The solo structural engineer using technology to punch above his weight
February 20th, 2018
To carry out his chosen volunteer work — helping build Kingdom Halls for the Jehovah’s Witnesses — James Turner needs a miracle: fitting a month’s work as a consultant structural engineer at his company J Turner Design into just three weeks. To save “seconds, minutes and hours”, he turns to technology.
The 3D specialist has run his own limited company since 2016 but said he could easily be a sole trader. In fact, he prefers to pass on work rather than employ people, so he can keep several months’ cash on-hand.
“Much of my jobs are quite small, such as extensions and structural alterations to houses,” James said.
These could be anything from designing single beams for opening up rooms into bigger living spaces or creating extensions, though he has also worked on large distribution centres, office complexes, education facilities and both private and social housing.
Due to his firm’s diminutive size, James said he has quicker response times than multi-layered consultancies with lower overheads and is often able to charge less.
Investing in software
The flexibility and adaptability James has achieved is enabled by investing in technology.
“I spend quite a lot on software, including SCIA Engineer, AutoDesk Revit and some other applications which help me design steelwork junctions such as those found in bridges.
“I try to stay close to the cutting edge of tech. If I adopt too late, I’ll struggle to keep up with whatever everyone else is doing.
“I also have a very lightweight, high-end laptop and a good mobile plan so I can access the web wherever I am and store and sync all my files in the cloud. I can be flexible and provide services for people passing work my way or people helping me, say with accounting.”
All this allows him to work wherever he is at the time.
“Without technology, I couldn’t do my job,” he said.
“It helps me punch above my weight.”
Synchronicity for success
Trying to make a decent living in 75 percent of the work month, James quite literally has no time for repetition.
His construction drawings and engineering documents packages are interlinked, so any changes made are automatically updated, translated and flagged up in the other model. That gives him the ability to redo much faster and he doesn’t need to spend as much time checking his work.
He also builds up libraries of construction details and his database, continually adding to templates. For example, he’s created one for remedial ties around new apertures such as doors, which helps his buildings meet the building regulations quicker.
It’s not just technology for engineering work which he invests in to shave valuable time off his efforts.
“I’m keen on anything I can use to reduce time on administrative tasks and spend more time on engineering,” he said.
“I went with Synergy for engineering business management because it wrapped everything together. Before, the project accounting side was quite disjointed — I had a package to do invoices and basic bookkeeping with a tenuous link to my banking system.
“These were isolated from proposals and shared documents. All the information was spread out through the various packages and I couldn’t get them to communicate. Now, it’s all in one place.”
Keeping it together
James said building-engineering work can be tricky to price up because you never know what you might find when you open up, or strip out, a building — it’s hard to plan what needs to be done in advance. Looking at projects in the software helps him boost project profitability and the accuracy of his budgeting.
“Synergy lets me look at how I am performing across the business,” he said.
“It’s not enough just to tag the project ‘residential’, ‘commercial’, ‘domestic’ — I need to drill down and see my actual costs against my budget.
“Maybe a job didn’t take longer than I’d planned because it was residential, but because I was building a retaining wall from scratch rather than repairing. Synergy helps me see a pattern in the scope of my work.”
He also appreciates the facility to reuse data and recycle information.
“I don’t have to login to three different systems, or manually update a spreadsheet, so proposals, timesheets and invoices all match from the outset.”
“Synergy integrates with QuickBooks Online, which I am migrating to for my accounting. I don’t want to be duplicating work. I can create invoices in one location and send them to the accounting software automatically, then marked paid and send the payments back to Synergy,” he said.
There is another aspect to working for domestic clients that James must do battle with to keep on track — their propensity to lose important emails.
“They tend to have one email address for everything, so things can go missing” he said.
“Now, they know it’s in the project portal. And because the files and packages of work get bigger, I can just send links rather than huge files.”
Security without over-expansion
James said he is keen to take on longer-term engineering projects rather than grow in a traditional sense. To do this, he is trying to build relationships with larger companies he has worked with. He is hopeful of striking a deal shortly with a developer-contractor to consult on more of their commercial and larger residential structural engineering works.
Does more investment in technology form part of his plans? He is obviously keen on kit but insists on doing a full cost-benefit analysis before making any big purchases.
“Drones are too hard to fly due to civil aviation restrictions, laser point cloud scanners are too expensive, and I don’t have room for a 3D printer! Plus, if I overstretch my financial commitments my prices will go up.”
At this point, he is mostly looking at upgrades and add-ons to packages he’s already got so he can offer more services to clients.