JFS Engineering
Land Development and Water Resources Engineering
There are no “simple projects”; a three tangent tale.

We are frequently asked about what exactly we do. For most engineers, the answer comes quickly; “I design this widget” or “I deal with the customer so the software people don’t have to”. The answer gets more convoluted when we get into civil engineering. Typically we’ll see a description centered around “Professional Design Services”. Stopping there belies a misunderstanding of what we do as engineers.

Tangent #1: A good friend and mentor of ours uses a gray hard hat. When he is asked why he says: “because in the field there is a little bit of white, a little bit of black, and a whole lot of gray.” The gray is often where the most missteps are taken. Quick quiz: when does a buried pipe in a parking lot see maximum loading. No, it’s not during the holiday shopping season. Give up? Maximum loading occurs when the subgrade is compacted by the vibratory roller. That’s it’s job and it does it well.

More than a few years ago I was watching not one but two project managers designing over the shoulder of a junior engineer. The issue was a short lateral run from a catch basin to a manhole. Looking at the grading, the top of the pipe was clearly intersecting the stone pavement subbase. After a quick inquiry I learned that the run distance was about the nominal laying length of ductile iron (DI) pipe.  I explained that after chopping the bell, DI pipe can be slipped into place with the machine already onsite in a few minutes. HDPE in this case would have barely a few inches of cover (with 1.5″ stone no less ) and after it is shattered by the compactor the trench will erode in about three rains and the asphalt chunks will clog the trunk pipe.

My suggestion was derided as “too expensive”. I found out later that the pipe was switched to DI in the field after the contractor pointed out the issue to the PMs months later. Fun fact: change orders like that are about three times the “bid” cost.

More than "just a driveway"

Our splashy photo for this month is from a small project we worked on recently. It’s location is unimportant. There is still some landscaping to do on one side, but you get the idea. In terms of scale this project was small, just a driveway. In terms of scope, this project required negotiation with several parties, contract dispute resolution, fortune telling, and precise execution.

We were asked into this project somewhere in the middle of the timeline. This required learning the interests and history of the Client, GC, Architect, Site Contractor, Municipality, and Neighbors, as well as our own. By the time we were retained the job had burned through one surveyor and eventually we brought in the third surveyor.

Tangent #2: When a surveyor says: “Hey, I did you a favor.” tell him no thanks and repeat after me: “It is what it is therefore it is as it is.” Hometown surveyors seem to be too willing to hand out favors liberally and leave a trail of gore in their wake. (A gore area is the term used for overlap or gaps between two parcels). We stop short of saying never to trust the survey, but talking with the surveyor and the Client about the map is wise. If there is a favor on the map, this will typically come out in conversation, eventually. Our advice is to hire a surveyor who doesn’t do favors and have them straighten out the issue. By the time we got there all the “favor” bought the client was a few months delay as a foundation was ripped out and rebuilt two feet farther from the actual property line.

We try to keep up a good relationship with the permitting authority. If they understand our Client wants to do the right thing it makes the process all the more smoother. As a result of bizarre notation on the second survey, we had to make a change to the design once we had the third surveyor stake out the driveway and generate a new impervious coverage calculation. This lead to the driveway pattern you see below.

Since the municipality counted pervious pavements separately from impervious pavements, we worked with the Client and the Mason to design and install the middle strip of pervious pavers shown in the photo. It worked out well from the design side as the driveway is a bit narrow and the strip gave the Client a guide line to use. The Mason was able to use excess material onsite and avoid a change order. The municipality was happy as well.

Tangent #3: When someone at a municipality says: “And then just give me an as-built” or “Just one more thing and you’re all set”; think and inquire at length about what they need it for. In this case, the as-built was needed to protect the zoning official, who was helping out the Client by letting the project proceed without seeking a variance. The mousetrap with this ruling is twofold: you’d better be damn sure you don’t need a variance, and if you do the Zoning Official will (rightfully) peg the blame on you and issue a stop work order.

We can’t blame them either. The Zoning Official has one job: enforce the Ordinance. If you need a variance, their job is to send you to get the required variances. Some can be more helpful than others, and we find that once they understand you want to do things right then they tend to relax a bit. So to our list I’ll add reputation: if you’re forever trying to cut corners as an engineer you’ll be doomed to a life of strict observation.

Civil Engineering is much more than “Professional Design Services”. Some colleagues may say we’re making a small project needlessly complicated; I’d counter that ignorance is bliss.

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