Civil Engineers witness a lot of strange situations. They’re used to working in all kinds of teams, following complex regulation requirements and typically getting involved with huge projects that have substantial investment and high stakes.
Author Dakota Murphey recently sat down with a prominent civil engineering contractor, who works at Maltaward. The team there have been working on motorways, airports and industrial plants for many years, and have a whole lot of stories to tell. Whilst discussing a narrowly-missed tarmac disaster, it became apparent that the golden rules of a successful engineering project could easily be applied to many situations in modern life.
Expect the unexpected
Civil engineers often have to work with an incomplete picture, or deal with unexpected circumstances. Discovering pipes where there shouldn’t be pipes under a road, for example, can set a job back several days and cost thousands. The lesson here? Be as prepared as possible before embarking on a project, while leaving yourself some room (and budget) for a contingency plan.
For example, hiring a surveyor, before buying a house. It might seem unnecessary to spend several hundred pounds on a report if the house seems to be in reasonable condition, but a study conducted by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) found that the average homeowner without a report spent over £5,000 on repairs once they moved in. If those buyers had only invested in their fact-finding, they might have been able to re-negotiate the sale price of the property or at least ensure they weren’t unexpectedly hit with a large bill.
The best way to prepare yourself for this is to work out the best-case, worst-case and most likely scenarios for your project timescales, scope or budget. Once you have a good idea of possible outcomes, build in a reasonable amount of buffer between your “most likely” and “worst-case” situations.
Don’t cut corners
If you’re up against the wire it can be tempting to take shortcuts or rush a job to get it completed on time and within budget. In the mind of the civil engineer, this is tempered by the fact that shoddy work or failing to adhere to building regulations will result in hefty fines, plus delays as the work has to be demolished and / or made good.
Maybe you have to safely dispose of a harmful material, or thoroughly test each part of your product, or conduct due diligence prior to a contract or purchase. Whatever part of your work it is that you think you could win back some time or money, save yourself the stress – and cost – of having to re-engineer at a later date. Unless you are prepared to cover the costs of doing the job twice, don’t compromise on quality just because you’re desperate to meet a deadline or come in under budget.
Ask for expert help
Too often, I’m told, a civil engineer is brought in on a project well after it kicks off. Whether it’s due to an unforeseen problem with the design or miscommunication from an ambitious project manager, something comes up and the original team are left struggling to compensate. The engineering expert is then brought in to help find a solution, but the time it takes to bring them up to speed can cost the project huge amounts of money, on top of the added costs of remedial work.
No matter what kind of project you are planning, it’s okay if you’re not an expert. Financial investments, home improvements, event organising… most complex projects involve a certain element of expertise, and the risks can be quite high if you’re not confident in what you’re doing. Rather than trying – and failing – to get it done yourself or by hiring someone with insufficient experience, ask for help from someone who knows what they’re doing. You’ll achieve much better results in a shorter time, and save yourself the cost of resolving mistakes an expert wouldn’t have made.
Don’t be seduced by over-engineering
Part of a civil engineer’s job is knowing when design specifications meet that sweet-spot of functionality, aesthetic appeal and cost-effective construction. In some sectors, an approach of “no expense spared” gets taken, or purchasing happens under the belief that the most premium brand must deliver the best product. It’s not really a surprise that working like this is the fastest route to going way, way over budget.
Just because something is expensive doesn’t mean it’s better. Even if a higher price tag means that whatever you’re buying does have more features, that still doesn’t make it the right choice for your project. Take a step back and work out whether you actually need the extra attributes you’re paying for. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Check what you actually need to achieve your goals, and try not to go above and beyond the brief.
Equally, don’t get bogged down by over-thinking your project in the research and planning stages. You’ll end up getting “analysis paralysis” and waste precious time thinking instead of doing. No plan is perfect, so when you can’t get all the answers up front, start working, but build-in time to update your plans once you have new information.
Address the problem, not the symptoms
Engineers are pretty good at coming up with resourceful ways to solve a technical issue. Their job often revolves around coming up with ways to work with the constraints of a given contract, design requirement or physical restriction. The key to leveraging this creativity to achieve your goals is fully understanding what the boundaries of your problem are.
For example; your compliance department insist that certain statements are coupled with disclaimers in your marketing materials. The problem? You’ll end up with more disclaimers than text, and potential customers are going to be put off by the sheer amount of smallprint associated with your product or service. How to solve it? Find out exactly what phrasing will keep your legal team happy, and see if you can’t amend your copy.
If getting over a metaphorical (or, in the case of civil engineers, literal) obstacle is going to be difficult and time-consuming, stop for a moment. Why is the obstacle there, and who put it there? Can you get under it, through it or around it another way? The idea here is that reminding yourself which boundaries are completely necessary (and which are self-enforced) can help you come up with an innovative solution that is more elegant and cheaper than the conventional alternative.
Maybe you’re not on the Crossrail committee and aren’t tasked with saving the government hundreds of thousands of pounds each day – that doesn’t matter.Having a specific plan, asking for expert advice, knowing what your potential problems are going to be and spending some time planning a contingency will all go a long way in helping you stick to your budget each time you get to work.