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The art of client-centric conversations

Structures By Nan Li, Senior Engineer, Structural – 16 May 2023

Close-up of two people shaking hands.


Nan Li in a dark jumper, stood in front of an indoor blossom tree.

Nan Li

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As engineers and consultants delivering complex and large-scale projects for clients, building trust is essential. That starts with understanding what concerns they might have and addressing them with integrity and transparency.

For most clients I have worked with, the majority are concerned about the feasibility and cost of the project in the early stages. They need to know their vision can be implemented and have clarity around the budget cost and time investment required to achieve it.

As a structural engineer, to address feasibility I first provide some initial judgments and suggestions based on the architectural scheme provided by the client. This is based on our previous project experience and our understanding of local construction code requirements. We then build a preliminary structural analysis model to further verify the feasibility of the structural system through calculation and analysis.

When choosing a structural design scheme, we do not only consider the feasibility of the structure alone but take a holistic view to consider the client’s needs, architectural effects, structural system efficiency, collaboration with other disciplines, project costs, and ultimately aim for a balance in all aspects.

How we calculate cost

In terms of project costings and determining budgets, there are many factors involved. For the structural aspect, this is mainly a matter of providing a preliminary estimation of structural material consumption, and this data helps the professional Quantity Surveying consultant estimate the total cost of the project.

We also share similar project references with our clients so they can have a holistic understanding of the feasibility of the project and how the cost was calculated.

Good communication means clients need to feel heard

Some clients may feel anxious because they are not structural engineering professionals, or they may not find it easy to be clear about their needs.

To make sure the conversation goes well, first we should keep calm, and then help the clients to explore and clarify what they need step by step through conversations and questions. We then use our professional language to help them express their needs and concerns.

Key turn is not the end of the dialogue

Our services do not end after design delivery - we need to ensure that our design intentions are realised during the construction process. Therefore, it is very important to continue the communication after submitting our design scheme.

Continuous communication allows us to stay on top of the project progress, further verify our theoretical analysis and summarise our experience from the implementation of the project. At the same time, this dialogue also gives a client deeper insight into our expertise and multidisciplinary services, builds a long-term client relationship, and potentially leads to more project opportunities in the future.

During the follow-up project stage, we can also help clients to liaise with government experts, local design institutes (LDI) and construction units, explaining our design intention, providing suggestions on difficulties encountered during construction, and carrying out spot checks on the construction quality. By assisting the client in this way throughout project implementation, we also help ensure the outcome and final result is going to meet the client’s specific needs as agreed on commencement.

Communication is also critical to professionalism, as we have excellent technical knowledge and experience, and this is what we must convey in giving clients professional opinions and solutions.

Our practices also emphasise timeliness – especially giving timely feedback when clients ask questions. And we also consider how our work intersects with the work of others in the design and delivery team. For example, we will not only consider the structure, but also consider the impact of our design decisions on the architecture, building services, facade, cost, construction approach and other aspects. We consciously consider integrating all the aspects of the project.

This becomes even more important as we work to deliver net zero carbon design for our clients

Most of our clients in China are concerned about climate change and want to ensure their projects align with net zero targets. The Chinese government has put forward the strategic goal of achieving the carbon emissions peak by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. Therefore, more and more clients in China are putting forward green and low-carbon requirements for a range of project types.

From the structural perspective, this means limiting upfront embodied carbon and considering whole life carbon emissions are the two fundamental strategies for designing and constructing sustainable buildings.

The main items we consider in structural design to reduce embodied carbon are:

• Reduce the amount of Portland cement use and opt for cement replacements (GGBS, PFA etc.)
• Optimise structures to reduce the amount of carbon intensive steelwork
• Source steelwork with high-recycled content from a responsible steel maker
• Utilise pre-fabrication construction process to reduce construction waste
• Design for disassembly and recycling or reuse

The challenge we face is that while most of these are easy to talk about with clients in terms of the carbon dimension, they do impact the cost and feasibility of a project. This again brings us back to the importance of building trust and understanding client needs and concerns. Some lower carbon options currently may have higher implementation costs if the local production technology or construction supply chain are not able to meet the requirements.

That’s where the value of communication really comes to the fore, as we work with our clients to find the appropriate balance between cost and environmental outcomes.