Tom Székely, P.E., LEED AP

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July 28, 2005

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Bechtel and I, or, Corporate vs. Personal Engineering


The part in my one page advertising flyer which describes the history and capabilities Székely Engineering speaks of providing “personalized service” for a very good reason.  As I tell first time callers who ask to speak to me, “You’re talking to him.”  That is, not only am I a sole proprietor rather than a corporation or partnership, but there is no one (as in no body) else.   I don’t even have a part-time office assistant.


When I first went out on my own in 1983, some clients became concerned when they discovered I didn’t fit their preconceived notion of what was necessary in order to meet their needs. Most came to see that their concerns were unfounded. A few didn’t. Life is like that.


A large part of my job is to perform in a manner which keeps those concerns at bay, but they nevertheless remain, and need to be addressed.


The most obvious one, and the one I heard first from a potential client, was something along the lines of “What if you get hit by a truck?” to which the answer is “How is that any different from you getting hit by a truck?”  Since I’m not the only engineer on earth, if I became incapable of completing a project, it shouldn’t be overly difficult to find a replacement. 


Related to this is the belief that larger firms provide the advantage to the potential client of always having someone available to pick up a project when the designated project manager is unable to attend to the project, but is this really an advantage?  It can be, when the backup person is up to the task.  It can also be downright counterproductive at times.  What if Joan forgot (or was unable) to tell Frank that you had been particularly concerned about the fact that your structural engineer needed the weights of the proposed rooftop mechanical equipment by the next project meeting?  Oops. 


The only person I need to tell anything to is me. Who says talking to yourself is a bad thing?


This is not to say I can do anything a a larger firm can do, because it’s obvious that I can’t.


I can’t provide complete MEP engineering services for an entire high-rise building or a complete process chemical plant, just as a custom yacht builder can’t build aircraft carriers for the United States Navy.


I also can’t pile manpower on to a project to meet a schedule, and therein hangs a tale.


Quite a while ago, I walked away from tens of thousands of square feet of tenant space for Hot Jobs after I worked through the Christmas and New Year’s holidays to assuage the fears of the Construction Manager regarding the project’s schedule.   He’d made a show of telling all assembled, at more than one project meeting, that I needed to hire help in order to meet the schedule. I was loath to do so, and finally decided I’d had enough when I discovered (after my effort) that my work wasn’t the critical path after all.


More recently, I lost another project where I’d warned my client (an Architect) that my schedule and his would come into conflict if he expected me to complete my work in weeks after we’d both been discussing schema and he’d been doing design development for months. I’d told him that my schedule was already fairly jammed up with other projects, and it turned out that while I could in fact have completed my work in weeks, it couldn’t be the particular two weeks we’d both had in mind.  I’d committed to doing the work the first two weeks in December, to meet a January first deadline. My workload didn’t lighten.   I already told you what happened the last time I worked through Christmas and New Year’s.


I was replaced.


So, why would I quit or get fired?  I mean, why not just:


a.)    hire help, or,


b.)    get a moonlighter


Well, we all know the first option is a bit much for just one project, but what’s the matter with the second?


Truth be told, I’ve already tried that.  I discovered that while we are all human, and therefore make mistakes and can’t, hard as we may try, always meet our commitments, I could count on the moonlighters I hired to be late, or wrong, or both, and came to the belated realization that I could be late and wrong on my own, and shouldn’t have to pay anyone to help me do it.


Incidentally, when I first hired them, it wasn’t to meet schedules. Rather it was to do work outside my field of expertise, which was back then only electrical engineering – this was not very saleable to an Architect as a stand-alone capability, notwithstanding the fact that, by then, I’d had over twenty years experience, much of it hands-on in the field.  Furthermore, because over half of my experience was with heavy construction firms such as Bechtel, Lummus, and Crawford & Russell, I had a hard time getting used to what I considered the sketchy presentation comprised by a commercial firm’s design/bid documents (and therefore still have a predilection to produce a highly detailed and thorough set of drawings and specifications).


To get back to the point, I needed people who could do HVAC, or sprinkler, or plumbing design, and produce a professional looking set of drawings, two skills (design and drafting) which rarely seemed to inhabit the same body.  I either got somebody who could design well but whose drawings looked like the pencil was being held in his feet (the advent of CAD has not substantially mitigated bad drafting, but that’s another story), or someone who drew beautifully, but would telephone to ask if 2+2=4


On top of all that, when I started to get calls regarding HVAC or Plumbing problems after systems had been in use for some weeks after a project’s completion, it became apparent that moonlighters just weren’t working, and I had to first learn, and then become expert in, those fields too.


This has put me in what I believe to be the enviable position of coordinating a mechanical-electrical-plumbing/fire protection package with myself, and being able to answer any MEP/FP question on the spot without having to bring two or three other bodies to a meeting.


Not a bad place to be.


Architects hanker for days of old, to be the Master Builder.  For MEP/FP, I’m it.

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