stressed engineer

Engineers: Here’s How to Avoid Those Common Communication Mistakes

Humans have a broad and rich communication skill set which no other species comes close to matching. This allows rapid and rich information transfer and conveyance of concrete and abstract ideas. Verbal cues like inflection, tone, and speed allow people to express intent as well as concept. Body language like stance, posture, and foot position complement the verbal cues and subconsciously reinforce them. Letters and pictograms record our thoughts for future generations to ponder.

A dog bark communicates danger, but a human warning communicates the same danger as well as how to deal with it. So with this wide and deep ability to communicate, why is it that so many of us aren’t good at communicating? Engineers in particular are notorious for being poor communicators. I’ve got my thoughts on why, but that’s another blog for another day.

In the A/E field, effective communication is vital to meeting due dates, conveying intent, understanding code issues, and explaining design decisions. On every project, we make decisions that will cost the owner money and we need to clearly explain why. When competent communication occurs among the design team, great things happen. So how do we communicate better as an A/E team?

1. Translate tech-talk

In general, engineers communicate best with other engineers, and even then, only when they are on parity with each other. Try having a structural engineer carry on a discussion with an electrical engineer. Hilarity ensues! “Explain like I’m five,” or ELI5 to all you Redditors, is good to remember when trying to explain complex engineering concepts. Break down a complex concept using common analogies everyone understands.

2. Be prompt and responsive

Issues occur and clients need answers ASAP. Almost without fail, major issues crop up when you have the least amount of time to deal with them. A simple email response letting the client know you received their email or voicemail and will respond when you get through with what you’re working on goes a long way towards keeping a situation from growing out of proportion.

3. Explain the ‘Why’

One word answers to architects is partly why engineers are stereotyped as they are. Whenever you solve a problem, you follow a process guided by logic and reason. People want to know this process, especially when money is involved. Question from architect: “Can I have multiple services to my building?”. Typical engineer answer: “No.” Proper engineer answer: “No, the code won’t allow this because we don’t meet any of the exceptions for capacity, building size, different voltages or multiple occupants.”

4. Speak

Emails are easy, fast, one-dimensional communications and they excel at providing objective information like directions and data. They should never be used to carry on a conversation. You can’t convey intent or feeling via email, so your words are open to interpretation by the recipient and their current state of mind. Pick up the phone and have a conversation. You will quickly gauge the severity of an issue with a conversation and be able to rapidly troubleshoot solutions. Follow up with an email to summarize the conversation and the decisions made.

5. Listen and ask

Listen to the person speaking and understand what they are saying. Don’t just hear them.Be attentive. If you don’t know what they’re talking about, ask. I don’t know all the terms a structural engineer uses and can’t visualize her solution in my head. I don’t want to misinterpret her intent because I might create unintended consequences, so I ask questions to make sure I know what’s going on. Ignorance is excusable, willful ignorance is not.

I hope these tips help. I know they’ve helped me greatly over the years.

construction site with project managers

10 Traits That Take MEP Engineers From Good to Great

In our industry we come across many different types of people. Some are easy going while others are rather difficult to work with. A hallmark of a consummate professional is being able to tactfully work with all these different types of folks.

There are certain characteristics that people possess which set them aside from the rest and allow them to excel at working with a variety of different people. Engineers in general have the reputation of being sticks in the mud when it comes to interpersonal skills. We are great at designing airplanes, rockets, and power systems, just don’t ask us to explain why we designed a certain way. We can be known to confuse you with our explanations, not deliberately, but just because we are more comfortable with numbers than with words.

In order to have a successful client/engineer relationship, though, it is mandatory that we focus on the relational skills that don’t always come naturally.

These traits are what elevate a good engineer into a great engineer:

  1. Reliability. You must trust your engineer will deliver what he says, when he says he will.
  2. Resourcefulness. Not every problem requires an expensive field change to correct. Sometimes literal code interpretations fix problems. Sometimes creative (“it depends on what the definition of is, is”) code interpretations fix the problem. Sometimes a good dose of Plato’s logic solves the problem. A good engineer knows what resources are available to her and brings them to bear as they are needed. She keeps up to date with code changes and thinks about how they will impact her design.
  3. Punctuality. Show up on time or be early. We all have busy schedules and punctuality shows we respect the other person’s time, and by extension, the other person. Deliver your project when you say you will, not days later.
  4. Strong ethics. Perhaps the hardest thing to do is stand for an ethical issue in the face of intense pressure from the owner, especially when money is involved. An unethical engineer who breaks the rules when it suits him is not a person you can rely on.
  5. Honesty. Without honesty there is no trust, and without trust, relationships (both personal and professional) do not work.
  6. Proactive attitude. Taking the initiative and getting ahead of issues before they become problems is always better than being reactionary to them.
  7. Strong communication skills. It does no good to resolve an issue and not be able to clearly communicate the fix. A good communicator speaks clearly and at a technical level which is appropriate for his audience. He explains the problem and solution in a way that everyone can understand.
  8. Being a team player. Projects are not delivered by a single person, but by a group of separate players all working in concert. Good team players use their best skills and closet away their worst. They are always willing to go the extra mile and keep their ego in check because they know the end result will be something greater than anyone could individually produce.
  9. Accountability. Being responsible for the decisions you make and the consequences of those decisions is a hallmark trait of professionals. If we don’t make mistakes, we don’t learn and if we don’t learn we stagnate, so being accountable is part of growing as a professional.
  10. Professionalism. A professional has the skill and exhibits the knowledge and judgment to do a job well. A professional has the bearing and acts in a tactful manner regardless of the issues presented them.

The History and Character of Buildings

A client of ours has an office on the second floor of a mixed-use building in a high-end retail development that they designed.  It’s a beautiful development—the buildings are tastefully designed and the site is thoughtfully laid out. The building’s masonry, details, textures, and colors flow well with the storefronts of the high-end retailers and the expensive apartments above.  

Defining the character of a building

However, when walking through the site, I felt like like something was missing.  Some critical spice was missing from this masala blend of capitalism and design.  This nagging feeling stayed with me as I walked down the main road until I came across the central fountain and a mother chasing her kids through it. And then all at once, it hit me: This development, in all its beauty and design grace was missing one thing: character.    

A person’s character is created by their actions.  A building’s character is created by the events inside it and the history it witnesses. The client’s project is only one year old. Not enough time has passed for people to build memories within. Not enough time has passed for people to age with it. And that’s what I was sensing. Don’t misunderstand, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that; everything new has to start at the beginning, and character only comes with time.

With history comes character

Now, contrast all that with 202 E. Main St. in Rock Hill. This building was constructed in 1924 for the Rock Hill supply company. Over the years it has been a supply company, a furniture store, a photography studio, and an antique warehouse.  It witnessed the great depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the roofing over of downtown Rock Hill in 1977.  It has also had nearly 4 generations of people walk through its doors. We’ll never know how many laughs, tears, jokes, and arguments that building has heard over the years—but we do know that all of them combined with its 92-year history have given it a character of its own.  

You feel it as soon as you walk through the front doors. That feeling of accomplishment, of observed wisdom, and of quiet loudness.  Big tip-of-the hat to Vinyet Architecture of Rock Hill for fusing the character of 202 E. Main with modern design to create a unique blend of old and new which beckons the passer-by to look inside.  Kudos to building co-owner Joe Lanford for continuing to try new things. (Joe led the effort to build a roof over downtown Rock Hill and jumped at the chance to refurbish 202 E. Main.)  And congrats to SPAN Enterprises and SecondBrick Events who had the foresight to want offices with pizazz and style.

Historic projects are challenging—and rewarding

VP Engineering has repurposed several dozen buildings over the years.  We have a good deal of experience with these types of projects and can say without a doubt they all have one thing in common:  They pose challenges you couldn’t conceive of before construction starts. Water damage, failing structure, bat guano, tight ceilings, insufficient space…all these issues remain hidden until the hammers start swinging.  

Every new construction decision impacts several previous decisions, and they always seem to impact a budget which is never quite large enough.  Fitting MEP systems into an old building is a challenge which requires careful coordination between the architect, engineer, GC, and owner.  

For 202 E. Main, deciding which MEP systems and components to use and where to place them required several coordinative iterations between the architect and MEP engineers.  The RFIs and phone calls were frequent, but the end result was worth it.  A historic building in downtown Rock Hill has gotten a new lease on life and sits waiting to grow its character for another 92 years.

Photos courtesy of Vin-Yet Architecture


craft brew in charlotte nc

The Rise of the Queen City’s Craft Brew Industry

After riding the wave of the recession, we at VP Engineering have been privileged to experience the growth of construction and building in our region, and, in particular, here in Charlotte.  An unexpected yet wonderful offshoot of this growth is the rise of the Queen City’s Craft Brew industry.

A boom in craft brewing.

Since Olde Mecklenburg Brewery started just over 6 years ago, Charlotte has become a regional mecca for craft brewing and garnered national attention as far west as Washington State. Currently, Charlotte has just over 20 breweries with an equal number in various stages of pre-opening.

One brewery that wisely recognized this trend early-on was Birdsong Brewery. Originally located in a 4,500-square-foot at 2315 North Davidson Street and started in December of 2011, Birdsong recently relocated to a new facility.  Their new digs at 1016 N. Davidson St. is more than triple the size of the original brewery.  VP was proud to have worked alongside Watts Leaf Architects to turn an old Mitchum potato chip factory into Birdsong’s new taproom and film Wonder Woman 2017 now

The evolution of brewing.

Brewing has come a long way since its discovery 7,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.  Brewers no longer ferment beer in large clay jars and use wood fires to heat the mash. They have graduated to stainless steel brew kettles and steam boilers.

Today we enjoy the libations in cool beer gardens and tap rooms surrounded by our friends instead of on the hot plains of Mesopotamia looking out for wild animals.  Modern breweries are either new or refurbished industrial buildings with offices, brew floors and tap rooms.

MEP meets the brewing industry.

Talking about MEP design can, admittedly, be a little boring, but if we’ve done our job right, you’ll never even know we did anything at all!  MEP design for breweries is a mix of office, restaurant, storage and industrial design.

Mechanical systems are designed to provide a comfortable environment while meeting the different outside air requirements of the various use areas.  Electrical systems are sized to accommodate the design loads and, if the brewer is ambitious, any future expansion loads.  Lighting in the brew areas need to be bright while lighting in the tap room is more subdued.  The water service needs to be large enough to supply bathrooms, kitchens and the brew process while allowing for washdown of the equipment.

Our success as design engineers rests on the user’s satisfaction.  People want the lights to work when the switch is flipped and the AC to run when it’s hot.

It pays to trust the experts.

When it comes to MEP design, we are experts in our field.  When it comes to the beer, we leave that to the other experts: Birdsong Brewery.  So, next time you’re enjoying a Birdsong Jalapeno Pale Ale, let’s cheers to how lucky we are to be living in the new craft brew mecca of the South. A place where someone thought to combine two of God’s greatest gifts: beer and jalapenos.  How cool is that?