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Photo: courtesy of Ryan McGuire (https://gratisography.com)

By Andy Sciarabba, P.E.

My November 2017 “Diversions” article was based on three colors — black, white and grey (or gray). If you didn’t read it because you were too busy raking leaves or cleaning out your gutters, check out https://csengineermag.com/article/diversions-black-white.

But by now, the leaves are probably gone and your lawn tractor has been replaced with a snow blower or trusty hand shovel. Time for a new year’s resolution. My resolution is to bring more value to my clients. To achieve this I need a goal. No, scratch that. I need a Gold!

OK, bad timing. Maybe I should have waited and published this article in March, after the winter Olympics. But I couldn’t wait. You see, sometimes a writer (I like saying “writer;” it has a much more romantic ring to it than “engineer”) wakes up with an idea and just needs to get it on paper.

This morning was one of those times. In fact, the idea woke me up way too early, so what you are reading is a pre-caffeinated brain dump. Know the feeling? Want to relate on a deeper level? Check out my March 2014 article, “A Beautiful Mind” (https://csengineermag.com/article/a-beautiful-mind).

OK, enough self-promotion. What is this “rush” he speaketh of? Is he referring to the popular reality show based in Nome, Alaska? Is he desperately searching for his own pot of gold? Does he think this article should be certified LEED Gold?

Nope. It’s about the Goal of Gold. Our clients want it. They expect it. They “value” it. They covet it. But they can’t always have it. And when they can’t have it, we are expected to pull back, lower the standards, and reduce expectations. We have to “value engineer” it.

I know, I know — you hate that term! Yuck, kaput, phooey!

Value engineering — or VE for short — always rears its ugly head at that pivotal moment when the “well has run dry” (like the shmancy engineering pun?), the “cup is half empty,” and the client is ready to “sell the farm.” It seems to happen more and more these days and never at a good time. It invariably comes about when the design is about to wrap up, right before the project has to “hit the streets” and “get into the ground.” Sometimes it happens after the project is in the ground.

Where did the term value engineering come from anyway? And who made it up? Larry Miles did. Lawrence Delos Miles was an American engineer, and, if you believe Wikipedia, came up with this idea of “VE” in 1947. In 1961 he even wrote a book about it titled, Techniques of Value Analysis and Engineering. The book is still around and for only $1.99 you can peruse all 524 of its pages on your Kindle from the comfort of your own home. Poor Larry is no longer with us, but I’m sure he is muttering, “What is this Kindle he speaketh of?”

No time for an in-depth evaluation of the Big-L’s six-step plan, but how is it currently defined?

Per the Cambridge Business English dictionary, value engineering is “the process of reducing the cost of producing a product without reducing its quality or how effective it is.” We civil engineer types don’t necessarily make “products,” so this definition doesn’t really feel good to me.

The General Services Administration (GSA) defines it as “an organized effort directed at analyzing designed building features, systems, equipment, and material selections for the purpose of achieving essential functions at the lowest life cycle cost consistent with required performance, quality, reliability, and safety.” Wow, pretty wordy. That’s the feds for you. And it’s building focused. No mention of site work to be found.

Wikipedia defines it as “a systematic method to improve the value of goods or products and services by using an examination of function.”

These are all fine definitions, but in the world of civil engineering this basically means: We are over budget. Cut costs. Cut something, please! It’s late in the game, the bottom of the ninth. We need a grand slam! So, we do our best. We try to get as much out of the project as possible without compromising safety or function. But they still want more. They need more. They can’t shrink the building anymore and they have deleted most of the plantings.

But sometimes there is no “more.” Sometimes you have to be honest. Sometimes you have to step up and say, “You can’t wring gold from a silver sweater.” (I made that up after one of my projects went into extra innings. My son says it doesn’t make sense. Taken literally, he’s right. Who wears a silver sweater? And how would you wring one out anyway?)

But read it a few times. Say it out loud. It flows. And sometimes it “wrings” true (“wrings” — get it?). Sometimes you just have to punt.

Feel free to coin the phrase. I only take a 10 percent royalty. Maybe I’ll use the profits to pay for my next project.

Andy Sciarabba, P.E., is a principal with T.G. Miller, P.C., Engineers and Surveyors in Ithaca, N.Y. T.G. Miller, P.C. (www.tgmillerpc.com) is a consulting civil engineering and surveying firm that serves municipal, commercial, institutional, and private clients throughout central New York. He would like to know how you like “Diversions;” Please send him a note at ajs@tgmillerpc.com.