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Technical excellence means talking the walk

Building Services By Freddy Toh, Technical Director, Building Services – 19 December 2022

two men in high vis and hard hats talking and pointing on construction site


Head and sholders shot of Freddie sitting in front of leafy wall wearing glasses and a pale blue shirt

Freddy Toh

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To change the world for the better through delivering technical excellence, we need engineers who continually think beyond business as usual. Achieving this in a team of people from a wide variety of backgrounds requires a strong focus on two-way communication and peer-to-peer knowledge transfer.

When new engineers join Cundall, part of helping them adapt to the company culture is ensuring we have also identified senior staff who are best placed to mentor them. This helps them manouevre in our environment without restricting their ability or flexibility to apply their skills and knowledge in a way that brings value to our organisation.

Because many of our engineers in the Singapore team join the company with experience from other parts of the world, this also helps ensure they can quickly become accustomed with the local regulatory environment and understand how local agencies think and operate. It means we also don’t toe the line only for the sake of it. Every market is unique, and while the principles of physics and safe design don’t change, the way we apply that knowledge to deliver solutions needs to be tailored to local conditions.

There is also the matter of professional standing and licensing to consider. In Singapore, engineers must hold local professional licenses and practicing certificates administered by the Professional Engineers Board to submit design and as-built documentation as the Qualified Person (QP) to the local authorities in alignment with various Statutory Acts, Regulations, Standards and Code of Practices governing aspects such as public health, fire and life safety, environmental protection, energy and resource conservation etc.

Engineering design and advisory work delivered for local projects are also pre-supposed to be supervised and overseen by the professional engineers. For the latter acting as QP of the project, they would need to ensure processes are in place to supervise construction works.

This process makes the engineers and the company professionally liable to either the client, civil body or the professional body (PEB), not just for design but potentially also for compliance through construction and commissioning. This is a level of responsibility our engineers need to be cognizant of and not take lightly. It is a more extensive remit than in some jurisdictions where the engineer’s professional involvement and liability may end simply with design.

There are of course different procurement methods such as design & build (D&B) that could be established with the client to limit our professional responsibility, but this is a conversation that needs to be had with the client and contract administrator early in the project.

“Ultimately, we are bound to fulfil our duty to our clients, both by the Professional Engineers Act and also, I believe, by our own ethical compass.”

For a new engineer in the team, it is vital that they are being mentored, not just on a team level, but also on a project basis for them to understand how to practice this level of due diligence. It also develops their level of situational awareness and empowers them to communicate effectively with the contractors and delivery team. Beyond the use of project management tools, there needs to be attention to details and a sense of ownership - this is a mindset that must be encouraged around carrying our engagement through from inception to appropriate closure of projects.

Learning to speak client

Just as each engineering discipline has its own unique lexicon, so too do clients, contractors, regulators and other stakeholders. Being able to navigate and be confident in communicating throughout the project lifecycle therefore requires new skills.

To build capability in our new project engineers, we need to engage in internal technical and quality reviews of our reports and drawings no matter how small the project is – this is learning by seeing.

While we no longer use formal printed letters like we once did, the formality and the level of protocol still needs to be retained in digital communications. This is not always taught in our academic journey or in other companies. Even things that might seem inconsequential such as grammar and formatting are still important, as it all speaks to our level of professional excellence and eye for detail.

Another skill engineers do come to appreciate over time is the ability to be precise in our language both in email communication and project reports. It always needs to be front of mind that every communication needs to protect our client’s interests and our own professional reputation - and it must mean what we think it means. Imprecise language can be costly to our practice, not just in dollar terms.

The aim is to be concise, but not scant. Early career engineers learn to master the appropriate language with experience. Sometimes this involves mentors questioning and correcting word by word what had been typed and printed, and the choice of words or phrasing. This facilitates people reaching a point where their technical ability is matched by their ability to describe and explain their design and project delivery decisions.

Small projects including work such as due diligence assessments, technical peer reviews or smaller developments are invaluable for helping build both technical experience as they decipher as-built documentations and diagnose site observations, and also allows them to develop a condensed understanding of the project lifecycle and the processes involved in going from design through to handover.

The whole process of learning to communicate effectively about their work also fosters collaboration as information is shared more accurately between team members. This is even more crucial on very large projects, where project managers need to be the coordination point between multiple disciplines and parts of the whole. They need to have the technical expertise to pre-empt interdependencies, identify issues and the soft skills to facilitate discussions to resolve them.

On another level, this cross-discipline conversation also helps broaden our people’s technical abilities. It is vital to be aware of the work others in the company are doing – and to be interested in it! The more we know about different specialisms such as security, power, lighting, critical systems, or different sectors such as GCRES or workplace, and the challenges they face – the more we can all appreciate each other’s work and learn from it.

Ultimately, the way we grow our people creates a positive feedback loop. Our engineers follow projects through to close-out and handover, ensuring everything performs as it should, and then effectively communicate the outcome to clients. This in turn builds trust with clients, strengthening relationships, and keeping the ‘trust bucket’ full.

I often say to our early career people - what you write has the power to inform people that we know what we know, and to assure them of the value that we bring.