Lessons from a Diner: Up Front Costs can Save You Money in your Engineering Practice (law note)

greekgrilled.jpgI happen to frequent a place in my hometown called Elmo’s Diner.  A lot.  As in, many of the servers know me by name.  The food is good, yes.  The selection is great.  But there is a much more important reason that I go there over and over again– the service.  Elmo’s seems to always have enough staff on hand, and they also work together to make sure your wait is never very long.

There are some other places in town that skimp on hiring waiters and waitresses.  I guess they figure, the fewer they have working at any one time, the less money they have to pay out.  Even though, of course, waiter minimum wage is much lower than regular minimum wage due to the tip factor.  But some of these other places (who shall remain unnamed) really do seem to have the mindset that they will save money by not hiring enough staff for the number of customers.

Maybe that thinking works for them- in the short run.  Do you know how much money I spend at Elmo’s Diner?  Let’s just put it this way– I really should invest in direct deposit with them!  These other places?  I forget, and go to them every now and again, thinking, it can’t be all bad, right?  And almost always, I remember why I do NOT go to them.

Now, back to construction.  Many professional service firms are like the unmentionable restaurants above– they skimp on things that “cost money”.  Notably, in two areas (1) professional liability insurance (errors & omissions coverage), and (2) getting legal assistance at the beginning of a project.  These architects & engineers are making the same short-sighted mistake, thinking they are “saving money.”  And yet, very often, in the long run they are costing themselves money– in contract disputes, legal wrangling at project end, or in paying out of pocket for large claims.

You should have E&O insurance if you are a working professional.  Period.  You should also have your contracts and proposals reviewed by a lawyer.  Preferably, before any major new undertaking.  The up front costs are small, but the impact can be huge.  Just ask anyone at Elmo’s.

Your turn.  Are there places that you frequent because of their superior service?  Do the extra costs seem to pay for themselves over time?  Share below. 

Belts, suspenders, and breakfast bars: construction contract tips (law note)

SuspendersBelts, suspenders, and breakfast bars.  Want to know what they have in common, or how they relate to your construction contracts?

Take a gander over to Construction Law Musings this morning, where I am guest-posting on the importance of being clear– very clear– in your construction contracts.

Key takeaways?

  •  clear up possible points of confusion
  •  don’t “wing it” with old contracts
  •  read your entire contract during the negotiation phase

Read the entire post at this link:  Belt & Suspenders: the preferred style for your Construction Contract.

See you there!




Give Way or Yield? The jurisdiction of your contract does matter! (Law note)

give way signHave you ever been to England?  If so, you’ve likely seen their version of our “Yield” sign– the “Give Way” sign.  It is a bit jarring to those from this side of the “big pond”.

Similarly, contracts can be worded differently– and, interpreted differently– depending on the state that you are in.  This is why it is always a good idea to have your contract or proposal vetted for the state(s) where you provide professional services.

When confronted with a “give way” sign you have the general idea of yielding, but might be confused by that whole “left side of the road” thing in some countries, where if you are turning right, you must give way to all vehicles coming towards you including those turning left.  Likewise, you might have a good understanding of your construction contract in one state, but not how it would be interpreted in another state.

As just one of many examples– the statute of repose can vary widely.  In North Carolina, it is 6 years.  In South Carolina, it is 10 years.   The jurisdiction (state) that you are in does matter– sometimes critically so.

Have you ever found yourself in trouble because of a difference of state laws from what you are most familiar with?  Share in the comments section below.



Learn from SONY: Don’t use trash talk in your construction project emails!

Bears hibernating

A hibernating bear and her cubs

Lessons in construction administration come from everywhere — including the SONY scandal.

In case you are a bear hibernating in a cave (in which case, go back to sleep!), you’ve heard about the SONY hacking that was apparently, but not definitively, done by North Korea due to their displeasure over the movie The Interview.  And, you may have found it amusing to read of the inner bickering at SONY, at lease until the threat of a national incident and the (at least temporary) yanking of the movie from its planned Christmas release.

Lost in all of the discussion about taste, censorship, security, and First Amendment rights, however, was a simple lesson for each of us.  Never put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want to see on the TMZ report, the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times.  For example, don’t call one of the biggest stars in your studio (Angelina Jolie) a “minimally talented spoiled brat.”

I’ve written about this before, but this is a fine time to remind you that someday, someone will read your emails.  And that someone will not be privy to your internal jokes, quirky sense of humor, or understand that you just had a bad day.  If you have to have those awkward conversations– have them in person, or at least on the phone.  Don’t play around with written communications.  Every email, text, tweet, Facebook post, letter, note, or diary entry can be discoverable in a lawsuit.

We’ve all done it.  Sent inappropriate emails.  Vents.  Laments.  Stop.  Endeavor to be boring rather than funny in all of your online accounts.  You may be only laughing on the inside, but you’ll still have a job, respect, and knowledge that there are no hidden documents waiting to shame you at the stroke of a hacker’s keyboard.  And, tell your employees to do the same.

Do you have an example of getting an inadvertent email or text?  Something that could have been embarrassing if it leaked beyond your firm?  Share in the comments below.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia.







Bats, Water, Soil, and Bridges- an Engineer’s dream

Want to know how bats may effect your engineering plans?  Want to hear about cool new bridges?  Read on.

Over the past month, I’ve had the pleasure of attending two events hosted by the North Carolina Chapter of the ACEC (American Council of Engineering Companies).  The first of these was the Joint Transportation Conference, held in conjunction with the NC DOT.  The second was the annual ACEC Engineering Excellence Awards.  At both events, I learned interesting information that engineers should know. Today, I will discuss the Transportation Conference, including some new regulations and unusual design methods.  I will save the highlights from the Excellence Awards for later this week.

Northern Long-eared Bat

Northern Long-Eared Bat

  1.   It’s a cave, it’s a bat, it’s bats, man!     Did you know that your future bridge project may be effected by the Northern Long-Eared Bat?  It’s true.  Right now, the federal government is considering listing the bat on the Endangered Species List, due to the 98-99% mortality rate the bats are experiencing due to “white nose syndrome”. Over 1,700 projects in North Carolina could be impacted, including work on bridges, culverts, abandoned buildings, and guardrails–essentially, any activity involving tree clearing, structure demolition/removal, or structure maintenance. On November 26th, 2014, the US Fish and Wildlife Service extended the comment period to discuss the implications of listing the bat on the endangered species list. If the bat is listed, there is no grandfathering of projects.  All projects will immediately be required to engage in protective activities. Stay tuned, but be aware that your transportation projects could be effected starting sometime next year.


2.  Is that a pirate on your map or is it worse–soil contamination? 

known and possible soil contamination

known and possible soil contamination

At the conference, we also heard from the GeoEnvironmental Section of NC DOT on their geologic symbols for known or potential contamination. Known contamination consists of soil or ground water samples that have been analyzed; or by evidence of such contamination as cracked transformers, battery casings, unusual odors while excavating, or new anecdotal information about past use. Potential contamination, in contrast, is for areas where there is no data, but historical maps or photos which indicate current or assumed past uses of possible contamination, such as gas stations, dry cleaner facilities, auto body facilities, chemical manufacturers, landfills, and manufacturing plants. Both known and potential contamination sites are important for designers, as they consider:

  • large cuts, drainage, utilities, or stream relocations in contaminated areas
  • selecting chemical resistant construction materials
  • additional costs for materials, remediation
  • other unanticipated costs or complications


highway stormwater program     3.  Water, water everywhere!  We also heard what’s new with the Highway Stormwater Program, including the updated Post-Construction Stormwater Program and the companion Stormwater BMP Toolbox manual. To learn more about these programs, check out:

  • The NCDOT Stormwater website, which contains useful links; and
  • The Highway Stormwater youtube chancel of training videos, which is still in development but will include environmental sensitivity maps, nutrient load accounting tools, and stormwater management plans.


Dragon Bridge

Dragon Bridge

4.  Cool, cool bridges  One of the highlights of the conference was hearing about some truly unique bridge designs, including:

  • The Tappan Zee Hudson River Crossing, in New York, featuring twin-tower cable stayed structures and all electronic toll collection
  • Vietnam’s Dragon Bridge, a truly working piece of art; and
  • The Milton-Madison Bridge Slide, (Indiana/Kentucky) the longest bridge slide in North America.  The Milton-Madison Bridge Slide was  a feat of engineering design.  Using “truss sliding” a new 2,427 foot long truss was moved along steel rails and plates and “slid” into place atop the existing, rehabilitated, bridge piers.


What about you?  Did you attend the conference?  If so, what insight did you take away?  Share in the comments, below.


Photo credits:  Bats ; soil marks from NCDOT presentation; Dragon Bridge

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