You get what you pay for!

Sep 19, 2021

The quality of your projects sets your firm apart from the competition, so urge your prospective clients to look beyond the costs.

As a developer recently told me, “I like using your firm over others because I get what I pay for, as opposed to other firms where I get what I don’t pay for!” This may seem like an odd statement from a developer looking to keep costs down. However, quality and service turn into time and money. A lot of developers look at their consultants as a commodity, and if one is cheaper than the other, they think they are saving money. This is an uninformed way of looking at our profession. Sometimes going with the cheapest bid or with whoever is the quickest will actually cost more time and money in the long run.

To be truly successful, the project will need a firm that will be a team player in the production of a quality plan and one that will be an advocate for the project, in addition to keeping costs and time in mind. By having the information done correctly and in sufficient detail the first time, a tremendous amount of time and money can be saved.

An example is the base for any project: The topographic survey. As a civil engineer we use a topographic and boundary survey as the base for anything we design. If the survey is wrong, our design is wrong. We prefer to use the surveys that our own staff produce, as we have trained them to get what is needed the first time. However, sometimes we are hired and inherit a topographic survey by others. The quality can vary dramatically and we will do a field check to be sure the topographic portions match the site conditions. It is not uncommon to have to ask the outside surveyor to go back to the field again to obtain all the required information necessary to do a quality plan. This could be a lack of detail, missing easements, utilities not shown, or a boundary that was preliminary. Imagine what can happen to a project if the boundary moves and a building that was designed right up to a setback line forces the team to change things to accommodate a smaller lot. Worse yet, what if this is not discovered until construction starts? All of this can cost a lot of money in time, redesign, or even reconstruction. This is what our developer means by getting what he does not pay for.

The quality of a design can make a huge impact. Almost any firm can get past the permitting process. However, what the governing municipality is looking for could be quite different than what the contractor wants. Municipalities typically review for compliance with their own requirements, however, this does not mean they check to see if the contractor has enough information to build it. This can lead to time delays, cost overruns, and extreme frustration from having to “guess” at the engineer’s intent, assuming they have thought it through in the first place. Easy to read details and construction specifics help ease the construction. The time spent on RFIs or changes to the budget due to lack of specifics or materials can have a huge impact to time and cost of construction.

Aside from clarity, the best engineering plans take the overall use for the project into account. We frequently see other firms that don't think through what they are doing. A good engineer is one who designs a system that works flawlessly, but is not visually impactful to the project. A frequent source of frustration we run into is seeing a drainage system that takes precedence over aesthetics. Many times, we have seen an inlet or junction box in the middle of someone’s beautiful lawn, which could be intended for playing soccer or just to enjoy. Aside from being visually unpleasant, it is also a hazard where someone could get hurt. Part of our internal training is to instruct all designers to treat the design as if it were their own – a place they would use – and to review their choices accordingly. We ask them to put their architect’s and/or client’s hat on and really look at the usability of the site. Does the design make sense?

Quality is most important for project success. It can have huge implications on time, costs, and usability of the project. One of our spotlight projects is the Children’s Playground at Dolores Park in San Francisco. This project used permeable fall surfaces with drainage beneath it. It works great, but no one can see it! By being creative and integrating the drainage so it is not the key feature you see, the park turned into a world class spot for children and parents to enjoy with ease, knowing that the drainage is going to work even if they don’t see it.

When selecting a consultant, we urge our (prospective) clients to look beyond the costs. We do our best to be competitive and constantly check to be sure we are following our budgets, but stress that our quality sets us apart. How important is quality to the design? More often than not, the client will select our firm, even if the other firm is cheaper. Then they keep coming back again and again. This is a smart developer!

Jim Toby is a principal and civil engineer with Lea & Braze Engineering, Inc. He can be reached at

Click here to read this week's issue of The Zweig Letter!

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.