The Future of Architecture and Engineering: A Q&A with NLingenieurs Managing Director Jacolien Eijer
In an industry centered around innovation, the question always remains – what’s next?
To help answer this, we’ve launched a series of blog posts exploring the past, present, and future trends in architecture, engineering, and environmental consultancies. Over the next few months, follow along with us as industry leaders share their thoughts.
In this post we spoke to Jacolien Eijer, managing director of NLingenieurs based out of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Jacolien leads the Dutch engineering association in the management of developed and natural environments. She is a trained environmental engineer and has held positions at Antea Group as well as Witteveen+Bos. She has also worked in various Dutch government offices in both data standards and knowledge management.
Q: What do you think is the most significant trend that will impact the future of the AEC industry in your region over the next 5 years?
A: The way companies collaborate is changing rapidly and it will become very significant in the near future. In the Netherlands, there is a shift away from a conventional contract model. This is true in both the infrastructure sector as well as in residential and commercial construction. We are seeing a spirit of co-creation beginning to take hold.
In the public infrastructure sector, there is a shift to use DBFM (Design, Build, Finance, & Maintain) contracts. DBFM contracts still include a customer (the public) and a contractor (a private firm). Contractors, however, are allowed more freedom to design and given responsibility for the whole life cycle of a particular project. For example, if a firm constructs a new road, they are responsible for that road until a new one must be built. Though these contracts have room for improvement, they are paving the way to a more collaborative partnership model.
In residential and commercial construction, you see that the traditionally dominant position of developers is changing. Through new forms of crowd-sourced funding and more initiative and power being placed with the end user, a big shift is occurring in how work is managed.
Ideally, each stakeholder will contribute and bring their specific strengths to a project. This includes clients, contractors, and government entities, if applicable. Bringing parties together at the beginning of a project--before bids or proposals are even created--helps to eliminate the internal struggle often felt throughout over price. A more collaborative approach means that each stakeholder brings their own expertise to the table to maximize project quality and efficiency.
The big question in these changing relationship structures is twofold:
How are the risks of the projects best divided?
How do we as engineers provide good value to our clients while still receiving a fair value for our expertise?
Of course, technology also has the potential to significantly alter the way we work. I believe, however, that the biggest impacts from developments in this field will take shape more than five years from now.
Q: How do you see the current role of AEC firms shifting, what do you think is causing that shift, and how must AEC firms react to survive?
A: Although we try to focus procurement in the Netherlands on best overall value, there is an enormous pressure for the lowest rates in actual practice. Long term contracts are negotiated in a highly legal environment where business is quoted and described in great detail. Of course, not all costs are foreseeable and this can lead to major problems during production. Moreover, we are dealing with clients who are less knowledgeable. This lack of knowledge effects the bid in terms of correctness and quality. Thus, price becomes the deciding factor. In a market with many providers, this leads to rock-bottom prices and hassle during production.
In large contracts, you still see projects organized more hierarchically. Here, the construction company that won the bid “cherry picks” the most lucrative sections of the contract for itself and subcontracts out the rest of the project. This leads to engineering companies getting involved at the end of the bid process, often with little to no input on cost projections. These firms then have difficulty supplying a financially viable solution to a project they weren’t involved in planning.
In the Netherlands, engineers are perceived as employees simply punching the clock. It is critical to turn this notion around! Engineers must position themselves as trusted advisors and suppliers of integrated, sustainable solutions to complex problems. The added value engineers can provide needs to be embedded in the quality of solutions. Yes, that means higher costs. And, yes, breaking out of the “lowest bid wins” pattern is risky. Ultimately, however, it is better for the industry and its customers.
Q: Knowing what you know today, are there things you would or could have done differently to prepare for or react to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008? Are there things that you are doing differently now because of the GFC? How have you evolved your processes or policies post-GFC?
A: In 2008, I was in a very different role at a different organization. Regrettably, the government of the Netherlands did not act strongly in advance or during the crises. A large portion of the business world, including the engineering sector, had a difficult time and had to switch to survival mode. I would have liked to see the government take on some challenges, such as the issue of energy and sustainability. In doing so, the government could have provided some perspective for the industry. Unfortunately, the government instead focused on costs and cost savings.
Even within my own organization, NLingenieurs, there has been an emphasis on cost savings over the last few years. The Dutch economy is now rebounding a bit, so firms are able to look forward. As the new director of NLingenieurs, I am excited to help shape the future!
Q: What is the biggest challenge you are currently tackling within your firm or association?
A: As the leader of an industry specific association, I have two challenges: (1) to ensure that the engineering sector is well established and regains its position as complex problem solver, and (2) to ensure that we have a vibrant organization in which members actively participate and continue to fund future initiatives.
Q: How has your office environment changed, and how is your firm continuing to evolve your workplace environment, procedures, and technologies, to accommodate the evolving demands of the incoming millennial workforce? What considerations and changes are you making regarding collaboration, efficiencies, work/life balance, technologies, etc.?
A: Within my association, communication is essential. This will be my main focus in the coming years. Internal communication among members, committees, and agencies can be done more effectively. I would like to see a much more open organization, one not afraid to share knowledge. Of course, it’s important that these communications are concise so as not overload each other with information.
I would also like to improve the digital work environment of the members--that's complex because we represent about 110 different companies and members. Standardization and providing a unified software option would help accomplish this.
Within our association office, we have an open environment where employees are quite free to find a good balance between work and private life.
This post is part of a question and answer series with global industry leaders on the future of the architecture, engineering, and environmental consultancies.