Choosing the Right Engineer (OPINION)

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I recently had an operation. To choose a doctor, I solicited bids and received a nice low bid from a doctor who thought it was a great opportunity to practice the procedure.

Of course, I’m kidding. I chose a medical professional after researching his qualifications and asking my friends about their experiences with him. Some things are just too important to leave in the wrong hands.

Choosing the right design professional, including professional engineers and architects, should be a similar process. Actually, many people may not realize that it is against both state and federal law to use a bidding process (or any process based on price) to select an engineer or architect for public projects. Instead, public entities must select a design professional using a process called Qualifications Based Selection, or QBS. Using the procurement process outlined in the state law will result in the acquisition of the most capable professional, while at the same time obtaining a price that is fair and reasonable, since the process includes price negotiations after the most qualified firm is selected. If a reasonable price cannot be negotiated with the top firm, negotiations can commence with the second-ranked firm, but this situation rarely occurs.

The QBS law helps protect the public health and welfare, since it results in having the most qualified engineer design and watch over projects that provide safe drinking water, sound bridges and highways, adequate sewer collection and treatment, and other public infrastructure. But selecting the proper engineer can provide similar benefits to the private sector as well. Any entity, whether it is public or private, should consider the following attributes when selecting an engineer or an engineering firm. Although the focus below is on engineers, the same principles should apply to any design professional.

Make sure the engineer is a licensed professional engineer, or P.E. In addition to obtaining an engineering degree from an accredited university, these professionals have completed a minimum of four years of training in their field of discipline and passed two rounds of rigorous testing. In addition, they must complete continuing education on a biannual basis to continue their licensure. But this requirement is really just a minimum.

Make sure that the engineer is qualified for the project you are considering by verifying that he or she has successfully completed projects of similar scope and size in the past. Many projects require specialized expertise for success, and the engineer and/or firm should have the capacity and capability to get the work done while maintaining quality.  Higher quality designs result in successful projects with less risk for litigation, and good detailed plans can also save in construction costs, since contractors do not have to include as much risk in their pricing. In addition, engineers who specialize in certain projects can often perform their services more efficiently than less-qualified engineers who face a learning curve. Also, make sure previous design work was completed on time and for the agreed-upon fee (unless their client asked for additional services.)

Call references and make sure that the engineer has provided exemplary service and represented his or her clients well. Good engineers live and work by an ethical code and place the welfare of their clients and the general public above their own. They also engage the client as part of the design team by listening and using frequent effective communication, and they are responsive when the client calls regardless of the size of the project. And although engineers cannot guarantee perfection, good engineers are accountable for their actions and endeavor to be a part of the solution, not the problem when the proverbial feces hits the fan.

Perhaps above all, make sure that the engineer is someone with whom you can communicate and develop trust. Trust is important in any relationship, and a client/engineer relationship is no exception. A good engineer is a trusted adviser that will always tell you what you need to hear and not necessarily what you want to hear.

The process of choosing an engineer is not that much different than choosing a good doctor. Of course, I realize engineers are not doctors, who routinely save lives and cure illness. But professional engineers do help protect life and prevent illness through successful, safe public works projects and other services. Remember, the protection of your best interests as well as the general public health and welfare is in their hands. So please choose wisely. 

Brad Hammond, P.E. is president of McGoodwin, Williams and Yates Inc., a consulting engineering firm in Fayetteville that specializes in public works projects. He can be reached at 479-443-3404 or via email at [email protected].