Practical Design: Think Like an Engineer

I have a friend who trains people on various computer programs for a living. Her pupils have been a very diverse group over the years, including college students, professors, and IT professionals. She recently taught a two-day course to engineers. Afterwards, she called to tell me that it was exhausting! Apparently we “think differently.” I am sure many of our family and friends can attest to that.

My friend is used to her students accepting the established processes, with questions focused on learning them correctly. Her engineer students, however, focused their questions on why the process is the way it is and how to make it better. Sound familiar?

Whether we were born with it or we developed it during our career, the desire to make improvements is a key trait for a successful engineer. Personally, I know the ability to make positive impacts is one of the rewards I get from my career.

It helps to think outside of the (policy) box

When engineers approach a task, we tend to want to dissect it, look at it from all angles, and develop the best way to improve it. We use policies and procedures developed based on the laws of science, physics, and even human behavior, and apply “engineering judgement” to determine the best way to balance a project’s purpose and needs.

Unfortunately, through the years, in an effort to streamline a process, increase safety, minimize liability, or improve consistency (all worthy goals), many owners have whittled away at our ability to use engineering judgement effectively. Standing policies mandating certain elements and treatments have become entrenched and inflexible, minimizing or even replacing analysis and engineering judgement. Any engineer with more than a few years of experience likely has stories about a client mandating an unwarranted or even counterproductive project element because “that’s the policy” or (worse) “that’s the way we like to see it.”

When bound to policy mandates that aren’t based on engineering needs, we risk missing the impacts to the overall project and the overall system. The most obvious potential impact is project bloat, causing the project’s scope, cost, and schedule to swell. Conversely, in order to stay within established budgets for a given project, owners are often reluctant to consider making improvements outside of the original project area or scope. While budget concerns are understandable, in some instances, adding needed system upgrades outside of the immediate project scope can actually reduce the overall project cost and timeframe, while improving system performance.

The emergence of Practical Design

With the main Federal funding source for transportation infrastructure being stagnant for almost 25 years, and with ever increasing fuel efficiencies impacting tax revenues, owners are perpetually trying to balance needs and do more with less. The Practical Design philosophy has developed in direct response to these long-term trends. Practical Design considers how project decisions impact the overall system and acknowledges that a more efficient project means more money will be available for improvements to other parts of the system.

How does Practical Design help? It seeks to improve project delivery through increased focus on the initial purpose and need statement. It involves clearly and concisely identifying, in the planning stage, why the project is needed (purpose) and how to make it better (need), and then using that statement, instead of standing policy, to guide project development and decision making. Engineers therefore have more flexibility to use their judgement to best meet project objectives. In other words, we get to think like an engineer!

In reality, engineers regularly engage in Practical Design—weighing options, considering benefits and costs, and presenting the practical choices to our clients. But unless adhering to policy presents a major cost concern, we are seldom able to seriously consider other options, even if the standing policy is overly stringent and there are other options that would not impact safety or capacity. When a client adopts a formal Practical Design philosophy, we have more leeway to consider options and figure out how to make the whole system better.

Since 2005, Missouri has shown us (couldn’t resist) that Practical Design has the potential to produce savings while meeting project goals. And at least a dozen other states are considering or have implemented Practical Design.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has embraced the philosophy, including releasing an Implementation Guide for Performance Base Practical Design (PBPD) last month. PBPD combines the Practical Design philosophy with Value Engineering and Context Sensitive Solution initiatives in an effort to maximize project efficiencies. I look forward to working with owners to develop the program, and I welcome the expanded ability to exercise engineering judgement to benefit owners and transportation system users.

So how did my friend make it through her class with her sanity intact and still successfully teach her engineers? Apparently, after the first day, she spent a long night figuring out why the class was bogged down and then reworking it to include more background information to make it better, for both her and her pupils. In other words, she thought like an engineer, and it worked for her.

Ray Bernardo, PE, is a senior project manager for EBA Engineering, Inc. He can be reached at 410.504.6107 or


Articles, View All
Ray Bernardo