Collaborating with Engineers (or play nice in the interior design sandpit)

iStock_000000252654SmallI thought I might put together a series of posts on the topic of playing nice with the engineers on interior design projects.  In the spirit of collaboration I asked some of my former colleagues over at GHD to provide some comments on collaboration. Thanks to Ben Murhpy, GHD Canberra  Building Engineering Manager for some great inputs across all the building services/MEP disciplines.  Over the coming weeks I’m going to focus on each discipline but for today I’m just going to look at some coordination and collaboration issues that cross all disciplines.

Engineers and interior designers or architects often don’t get along very well.  They seem to think that their project aims will forever be in conflict.  However I have found working in the interiors space that most engineers who regularly work in fitouts do actually want similar outcomes to the interior designers and architects.  They don’t want the engineering components of the fitout to stick out either.  The problem more often seems to be one of engineers and interior designers or architects actually communicating and working together, collaborating for the best solutions – rather than each thinking that only their way or solution is the best or only way.  The best way is going to be the best for the project or client and end users, which is often found by the different disciplines working together to solve the issues.  This collaboration can happen regardless of if the engineering and architecture teams are in 1, 2 or more offices.  While I worked in an integrated practice, I also frequently worked with other engineering consultants or teams in remote locations and found that the same issues apply – the need to communicate with one another.

Although engineers often blame the interior designers and architects for not telling them things or changing the design, when asked to provide comment Ben added that “Engineers don’t seem to want to ask questions of architects for some reason???”  I’ve also found many engineers don’t seem to like asking the client questions either.  I’m not quite sure if this has something to do with the personalities of many engineers, for it is certainly true that there are many engineers who are very good technically but for a variety of reasons are not very good communicators.  Now this post isn’t meant to be an engineer bashing post at all (many of my very good friends and favourite colleagues are engineers), but I will start out with this point to engineers – ASK QUESTIONS!  Actually the same point applies to everyone working on the project, whatever the discipline.  In my view the only dumb question is one that you have asked before.  I recently worked on a project where the engineering consultants sent a list of about 50 questions before starting work, some were for us and some had to be answered by the client.  I would say it was a standardised list they had developed for fitout work and then they reviewed and customised for each project.  I thought this was a great idea.

These are my tips for working with engineering consultants:

  1. The interior designer or architect needs to allow space for engineering services from the very earliest stages.  Early on before you are sure of requirements, its better to allow a bit too much space than none at all.   Whilst it is possible to be excessive with space, I find usually the extra space is needed for something wasn’t thought of at concept stage. If you don’t allow space for the services you will end up with a switchboard or fire hose reel right next to your main entry or taking up all your allocated storage space.  More will follow on this in later posts.
  2. The engineers need to be given a brief.  They don’t know how many power points to put in each room or how many people will occupy it, unless someone tells them, they can only guess.  I am a big fan of Room Data Sheets (or something similar) to agree with the client the details of what goes into each room and then as a tool for briefing the whole team – interior designers or architects and engineers.
  3. Following on from point 1 above – give the client the opportunity to have input into how the lighting or audio visual systems etc work.  Some won’t care, but others have very specific requirements or expectations.  And in the end they are the ones that have to operate the systems installed.
  4. Interior designers and architects need to try to understand a little bit of engineering.  It is important to know what areas might be key or what issues might be non negotiable from a technical view.  This is also important from a cost management perspective, as I’ve talked about previously.   Engineers should also make the effort to understand the design intent and not see aesthetic issues as interfering with technical solutions but as a new challenge.
  5. Regular team meetings are a must.  These can be face to face or teleconferences, video conferences, web conferences or anything else.  The point is to open up conversation and encourage all team members to raise issues.  Whilst sometimes team meetings can seem like a waste of time when people are busy, if they are kept focussed and actions recorded and followed up they can save a lot of trouble later in the project.  It is much easier to get things right the first time than have to rework.  I also believe that all team members should be involved not just one or two senior staff.  I also find that a final coordination workshop at around 90% project completion is very useful, preferably run by a senior staff member who hasn’t had day to day involvement in the project and who is experienced in coordination issues.
  6. The interior design team needs to check the engineering documentation.  Mistakes happen, thermostats end up on glazed or operable walls.  Lighting is missed from a joinery unit.  Just as you check the interior design documentation, someone on the project team needs to check that the engineering documentation is coordinated with the interior design and matches the client brief/room data sheets.
  7. Establish and agree a program/time schedule and a scope of work before you begin.  Agree when engineers will provide the interior designers with certain deliverables, at the same time agree when the interior designers or architects will provide the engineers with information – such as final ceiling types.  This program also has to tie in with the program for client approvals.
  8. Everyone in the team needs to take responsibility and feel ownership for the project no matter which discipline.  Everyone is responsible for coordination.

Over the coming weeks I’ll expand with more particular tips for each engineering discipline.  What are your tips for working with engineers?  Why do engineers dislike asking questions?  Does your interior design team work collaboratively with your engineering team? If you are an engineer, feel free to email me with tips to include in future blog posts.

Image Credit: iStock_000000252654

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One Response to Collaborating with Engineers (or play nice in the interior design sandpit)

  1. Pingback: The early bird catches the worm? When to engage engineers

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