Dear Developer, Want to Avoid Headaches? ENGAGE an Engineer

Dear Developer, Want to Avoid HeadacheS?ENGAGE AN Engineer

by KELSEY TAYLOR, LEED PE, president, EngageCivil | Dec 19, 2015

Over the last few years, I've noticed a pattern in property development that has coalesced with such consistency that I can now predict its unfortunate, inevitable re-occurrence. And yet, writing about it here puts me in a bit of a clutch. So, please, indulge me in a bit of role play:

Let's say you are a property developer and it’s your job (or dream) to inspire a building to rise up out of the ground on a storied Chicago parcel of land. Your attorneys have just helped you put a vacant 2-acre urban site under contract, which means you can conduct your due diligence and build your pro forma. Of note, this would also be your biggest project to date. So people are paying attention. You’ve got a lot of skin in the game and there is very little wiggle room for surprises. Which design consultant do you call first? An architect? A surveyor? How about an environmental consultant? A civil engineer?

who ya gonna call?

If you said "architect", you’d be in good company. After all, it just makes sense, doesn't it? After all, you're designing a building? Call an architect. So, with that in mind, we certainly can’t label that a ‘wrong’ answer. But where the property developer misses out on potential value is by not also engaging a civil consultant at the same time as --or even before-- the architect is invited to get involved.

Whether the developer hires the civil engineer directly, or requires the architect to do so immediately after coming on board, the aspects of site due-diligence (‘discovery’) related to land purchase decisions are squarely in the wheelhouse of any civil consultant experienced in site development. So, the closer you put a civil engineer to those land-based decisions, the greater impact he or she can have and the more benefits to the bottom line, for the developer, and the entire project team.      

Here’s a sample scenario in which I’ve played a character at least a half dozen times...  

Weeks (sometimes even months) after being hired by the ambitious developer, a busy architect will decide it’s time to bring in the civil engineer. He then diligently forwards me the site survey when I ask if it’s yet been procured. A number of missing items immediately catch my attention, foremost of which is the underground utility information -- an absolutely critical component to understanding what’s going on below grade, and an unavoidable requirement for all future permitting. I don't enjoy being the bearer of bad news, but I have the uncomfortable duty of having to send the survey back to the architect requesting critical revisions.

Unfortunately, the missing utility information can take 90 days or more to procure in the City of Chicago and will require the surveyor to go back to the field, setting up the perfect opportunity for him to charge a not-so-competitive fee for the upgrade because he knows he can capitalize on the fact that another surveyor will not likely choose to add to the work that he has already started. Had the architect (or the developer) consulted a civil engineer earlier in the process and allowed them to hire the surveyor directly --or at least provide a performance specification for prospective surveyors to bid on-- then the project could have averted the additional up-charge caused by the avoidable delay.


Had a civil engineer been consulted earlier, the project could have averted the additional chargeS caused by the avoidable delay.


Where given the opportunity to be involved at the very outset of design, the experienced civil is able to tease similar synergies out of the geotechnical and environmental consultants as well.  If you’ve ever engaged an engineer or scientist in conversation about some detailed technical aspect of her expertise I bet you can recall the experience of hearing her voice light up.  That free-flow of knowledge in the quest for solutions to technical challenges not only promotes better engagement, but it builds relationship between parties by sending the message, “I value your skill set.”  

Here is a sampling of a few situations and related questions that a civil engineer might ask geotechnical or environmental consultants before asking them for a proposal:

  • “There’s a possibility we might go with a detention pond, or alternately, an underground vault. How might we tailor your testing approach to cover us for either design?”
  • “I have a map that indicates possible sand subgrade in the general area. If you find sand 3’ below grade how might that change the testing needs?”
  • “I already know that I probably don’t want to set footings on layers of fill. How does that influence your approach?”
  • “It looks like we are going to need to remove the top four feet of soil for disposal based on the site needs. Would that affect your approach for environmental soil sampling?”

These types of questions inevitably spark conversations that lead to more informed professionals, equipping them to make better design and reporting decisions.  In situations where civil is brought on the project after the discovery reports have already been procured by the developer or architect, the ability for civil to have these important conversations, at a juncture where they would provide the most value, is curbed, as each discipline is confined to work more or less in their respective ‘silo’.   

Gold diggers: The more shovels there are digging for answers early on, the bigger the smiles at the groundbreaking.

Gold diggers: The more shovels there are digging for answers early on, the bigger the smiles at the groundbreaking.

Civil, geotechnical, and environmental disciplines are all trying to solve challenges related to the earth.  We study these topics in our schooling, and we all have the common propensity to pick up handfuls of soil while walking a site. Rather than accepting a report commissioned by the developer that’s missing a required single-ring infiltrometer test, for example, the mindful civil will help direct a site discovery program that is most responsive to future needs when given that responsibility early on.

5,000 walmart stores can't be wrong

In spite of an evident bias towards my profession, what I’m preaching here isn’t new. In fact, many of the largest big-box retailers, charged with developing thousands of acres all around the world, put much of the heavy lifting of site development in the hands of a civil consultant -- not the architect. 

They often engage civil engineers directly as prime consultants to assist with site selection and negotiation, lead the due diligence, represent the owner in various capacities, handle the sub-contracts of any site-related design professionals, and, of course, design all of the aspects of the site typically associated with civil engineering: i.e. stormwater management, utilities, site access, earthwork, etc.  They use this tried-and-true model because they’ve learned that keeping the site closest to the civil is what provides the leanest use of the developer's precious 'cap-ex'.     

Big box retailers have long been engaging civils as early as possible in broad, national building campaigns.

Big box retailers have long been engaging civils as early as possible in broad, national building campaigns.

Not long ago, when I worked in the electric power industry, designing power plants, I had a boss who was a good 40 years my senior. He'd say, “Civil is the first guy on the job and the last guy to leave.”  It was his way of telling me to get started on a new site, even if the other disciplines weren’t firing up yet.  Because of that history, for me the idea of working under an architect as a civil mimics the restlessness of a race horse at the starting gate, just waiting to burst into his lane and get going.

Now, hey - don’t get me wrong - some of my best friends (and clients!) are architects. And Lord knows, you do not want me to design any building that you need to look even remotely interesting. But we all have key roles to play on any give project. So, if I haven’t alienated my good architect and surveyor buddies with this soliloquy, then may it somehow be in service to advancing our industry and all of our relationships. And to those of you who’ve now crossed me off your holiday greeting card list, I ask your forgiveness and perhaps a bit of credit here. 

After all, how often do you get to hear an engineer actually talk about 'feelings'?  


Based in Chicago, the author is founder, president and principal project manager for EngageCivil, a civil engineering consulting firm he started in early 2014. He provides civil site design and consulting services to private, municipal, industrial and public entities in the Chicago area. Email:

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