“Ripping off the Band-Aid” is what people do when they want to make discomfort as short-lived as possible. Similar to “putting something to bed” but not quite as drastic as “this is going to hurt me more than it is going to hurt you,” ripping off a Band-Aid does have a hint of compassion as it implies that the person doing the ripping may have placed the bandage or that they will be there to continue the healing process once the hair ripping adhesive has been removed. In the fields of construction and engineering, we are often put in a position where we must break some bad news to someone and rip off that Band-Aid.
Think about the life of a project from inception to certificate of occupancy. A client who is embarking on a major renovation or construction project for the first time may be shocked at what is required per code to build an occupiable structure. To them, it could feel more like being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool. How we, as engineers, represent our knowledge and experience will play a role in the success of our collective endeavors. It may even have a lasting impact on someone that emanates and ripples outwards.
Before we explore the set of “soft skills” that we employ during our experience as engineers and contractors, we should think about the impulses that drive our reactions. On the surface “ripping off the bandaid” could seem like a type of Schadenfreude. If you have never seen or heard this word before it is a German word defined as “pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.” Admit it, we all get a little twinge of joy from seeing an adversary’s ice cream fall off the cone. For the psychology minors out there, Schadenfreude turns out to be the pleasure we feel from watching the ice cream fall. If we were the person to cause someone’s creamy ball of delight to fall onto the ground (at a rate of 32.2 feet per second squared) it would be sadistic, defined as “deriving pleasure from inflicting pain, suffering or humiliation on others.”
The better we collaborate in order to create the clearest documentation, the better our chances to set the stage for a construction project that is more like a festival at a county fair where we all bring our best in show rather than a slug-fest.
Psychological nuances aside, let’s look at that first phone call engineers get. It might be from an architect looking to retain your MEP services or a building owner who needs to do major renovations in order to better utilize their brick-and-mortar structure. One example of “bad news” that engineers may need to break is upgrading a building for code compliance. In plumbing and fire protection, it could be the requirement to provide a new fire suppression system, FOG (fuel/oil/gas) treatment, or lab waste neutralization. Electrical engineers may need to let the owner know that they need a new fire alarm system or emergency generator. HVAC engineers might need to break the news that a new air handler is required for pharmacy upgrades. We should consider how we come across as we offer our professional services. Are we thinking, “Boy, I’m really going to sock it to ‘em,” or are we keeping our clients interests in mind? I remember working at a firm that sold pumps when one of the owners convinced a potential client that they actually did not need a booster pump. I remember the look on the salesperson’s face as we left the room and they were scratching their head.
What comes next? We engineers and designers finally have made it through the process of putting contract documents together. Easy right? Drawings and specifications, the whole ball of wax. Maybe it was an effort for a modest renovation that took you four days because the project manager told you about it on Monday and needed it by Friday. Or, maybe it was a project that you’ve been working on for the last three years and has basically consumed your every waking moment. It’s gone out to bid, contract has been awarded and construction is ready to begin. You get your first RFI (request for information) e-mail. Your first instinct is to forward it to the IT department and report it as spam, but you decide to open it.
A wise boss once explained to me that we had to “set the tone” at the beginning of the construction process. That particular job we were working on turned out to basically be a slug-fest. Sometimes our drawings, specifications and code can feel as if they are being weaponized. How many times do contractors find things that engineers miss in their documentation and how many times do engineers require contractors to provide scope that goes above and beyond what is in the best interest of the client? The better we collaborate in order to create the clearest documentation, the better our chances to set the stage for a construction project that is more like a festival at a county fair where we all bring our best in show rather than a slug-fest.
I would encourage everyone to try and attend public board meetings related to code requirements for buildings. I was at a state board of appeal meeting once where someone wanted to open a group home to help people get back on their feet. The code requirement was that the building needed to be protected with a sprinkler system and the water main coming in was not big enough. The owner could not afford the cost to dig up the sidewalk and have a new, larger main installed. The board of appeal deliberated with compassion and understanding. They communicated with empathy to the homeowner what the code requirements were and why they were important.
As engineers and contractors, we have responsibilities to help build safe spaces for people. We need to know the codes and standards that are required when we create our design documents. When human errors arise, or unforeseen conditions are discovered that will add cost and burden to a project, we should take a look and see if we can act for everyone’s best outcome, experience a feeling of goodwill, or Freuden Freude, where everyone works for the success of the project as a whole.