11 Ways on How to Choose an Engineering Firm to Hire

There are 11 things you need to know about to choose the best engineering firm to hire. The wrong firm choice can be catastrophic.

If you choose poorly, you may get lucky and get average work in return. If you’re unlucky though, you’ll be in a world of pain. I speak from experience, as both a customer and engineer. On that note, I’m going to use my experience to show you how not to choose poorly.

#1 What services does the firm offer? 

Choose an engineering firm whose core services align with your project’s scope. You’ll then avoid simple blunders.

Also, if an inexperienced firm says they can quickly learn to do your work, then run. You’re not paying big bucks to educate a bunch of engineers. Especially because, in engineering, the design difficulties are in the last 1% of the work. And to master this last 1% of design work, you need A LOT of experience.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm 

Tip #1: project history

Request to see completed projects similar to yours. Ask for customer references too, both emails and phone numbers.

Just as important, make sure the projects are recently completed work. Otherwise, the engineers who did the original work may be long gone.

Tip #2: in-house work 

Make sure the firm completes its offered services in-house. Sometimes, a firm will say they offer a service, but in fact, they’re outsourcing their work. They’re just a middleman.

#2 Will the firm take your project the full 9-yards?

engineers discussing construction matters

Are a firm’s offered services all completed in-house? Or at the very least, the firm only sub-contracts out small parts of your project.

Keep in mind, if YOU outsource to multiple firms yourself, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Your project can quickly turn into an engineering and management nightmare. Unless of course, you have experience with engineering management. But, do you really want to manage engineers, when you can do better things?…

So, find firms who can do your project in-house, or have experience with project management. For the latter, the firm will manage all sub-contractors on your behalf. They’ll keep your project on schedule without any loss in quality.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm 

Tip #1: number of sub-contractors

Ask what portion of your work will remain in-house.

Tip #2: organizational chart of all contractors

Request a flow chart showing all the sub-contractors under the prime contractor. You’ll then know all the players in your project. Also, ask how many years of experience all the firms have in working together.

Tip #3: project approach

Request a detailed preliminary project plan. You want to see how a firm will approach your design. This is a great way to gauge a firm’s level of experience too.

#3 What’s the firm’s level of relationships with other agencies and companies?

Relationships matter A LOT if you want a smooth-running project. So hire a firm with relationships with all the important players your project will call for.

For example, say you want to upsize your factory’s electrical service. A firm with relationships with utilities and the building department can only help.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm 

Tip #1: who are all the players?

Ask the firm to identify all the outside agencies your project will call for. Then, ask about the agency requirements and lead times.

Tip #2: what’s the customer’s role?

Ask if you need to involve yourself at any stage in the project. A firm familiar with your project’s scope will know your level of involvement.

#4 What’s the work quality?

Everyone wants quality engineering work. But, no firm will say they produce poor quality work. So, this is where you need to do your research.

Find out how many longtime customers the firm has. Because you’re not going to get repeat customers if you produce poor quality work.

Also, check if the firm has a history of working with large companies or government agencies. These customers don’t put up with bullshit. Plus, big-name clientele signals a firm is highly respected in their sector of work.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm

Tip #1: deliverable submittal packages

Don’t only check if a firm will provide drawings and specs. But also, check if they’ll produce all the other documents you need. This includes documentation of your project, utility applications, and so on. At the end of the day, you want a one-stop shop to get your project completed.

Tip #2: quality control

Ask about a firm’s in-house quality control protocols. This will ensure your project goes mistake-free.

#5 How creative is the firm? 

golden gate bridge black and white
Golden Gate Bridge (Photo Credit: Angel Origgi)

Creativity and engineering go hand in hand. Especially when it comes to complex challenging problems, which call for creative solutions. To illustrate, I discuss creative engineering with the design of the Golden Gate Bridge. This will give you an idea of what to look for in a firm.

At the same time, you don’t want to constantly hold a firm’s hand through the entire design process. Because always remember, you’re paying expert professionals to do the heavy lifting for you.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm 

Tip #1: learn about the design approach

Ask questions about your project. See what type of solutions a firm will give you right off the bat. Look for out-of-the-box thinking, with simple yet effective ideas. An experienced engineering firm will have no problems doing this.

Tip #2: customer design suggestions

Will the engineering firm simply run with your design suggestion? You want the engineering firm to dissect your project scope and give you added input. Even if your suggested design is insanely awesome.

Because you’re not the expert. You need professional advice to avoid future problems with your design. I’ve seen many times, where an engineering firm blindly runs with a customer’s design idea. This isn’t good engineering.

Tip #3: resume of past work

Request project samples to gauge a firm’s level of experience. Don’t just go off by what’s listed on a firm’s website. Because a firm can say they designed the Empire State Building. But what they don’t tell you is, they only submitted a preliminary design, which was later rejected.

#6 What’s the firm’s track record?

Find a firm with an impeccable track record. If they burned even a single customer, then stay away. Because you may become the next victim.

Even more, despite what a firm says, there are always three sides to every story. What others believe occurred, what they believe occurred, and what actually occurred.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm 

Tip #1: Google search

Do a deep Google dive on a firm. Find all their dirty laundry (if any).

Tip #2: disgruntled customers

If a firm has a bad reputation but denies it, ask to speak with their disgruntled customers. If the firm knows they weren’t in the wrong, they’ll gladly provide you with the requested information. Then, after speaking with both sides, make the final judgment call.

#7 What’s the firm’s billing rate?

Cost is without a doubt a huge factor in your decision-making. You want to ensure a firm will complete your project and on a fixed budget.

At the same time, don’t compromise on quality by going with an overly cheap firm. Because you get what you pay for. So, you need to strike a balance between quality and cost. To point out though, some overly expensive firms do deliver poor quality work. So ALWAYS do your research.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm 

Tip #1: engineering quality versus cost

If a cost appears too good to be true, then it probably is. Do your research on the firm to find out if the engineering quality is subpar.

Tip #2: project cost break down by task

Ask for a detailed task breakdown with cost figures,  if all you receive is a lump sum cost.

Tip #3: project cost structure 

Understand the cost structure of a firm to appreciate the total effort. You can do this by asking cost-specific questions. Also, by comparing project quotes of various firms together.

Tip #4 affordability

Don’t be cheap. Quality engineering comes at a cost. If you try to endlessly bargain down a top-tier engineering firm, they’ll tell you to go take a hike.

Just remember, the initial design cost is minor in the lifetime of a project. In the long run, quality engineering will save you A LOT of future expenses.

#8 What type of insurance does the firm hold?

Insurance is an important part of every engineering project. If something goes wrong, your project needs to remain protected.

It’s no different than hiring a contractor to upgrade your home. You wouldn’t hire an uninsured contractor. The same goes for engineering projects. So, be sure an engineering firm has the right insurance and coverages.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm

Tip #1: insurance coverage limit

If a firm doesn’t have the insurance coverage limit you need, don’t quickly cross them out. Engineering insurance is expensive.

When engineering firms aren’t working on large projects, they sometimes downgrade their coverage. But when large projects come their way, they quickly upgrade their coverage. This is a common practice.

Tip #2: insurance coverage versus quality of work

An engineering firm with low insurance coverage doesn’t signal they’re inexperienced. It simply highlights the type of work they’re currently working on. In most cases at least.

For example, say a firm specializes in hydroelectric design. But in a given year, their projects are only small hydro. So, their professional liability insurance will only be $1 million versus $5 million.

#9 What’s the firm’s delivery timeline?

You don’t want your project to stretch endlessly, especially if you’re on a tight schedule. So, find a firm whose schedule fits yours.

When you interview firms, you’ll quickly find out the estimated project timelines vary greatly. Some firms will say they can finish your work in 3 months, while others may say one year. I suggest finding firms with experience first. Then, make sure the firm can deliver your project on your timeline. Of course, assuming your timeline is practical.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm

Tip #1: proposed project timeline

Be aggressive with your proposed timeline. Because firms will almost always push back and try to increase your timeline. Plus, unexpected problems ALWAYS come up in engineering work.

Tip #2: firm’s project schedule

Make an engineering firm create a detailed timeline for you. Do this before signing any contract. This way, you have a record of an agreed-upon project schedule.

#10 What’s the firm’s level of responsiveness? 

smoke signal looking for a response
Photo Credit: Hugo Jehanne (image cropped)

My biggest pet peeve is a lack of responsiveness. For example, when it takes a couple of weeks to receive a simple reply back. NO ONE is this busy. It all comes down to priorities and laziness!

I’ve had cases where I offered engineering firms thousands of dollars for projects. All they had to do was sign the contract. Yet, it took them three-plus weeks to sign the contract, even after many follow-ups. Keep in mind, these firms had approached me for work in the past. Their response to me was,

“Sorry, I was slammed with work. You know how it is?…”

Actually, I don’t know how it is. Elon Musk isn’t even this busy. I can smell bullshit from a mile away.

In short, I will always gladly pay more to work with responsive firms. Not only will you save money through a shortened timeline, but you’ll keep your sanity. Because when you pay big money, you should ALWAYS expect an open line of communication.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm

Tip #1: in-person meeting

Request to meet the person who will be your direct point of contact. You can tell a lot about someone through in-person meetings.

Tip #2: gauge responsiveness

Ask a lot of questions before selecting a firm. See how responsive they are in this beginning project stage.

If a firm is unresponsive or gives you short answers from the start, then run. Because in this beginning stage, firms should be the hungriest as they want your business. They should be on their A-game.

Tip #3: communication style

Ask how project progress will be made to you. This includes direct emails, status reports, video conferences, physical meetings, and so on.

To point out, I’m not saying to constantly hover over a firm. This is horrible in itself. Rather, find a happy medium in communication between yourself and the firm.

#11 Does the firm hold all appropriate licenses?

This goes without saying, the firm needs to hold all required licenses to do your work. Otherwise, you can’t submit your design for approval. Of course, if your project requires a license.

Also, having all the required licenses under one roof will ensure your work runs smoothly. This is like having all disciplines of engineering under one roof. The coordination among the engineers will naturally improve.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm

Tip #1: project requirements

Ask what types of licenses your project requires.

Tip #2: license information

Ask for license numbers. Then, make sure the licenses are up to date, without penalties placed against them.

“How to choose an engineering firm?” wrap up

Choosing an engineering firm can be a tedious process. But, it’s well worth the effort. Plus, once you find a firm, you’ll have a dependable partner to rely on for years to come.

Most all the clients I’ve worked with, have returned year after year. It’s like the plumber or electrician who now is almost a part of your family. You have their number on speed dial.

What are your thoughts on how to choose an engineering firm? Which qualities do you find the most important for an engineering firm to have?

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