Time, and fitting it all in

Today I want to talk about time, and more specifically the lack of it.

Previously, I posed the question “If it took a small team of consultants many months to design something in the first place, how then can one person replicate something similar in just a few weeks?”

There are a number of ways in which this is possible, some of which are more effective than others, some more interesting than others, and some more relevant than others given the applied time constraints.

In no particular order, and by no means not an exhaustive list:

  1. Experience    
  2. Shortcuts
  3. Excellent tools
  4. Cribbing
  5. Differing incentives


Coming in at number one, our old friend experience. It’s not interesting, but it is effective. Increased experience makes you better and quicker at every task you perform, and it makes you better at selecting the methods of getting a job done before your deadline. 


Shortcuts, or rules of thumb, are used to take experience of past projects and apply them to the job at hand. The simplest example might be this: if you have previously constructed, say, a supermarket of area 500m² for a cost of £500k, you can assume that, roughly speaking, a similar supermarket of twice the size -  1000m² - would be twice the cost, or £1m. This is a powerful tool in your arsenal when time is tight, or details are scant.


The tools, or the *software*, at the disposal of an engineer working for a fabricator are the best there is. Whereas a consultant must spread their funds thinly to buy software covering all their competencies, a fabricator has just one section of the market to worry about. I’ve dealt with large multinational practices who have issues with sharing very small numbers of licenses between hundreds of staff for the very same software for which we have a copy for every engineer. For having the specialist tools for getting things done, we have an embarrassment of riches at our fingertips.


Cribbing is something we can and do take advantage of. Whilst we must rebuild from scratch everything the consultant has done in our software, whilst altering those details we feel will give us a price advantage, we do not have to replicate the toil of decision making and iteration that has led them to the design and thus the drawings presented to us. We must always take care to cast a critical eye over anything we crib, but it is an undeniable boon when we must work so quickly.


Now, the differing incentives between consultants and fabricators is the interesting hook which allows our business of Design and Build to thrive at all. This section is different from the previous four: whilst experience, shortcuts, tools and cribbing allow us to save time, it is the way in which time competes with other factors in consultancy that provides Design and Build fabricators a niche to operate in. Allow me to explain:

When designing a structural frame, a consultant engineer is always mindful of the cost of his scheme to the end client - it must remain within budget or the project may not even go ahead - however this is only one of several competing factors a consultant must balance. For instance, the frame should contain some design contingency, that is to allow for some amount of unknown loading to avoid costly redesign should a client need to make small changes later in the design period. The frame should probably have a degree of rationalisation - that is keeping elements similar across the scheme to keep it simple at the cost of some extra weight. One other important competing factor is our theme for the day: time.

Consultants usually work on fixed fees on projects of a reasonable size - that is the cost of the design is agreed up front with their end client. The effect of this is that once a steel framed building’s design is stable, rationalised, checked, and within budget the only sensible thing to do is freeze the design, and get it drawn. There is no further benefit to the consultant for spending any time or resources to make the frame cheaper** to the client, as they won’t see any reward for any savings in the weight of steel made, in fact they will have wasted time: something of an act of self-harm seeing as consultancy fees are billed by the hour. The effect of this is that quite rightly, because of their particular incentives, consultant designs are often heavier than they need to be, which gives businesses such as the one I work for a unique selling point - we can take those designs, and use our skills as specialists to whittle out the excess in them and make the same building for less money.

** Note: the fashionable term in construction for “cheaper” is “more cost effective”. Whilst it avoids the negative connotations of “cheaper” I try to strive for clarity in language, so “cheaper” it is.