8 Warning Signs of Using a ‘Small-Time Engineer’

Frank Bennardo PE Early 2000sI often tell of the warnings to companies that use ‘small-time engineers’ thinking they are saving money & time.  I can tell the story because I used to be that small-time engineer.  That’s me in the photo in the early 2000’s when things were very different in our industry and we ‘small engineers’ ruled the ‘small project’ engineering world that we now call Building Component Engineering at Engineering Express®.

I used to answer the phone, seal and mail my plans, visit job sites often, and I let my clients tell me what my services were worth, how soon I needed to get it done by and get paid what and when they told me I would get paid. We ‘small-time’ engineers were popular because no ‘established firm’ was interested in taking on these pesky ‘smaller projects’ because of the administration, liability, and processing expenses and clients could get permits.  All good, right?

It all worked back then because that engineer seal was all that was needed, there wasn’t any follow-up need, calculations were rarely if ever needed and if they were needed then a page or two of handwritten scribble would do.  Back then building departments were mostly in-house, didn’t discuss things amongst each other, storms and failures were mostly a folktale, and the construction industry just settled in with the status quo of things.  It’s not like that at all anymore, and the trend is engineering work is getting more and more demanding.

As many of these smaller engineers do, I also had another full-time job for a while, I answered voice messages as I could, my clients just had to wait when I took vacations and was unavailable, and I was extremely limited as soon as I was asked to explain or defend my work, not having the resources or deep knowledge to produce calculations, follow up designs, attend meetings, and answer for my work when called upon.  It was a small price for the client to pay for the expedited work and the low fees I offered.

So I put together the top 8 reasons to be leary of hiring a one-man-shop firm:


1. “I’m on Vacation”

Everybody needs a break.  Trouble is that this is a fast-paced, demanding industry. When your engineer takes a few days or more off, that costs you time, money, and maybe the project.  Reliability in service is a cornerstone of the engineering relationship.

2. “I’ll get to you when I can”

I used to have a full-time job when I started my consulting career in 1995. Many smaller engineers are moonlighting, retired, retiring, or just busy.  Voicemail is out and unanswered texts are frustrating.  You need to be able to reach someone day or night when it’s important and know your problem will be addressed.  That’s what I’ve come to realize is so important (see our direction below).

3. Many Small Firms Are Not Properly Insured

As much as I don’t like this trend in the industry, it’s true.  And insurance is expensive, claims are a pain to deal with, and they’re unavoidable, even when the engineer is 100% in the right.  Your engineering firm simply has to be insured. That protects you. Don’t settle for an uninsured engineer in this growing litigious world.  One issue, even if ever so small, wipes out all the money you think you saved using your friend the engineer.

4. Workers Comp? Proper Payroll Coverage? You Could Be At Risk

If someone from a small firm visits your project site and gets hurt, if the company doesn’t have the proper worker’s compensation and general insurance you could be at fault.  Many small firms also hire staff via 1099 or are paid ‘under the table’ which brings a whole other list of problems to your doorstep.  You may not ask and may not care, but when something happens you are liable.  Always ask for proof of insurance and worker’s compensation before inviting an engineer to your project.  Check their car insurance too, an accident or incident on or near a project site could fall upon you if there’s improper coverage.

5. There’s a Need For a Certificate of Authorization Too

How engineering firms are holding on and avoiding this issue is beyond me, but I hear it all the time.  When an engineer is incorporated, their firm has to have a certificate of authorization IN EACH STATE they are doing business in (click here to learn more).  I hear time and again that small engineers try to avoid this by sealing with just their name, but if the quote or check is made out to the firm, or if they email or correspond from the company they are violating engineering rule.  This is a measurable expense but a violation to that engineer could lead to fines and a suspension of their license, putting your projects at risk of being approved by an unlicensed professional.

6. There’s Now a Monumental List of Resources Needed

Back in the day, building codes and referenced standards such as the concrete, aluminum, steel, wood, and design guide ASCE-7 were small publications, easily understood by a single person who could create spreadsheets and shortcuts to comply with code.  These codes have now become volumes upon volumes of information and rules to follow.  It’s simply not possible for a 1-2 person firm to keep up with all the ever-changing regulations and design limitations for you.  They will then buy software to do it for them and lose touch with the theory and reliability of the response, putting you and your project at risk.  It takes a team to continuously update & research these code topics, sometimes a year or more in advance.  This does add a small amount to each project designed but in the long run is an assurance that your project is safe, defendable, and engineered to code.

7. Building Departments & Plan Reviews Aren’t What They Used To Be

Back when I started, the engineer’s seal was king.  If I signed something, it was as good as approved.  But these building departments are staffed by a new breed of reviewers, and many of them are outsourcing their reviews to private firms that charge for their time and profit when they find mistakes and missing items in plans.  Many projects now come with a third-party reviewing firm whose job is to oversee the project for the owner, also profiting from asking questions and proving their worth.  We’ve never seen so many projects requesting detailed calculation booklets that are scrutinized to the silliest detail. I don’t know how a small firm could keep up with the barrage of requests to prove this, explain that, or show me this per such and such a code.  If this hasn’t affected your workflow and project fee yet, it will soon.  Change orders are coming, and while that’s unavoidable, going into a review with an exemplary calculation booklet, a solid reputation, and professionals ready to go to battle to get you a permit, you will be nickel and dimed and delayed until you you’re willing to do anything to get it over with.

8. Lower Price Is An Illusion

“I’ll do that project for $200” – I’ve said that a thousand times back in the day  While I have innovated this solution using our Online Plan Store, when an engineer spends time with you there’s simply no way all of the above could be covered for such a fee, even if they promise a fee like this for volume work.  After insurances, certificates of authorization, proper staff payroll and taxes, workers compensation, code research, proper plan designs, building department revision requests, and responsiveness to your needs, it’s simply not possible.  I will promise we’ll get you there as closely as possible, and cover you every step of the way.

The Direction of Engineering Express

I’ll admit that there was a time when we were getting bigger and more expensive, and we lost our personal touch with our clients.  That all changed with a hard rest due to the global pandemic.

A big silver lining for us was that we listened to our client’s changing needs, reconnected one-on-one, rebuilt our systems, and grew our team to accommodate this new engineering landscape.

Our online Plan Store and Design-Aid Calculators help so many expedite permits throughout the US.  Our greatly improved, proprietary custom project ordering system is providing transparency to prices, completion dates, files, communication, and project management.  And all this is backed by a personal connection to staff, reachable in many ways.  From our Live Chat, text-enabled office phone lines, project management direct communication chatting & direct number dialing, we’ve never been more accessible.  Everyone on staff has layers of backup staff & systems and is cross-trained in multiple departments.

The question is when will you, the customer, realize the incredible benefits we have to offer over the way things ‘have always been done’?

Visit EngineeringExpress.com to learn more and experience our incredible resources. And as always, I’m accessible to you day and night. And my direct number is 954-520-7767 which also rings to my cell. Or you can email me at [email protected].

Let’s change the building component world together, one innovation at a time.    -Frank Bennardo P.E. Licensed in over 40 states across the US.

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