Affordable Engineering Services

When someone mentions affordable engineering services, I'm reminded of the adage, "You get what you pay for". The nature of capitalism leads some engineering and surveying firms to try capturing projects and market share by reducing the price of their services. Of course, they cannot stay in business if they don't also reduce the cost of performing these services by the same amount. Companies must make a profit to survive. This unfortunate nature of capitalism means that the cost/quality relationship of engineering services is going to spiral downward to the least common denominator.

A good example is the automobile industry. Most buyers don't seem to care that they can practically push a finger through the body skin of new cars or that automobiles aren't expected to last 10 years. As long as the new models are affordable, fashionable, and have cup holders, Americans will buy them.

What scares me is the thought of consumers zeroing in on engineering. Clients of engineering services, who are also victims of consumerism, demand the right to buy these critical services at affordable prices while assuming that the law of caveat emptor has been repealed. And itís the consulting engineer who is taking it on the chin, working extra hard to avoid embarrassing and costly errors and omissions, but getting lower and lower fees.

This leads to a situation where some clients buy engineering services without regard to quality simply because they are conditioned to expect everything to be right. After all, many don't know what goes into engineering design. To them, engineering is just another line item in the project budget like sheetrock to a home builder. And like home builders they will look for inexpensive engineering services. Sooner or later, something is


going to give. Engineering firms cannot be profitable churning out cheap work. Errors and omissions will inevitably become more commonplace.

Do you ever see construction project managers running around job sites boasting about the high quality of the engineering, design? Not lately. Theyíre too busy inside the field office either checking the integrity of the design or seat-of-the-pants designing whatever was omitted from the plans. Poor quality is driving out good because thatís what the market wants to buy.

When small manufactured products are defective, you can return them for a refund. Try that with a set of cheap construction plans. When the storm sewer is built on the wrong side of the property line, itís too late. Unfortunately, engineers canít simply replace the plans with a new set. They first have to undo the costly error. Then both the client and the engineer get burned.

Unless consulting engineers do something about it, the problem will get worse before it gets better. We shouldnít forget that capitalism is democracy in action. Engineers cast a vote every time they lower their fees. That vote tells clients that if they are willing to make a $50,000 purchase indiscriminately and based on price alone, the engineer will be willing to deliver a design of substandard quality in order to complete the deal. Even if it takes both of them right down the drain. Once the downward spiral starts, engineers havenít much choice. They either meet market demands or perish.

At this point, itís engineers who hold the cards. Thereís no such thing as affordable engineering services.

By T.G. Stringer, P.E.