The Race to the Bottom

When putting together a budget proposal for a prospective Client, consultants typically work from a schedule of rates e.g. a cost per hour for the people involved in delivering the project. Naturally the Client aims to get the best ‘value for money’ from their selected consultant – that’s fair enough, but how to understand what the perceived best value is, can often be poorly understood.

The market for engineering services has been dominated in the past 20 years by a simple comparison of rates with (often) little to no consideration given to the value or experience of each consultant.

Instead, the cost for one hour of time becomes the quantifiable variable in the decision to hire one consultant over their competitor. Too expensive (or too cheap) and your chances of securing the project will be dampened.

However, in an effort to keep a steady flow of projects in the pipeline, some consultants are willing to lower their rates to secure the work and, to avoid missing out - other consultants adopt the same approach and the ‘race to the bottom’ ensues.

Perceived ‘Value for Money’

The deliverables generated by engineering consultants are a product (reports, drawings etc.) and like any tangible product, the old adage governs ‘you get what you pay for’ As an example:

Engineer A - £70/hr

Is able to produce a safe design quickly, but in order to do so takes a conservative and generalist approach. 40 hours (or one week later) and you have a structure that comprises (say) 50 tonnes of steel and 10m3 of Concrete. An estimated cost to the project could be:

(40 Hours x £70/hr) + (50 tonnes x £5,000/mT) + (10m3 x £1,500/m3) = £268K

Engineer B - £95/hr

The same design brief is applied, but Engineer B takes a holistic approach to the project and spends time to fully understand all of the Clients requirements and provide value engineering and a safe design. Engineer B takes 60 hours (20 more than Engineer A!) However with this additional time, can optimise the design for the structure down to (say) 45 tonnes of steel and 8m3 of Concrete. The estimated cost to the project would now be:

(60 Hours x £95) + (45 tonnes x £5,000/mT) + (8m3 x £1,500/m3) = £243K

Engineer B has achieved a saving of £25,000 for the project (and reduced the embodied C02 by 13 mTC02e).

The end result is great for the Client but they knew from the start of the project that Engineer B had an hourly rate 36% higher than Engineer A, and by the end of the project, spent 50% more time designing the best solution…

Of course, this is a simplistic argument and I wholly acknowledge that in some instances, the argument to commission services from Engineer A or B is so close that either would be equally valuable.

The difficulty is that often those making these decisions, may not identify the opportunities where this added value can be leveraged and instead focus purely on the hourly rates provided.

My final thought – instead of a race to the bottom, how about a race to the top? In some upcoming projects, why not take a few moments to recognise that good design, communication, innovation, and sustainability can be used to focus on the ‘value for money’ instead of just ‘fee cost’.

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As climate change and carbon counting becomes more prominent in the construction industry, I wanted to share my thoughts about the challenges faced in our profession.

While institutions such as the IStructE are doing good work to promote the high-level key issues around tackling climate change, I believe engineers have the ability to influence matters at a grass roots level stemming from our technical knowledge - the essence of engineering. Every decision made in the life of a project, from the design of basic members to guiding a client in terms of overall structure can be partially attributed to this technical knowledge that we have together with a duty to maintain and continually develop.

Our understanding of construction methods and materials will need to improve in the coming years if we are to stand any chance of making significant reductions in structural carbon usage.

Traditional methods of construction and good practice will remain vital, but our technical expertise in developing innovative and more efficient solutions will play a key role. Simply copying past designs and material specifications will not lead to any meaningful change. Every aspect of a project upon which we, as engineers, have influence must be challenged and further developed. A thorough understanding of relevant and current design standards and methodologies is a must, but this needs to be supported by research into modern solutions - taking an inquisitive approach rather than a complacent one.

No engineer wants an unsafe design that may cause harm or damage property, but all of our past actions have contributed to just that on a large scale. With the knowledge we hold do we not have an obligation to avoid the same mistakes?

As I continue to pursue my career in structural engineering, the recurring theme is that we never stop learning. The more experiences we collect the better our knowledge becomes and the better we can engineer good, safe, buildable structures.

The harshest lessons come from failure, so a valuable tool that we all have is to share in the experiences of others from across the profession and indeed across the globe. To this end a great resource is the Structural Safety website where CROSS (Confidential Reporting on Structural Safety) reports and newsletters are freely published. These reports both teach us and remind us of where failures, near misses and concerns have been raised relating to inadequate design practices, poor construction, and material limitations along with their potential consequences.

Read the CROSS reports, add to your knowledge, drawing upon the experience of others and avoid your own harsh lessons from failure.

Because CROSS reports are a collection of real-life experiences, they sometimes fly in the face of research, or industry understanding on a topic. In these instances the reports can also help the industry to adapt to what is really happening.