Construction is the largest industrial sector in the world, accounting for 13% of the global economy; but there are storm clouds on the horizon and established engineering consultancies are noticing a gradual sinking feeling.
The undercurrents from the Grenfell tower disaster, digitisation, automation of design, off-site fabrication and the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic are shaking up the entire industry; and these will all seem like minor distractions once the true impacts of the climate crisis start to hit. As with any sudden upheaval, the fastest to adapt will thrive, and the slowest will become extinct.
Some companies are preparing for the storm by embarking on rapid and aggressive expansion, some are diversifying, and some are lashing themselves to a niche capability. The temptation in any crisis is to desperately cling on for control, sticking with what has worked before, and trying to run faster than the competition.
However, when considering the many factors driving change, a number of interconnected themes start to emerge. Three characteristics will define the engineering consultancies which thrive in the future.
In every standard model of project delivery, the consulting engineer works to a brief, following codes to produce a design for construction. However, this model isn’t inevitable, it just happens to be the way the industry has evolved over the past 150 years, and may be about to vanish.
Off-site and modular construction needs detailed design to be completed up-front, whilst the drive to repurpose our existing building stock needs consultants to work as artisans and design on the fly.
Meanwhile, established load cases and design assumptions are becoming obsolete in the face of the climate crisis, and urgent carbon reductions are rapidly making steel and concrete construction untenable, ushering in a wave of alternative techniques and materials.
To thrive in this new world consultants will have to be highly flexible. Flexible about their relationships to projects, when they provide their input, how much risk they can tolerate, and how they charge for their work. And flexible to work from first-principles, defining appropriate safety factors and accepting that codes developed before the climate crisis no-longer provide the definitive ‘right answer’.
The value in engineering consultancy comes from making intelligent and informed decisions which have a direct positive impact on projects, and the world. Engineering is now characterised by huge swirling flows of digital information in documents, emails, BIM models and spreadsheets, which are turned into drawings, reports, and immersive augmented-reality 3D models. The risk for engineering consultants is that they are suddenly obsolete, with clients, architects and contractors using the new digital tools to fill this capability themselves.
To remain useful, engineering consultants need to recognise the three distinct types of work where they can add value. Some work (Type A) will be a crossover between IT and engineering, developing the increasingly complex IT systems. Other work (Type B) will use these digital tools to produce designs more quickly and cheaply than ever. However, a third type of work (Type C) will also be needed, to address the diverse, unprecedented, and complex engineering challenges of the coming years.
The great danger for engineering consultancies will be unknowingly drifting between Type B and Type C work, and thereby failing to excel at either. Type C work will, of course, use the digital tools, but will also require the human skills of Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration and Communication. To excel at Type C work consultants will need to break free from the tempting quick solutions offered by the newly automated design processes, instead, gaining an immersive understanding of fabrication and construction. These engineers need to combine broad diversity of ideas and experience, with ruthless practicality; only then will they be able to address the myriad new challenges of the 21st century.
To thrive as the industry changes, these engineering consultants will need to evolve – quickly. To paraphrase Darwin, survival will rely on four traits:
Successful engineering consultants of the future will focus on eradicating the gap between “design” and “delivery”, understanding that their success is judged by the outcomes of a project, not the quality of a drawing or a report.
The life of engineering consultants is about to get far more exciting. The drudgery continual of back-and-forth communication and following codes will be banished, and innovation and working from first principles will become the norm. Risks will be embraced as an opportunity to learn and days will be spent on site and in workshops, researching diverse new ideas and concepts, or in deep reflection. (Have I inadvertently just described the life of a Victorian Engineer?)
* Nick Francis is founder of Imagine Engineering.
Department of Civil Engineering Department of Civil Engineering – International Burch University (ibu.edu.ba)