Are you solving problems or just kicking the can?

October 14, 2021
As structural engineers, it’s our job to minimize risk to our clients and theirs, by making the right structural decisions early on.

Whatever happened to conventional construction projects? Standard design parameters, clear program goals, reasonable timelines and budget, and no drama. It’s hard to remember that simpler time. Today, nearly every project is categorically unconventional. The factors that can impact a build—especially one large in scale or with complex building codes—are constantly changing. Now more than ever, structural engineering is not a standard process—it’s about using the tools available to us to solve the client’s problem.

One major factor is our current global supply chain chaos. Structural systems, materials, equipment simply aren’t available when we need them. That includes everything from steel joists, concrete mix ingredients, and even non-structural items that affect structure like roofing materials and high efficiency HVAC units. Add to this a heightened attention to structural performance in light of the tragedy in Surfside, Fla., coupled with the impacts of more frequent and powerful weather events and storm surges.

As structural engineers, it’s our job to minimize risk to our clients and theirs, by making the right structural decisions early on. With the complexity of today’s projects, that takes experience, creativity and a willingness to step right up to shoulder and solve other people’s problems. That requires seeing our clients as partners, not just projects.

Ask questions! Then listen.

When we get brought in to evaluate a project, we ask a lot of questions. In my experience, I’ve seen engineers assume they know what the problem is, because on the surface it seems “close enough” to something they’ve worked on before. We all know assuming is never a good idea. It’s only through interactive communication that we ask enough questions to get to the real issue.

Here’s a great example. We were brought in to troubleshoot a complex client project that was on the edge of being cancelled. The original structural engineer had left the owner with a project that was under-designed and yet, significantly over-budget and behind schedule. In its current state, the structure was not constructable or permittable. And a third-party peer review correctly identified that it simply wasn’t going to work.

I joined the owner, architects and builders in the room to talk through all the decisions and actions that had added up to a dysfunctional program. Asking the right questions is key, but so is listening. It was clear to me this program wasn’t doomed; we just needed some creative solutions and quick action to get it back on track.

That “quick action” is a critical part of how we work at Jezerinac Group. Jump in with both feet and get moving—even when that means adapting or reorganizing our resources to get a project back on course. In less than six weeks from authorization, we replaced the existing Engineer of Record, designed the building through several self-imposed Value Engineering iterations, issued foundations for permit, and co-authored the mill order model used by the Steel Fabricator to procure roughly 1,800 tons of structural steel.

The following weeks were spent finishing the member design, designing structural steel connections, seeing the foundation through procurement and construction and responding to inquiries during fabrication. All in time for the erection of the first steel columns. Today, the project is nearly complete, despite it being conceived and built almost entirely during a global pandemic. From ownership down, the project is a testament to quality communication and teamwork.

Solving the right problem saves money

This client told us he was used to structural engineers being largely inflexible. Ironic, right? But I know what he means, and that’s one of the reasons we make a point to do things differently at Jezerinac Group. There is always a structural system alternative and almost always a more cost-effective one. This same client called us during the project build wanting to change out the dampers. By understanding his objective and the functional options, we were able to solve the problem and save him another $90K.

Problem-solving for structural challenges should always aim for cost efficiency. This is what we mean when we say we understand the business of building. For owners especially, attention to economy is key. When you put in the work to find the right solution, you don’t have to sacrifice the architect’s design vision or the constructability to protect the owner’s investment. I get real satisfaction when I’m engaging with a project partner shoulder-to-shoulder, and together come up with a solution that works for everyone.

Structural engineering is about solving problems—and understanding that everyone involved in the project has a counterpoint. It’s our job to help our partners thoughtfully work through that complex matrix of needs and wants to deliver stunning architecture that is structurally sound, on budget and on time.

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