knowing that you're just going to have a column in that hall, unless you redesign your clinic space. Sigh. Have another shot, dude, it's worth it.

Mechanical/plumbing engineers are hit and miss. One that I've worked with on and off for about six years is super-good at what he does and is pretty easy to get along with. He knows when to push back, and he knows when to back down, and I like that in an engineer in general. He and I heckle each other in a way that almost sounds like we went to high school together; he almost sounds like a structural engineer. However, I've met a few mechanical engineers that won't do their job and won't call me back. Dammit, I'm a Southern lady, and if you don't call me back, there will sweating-in-Valdosta-in-the-summer hell to pay.

Electrical engineers are generally pretty easygoing, and I tend to do very well with them for the opposite reason of the structural engineers. Most of what electrical is running through the building can fit in less that 1 1/2" of conduit, and it can bend around just about anything, so as long as you give them a 10' x 12' room near where the utilities come into the site, they're happy. They also tend to be most likely to work weekends, because their work depends on everyone else's work being done. They need to know where I'm putting the exam rooms and which walls are getting the computers and where the CT scanner is going and what mechanical unit is going on the roof and are we actually putting a chiller in the project and where are you locating the CRAC unit and so on. Furthermore, they tend to have the most esoteric senses of humor and are the most likely to send me hilarious construction-related and nerd-related email forwards or recipes. Electrical engineers like to cook, for whatever reason. I should mention that of the three women electrical engineers I've worked with, one was fantastically awesome, one acted like a shy mechanical engineer, and one seemed to have utter disdain for my very existence. Turns out though that she treated all women this way on a project, so I didn't feel so bad. (And she was my age, too! WTF?)

Here's the thing, though: I have a special place in my heart for engineers. To keep my job, I need one to three projects going on at once, but in order to keep their jobs, engineers need like eight to twelve. I might be exaggerating, but they need more projects than we do because their part of the project is smaller. I also know that they're all depending on me to have my shit together so they can do their jobs, and that just makes me feel sorry for them. You're depending on me? Well, good luck to ya, pal. Engineers know a lot about a couple of things, while architects know a couple of things about a lot. We know just enough to be dangerous, and that's why we hire engineers--they keep us from being too dangerous.

Engineers, I raise my crystal Tiffany wine goblet full of Riesling to you. You make me drink, but overall, it's in a good way.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't know what kind of structural engineers you work with, but I certainly don't match your description and I can only think of one structural engineer I have ever worked with who might have come close, but he was originally from L.A. so that might explain that.
I think most structural engineers are pretty mild mannered, reserved and conscientious about the role we play in the design process. For the most part we just follow the Architects lead to deliver a structure that meets your design intent. Obviously if something doesn't work we will discuss options and try to provide solutions, but in general I don't think we have ever assumed that we "run dis beeyotch" as you put it. Maybe it's different in the healthcare world, but my experience in the standard commercial world, the Architect is usually always in charge, and we act accordingly. Most any problem can be solved with money, so if an Architect wants some elaborate thing that requires elaborate structure, we can do that, but they are usually warned it's expensive but very rarely do we tell you guys how to do stuff unless what you guys propose is just a bad idea because it can’t be built or what you want doesn’t allow for enough structure to make it work.
In general, I have had little problem working with experienced Architects. Architects who don’t know how buildings are built are usually the ones that really drive us crazy. Also, Architects who think that what they say goes, and won’t compromise about anything also give us problems.

Mile High Pixie said...

Anon: Thanks for commenting, and good to know that I probably just work with a couple of unusual ones. Maybe it's healthcare, or maybe it's the dry Colorado air? :-) And while I use a rather silly tone on this post (and this blog in general), like I said, I think engineers are like everyone else: just trying to do the best job they can with what they have, which is whatever drawings and information I've given them. My husband (also a healthcare architect) said that he appreciates engineers that don't immediately say "it can't be done", but rather they give it shot and then explain why it can't be done or will say "it can be done; it's only money." You sound like a reasonable engineer--just the kind I like.

Small Town said...

I feel you're dead on with the civil guys. I mean come on, how hard is it to place a building, grade it and run some utilities to it?
My take on Structurals though is that they use expensive, complicated software to design the framing, then add an extra 10%, slap on the standard details, then add another 10% safety factor, just so they can sleep at night. Nothing better than standing next to an owner as a contractor tries to explain that the drawings called for a 12-foot by 12-foot by 6-foot deep concrete footer with #8s at 4-inches on-center every which way but loose: "How're you supposed to get a vibrator in there?". And I think it's humorous that their proposals are often twice as thorough as mine: Mileage, postage, second reviews of shops, coffee, and psychiatry expenses.

BaxtersMum said...

this engineer just blows stuff up.

sorry. you build it, we tear it down. kisses!

Wilderness Gina said...

And now a word from the people who actually try to BUILD this crap. Youse is ALL crazy! I spent half a day trying to cram post tension cables in a drop beam on an 8 story building with a "sky way". After bursting into tears and calling the Foreman, I learn that the tendons NEEDED are actually HALF of what was supplied and drawn. JesusMaryandJoseph save me from all of youse guys!
Is Small Town building the pad for a electric turbine in a dam?
Your Anon doesn't sound like ANY engineers I've worked with. Most just look at you as you rant about what you want... they rock back in the chair, blink a couple of times and say "Can't get there from here" or something silmilar. That or they fall down laughing at you and your dumb assed design.
But that's the opinion of a lowly form carpenter.

CivilGuy_DC said...

My two cents as a CE:

SOCIAL SKILLS (lack of)
Most of our backgrounds are in civil (public) works where the clients are stodgy, cranky, slow, government bureaucrats. Our end users are the faceless masses known as “the public.” Over time we become more comfortable in the stable comforts of dull. (Although I contend that we still use creativity and innovation because no two plots of land are exactly the same, hence EVERY project is unique.)

HATRED FOR ARCHITECTS
MHP, sad but true is your experience of CEs having a general disdain for architects. Personally I believe the architect is well equipped to play the role of project coordinator (and thereby receive the $$ and the glory), but I offer two possible reasons why y’all make us drink.

Power & Ego

On most of our projects we are the head honcho. For non-building projects (infrastructure, parks & recreation); land development projects (using multiple stock building types); and chain retail projects (using template building types) the CE is the owners main consultant during design, permitting, and construction, and thus gets the lions share of the design fee. We have to coordinate the surveyors, landscape architects, structural engineers, transportation consultants, geotechnical engineers, lighting consultants, environmental specialists, etc. - while engaging in our own hydrological analysis, hydraulic design, land use, utility design, environmental design, and grading design.
So when we engage on owner/occupant projects where we still manage all of that - but now under the overall direction of the architect, perhaps we chafe at playing second fiddle and ceding some of our power.

Ego plays an interesting role too. Most of our work goes generally unnoticed (unless a bridge collapses) so we’re used to finding internal gratification without public appreciation. Contrast that with the media’s fixation with The Architect (who always gets the mention in published reports of building projects?) and the idea of the preening, publicity seeking architect clashes with our ‘modest principles.’


Civil engineering is really not a bad gig. If the building has a poor configuration - blame the architect. If a room is stuffy or poorly lit - blame the MEP. If anything falls down - blame the structural engineer. Foundation problems? - blame the geotech. Poor landscaping? - blame the LA. Flooding or landslides? - blame Mother Nature. For any and every conceivable field problem - blame the contractor.

And in that way we can live a quiet existence of an 8-hour workday followed by time spent with family, reading the latest issue of “Roads & Bridges” magazine, and perusing the multitude of architecture blogs.

Mile High Pixie said...

CivilGuyDC: Love your comment! While we don't necessarily get all the Benjamins that we ought to as project coordinator (but the entire design team is underpaid, IMHO), we certainly are in the best position to do that. And I never thought about on non-building projects, y'all run the show, and suddenly on a building project you're being told what to do and how to do it by some merlot-drinking goober in a black turtleneck. I'd be more than annoyed too.