Project Startup – Getting Things Moving

“This is YOUR time: Now go out there and take it!

–Herb Brooks

I’m surprised that it’s taken me 23 articles to invoke something hockey-related into the content! Shameful….

This week’s article is a full-frontal assault on the young, budding members of our engineering community. The up-and-comers who are standing on the first few rungs of the ladder, maintaining 3 points of contact and climbing slowly, safely & with a purpose of getting up.

It’s a Monday Morning in the Field Office….

So your boss comes to your desk and says that he wants to have a chat with you in the conference room. He tells you, “Nothing serious, I just want to run a few things by you…”

Oh cripes, what did I do now…?

You walk in, sit down, sweaty palms, mind racing. You notice that, on the table, there is a brand new set of plans & specs laying near your chair. And then he starts the conversation.

“You’re probably wondering why I called you in? Well, I wanted to talk about your future with the company.”

Oh shyt…..

“Well, I’ve talked it over with the senior guys downtown, and they all agree with me: We think you are ready.”

Ready? Ready for what….???

Then he slides you the plans & spec’s. “We think you are ready to fly solo. You’ve been doing great work for the past couple of seasons. I’ve noticed it. Your RE out there has noticed it. We want you to be the Resident Engineer on this one. Start digging into these and we’ll talk about how best to attack it in a couple of days.”

Holy cow! No wait: HOLY SHYT!!!! You mean, I’m running this job?? Where do I start? There’s a site and I got these plans & specs and I know I’ve got the Construction Manual and ICORS to set up and look at all the pay items. Materials are going to need tickets, we’ll need a job stamp, and I need a new adding machine. There’s a bridge and two retaining walls – Uh, I’ve never built a bridge before….

I thought Coach Brook’s pre-game speech that he made to his soon-to-be 1980 Olympic gold medal winning hockey team that I used in the lead of this article befits the subject matter very well: This is YOUR time….

Regardless of where we are at in our lives, we’ve all experienced the euphoric feeling of being promoted. It could have happened when we were in a little league game and the coach put us in to pitch in a tough situation. Or when we walked the stage & received a diploma, or as in our story above, when our boss gave us the nod and said that we were going to move up the ranks a notch. There’s no doubt: It makes for a good flush of emotion.

But when the adrenaline rush subsides and we are left with our thoughts, sometimes the excitement turns to fear. Am I really ready for the next step? Do I really know what I’m doing? Am I going to be able to handle all of the new responsibilities I’m going to have to deal with?

Of course you are. You’re an engineer. This is YOUR time….

A Resident Engineer’s Starting Block

When I established this site, one of the subjects that I was anxious to tackle was writing about Basic Resident Engineering-type skills. There is a void in our industry on the subject. For a long time, I’ve wanted to help fill some of it.

This article (and possibly, a series of articles) will be looking at the project start-up needs from a Resident Engineer’s perspective. From the time that your boss hands you the plans & specs to the time the Contractor mobilizes his equipment and breaks ground, there are a multitude of tasks that the Resident Engineer and his/her staff need to complete beforehand. Having a strategic plan as to how the RE sets things up for himself & the staff is crucially important.

Let’s get into it.

Resident Engineer – Quickly Defined

So what is a “Resident Engineer?” Presumably, you already know the answer. But if I presumed that EVERYONE knew the answer, then I wouldn’t have to write this article and we could just go out and grab a beer. Let’s take a 10 second overview, just to get everyone on the same page on who does what on a project.

In government construction project (and I’m being REALLY general here for the sake of brevity), there are 2 or 3 entities involved:

–The Government agency (State DOT, municipality, or some other owner)

–The Contractor (who provides the labor & equipment to build the project)


–The Resident Engineer (who is the on-site engineer for the project)

Some projects are of a smaller size & scope where the government agency will have staff available to oversee it with their own engineering staff. But as the projects grow in scope & scale, the Agency might hire a consulting engineer to provide additional staff to supplement what the Agency might lack in resources or expertise.

In either case, the Resident Engineer is in charge of managing the project on behalf of the agency.

Doesn’t the Contractor Build the Job? What Does the Resident Engineer Do?

Ahha!!! So you’re going right for my throat this early in the article, eh? I can hear you saying it now: “What do you need an engineer on the job for? Shouldn’t the Contractor know what to do? Why not just let the Contractor build the job and give the bill to the agency when the job is done so the government can pay him?”

Look, HGTV makes remodeling a house seem like a weekend job. The construction process is far more involved than television makes it out to be. Chip & Joanna Gaines do a lot more than just knock down walls and decorate houses. There’s a lot of paperwork & “boring stuff” that needs to go on behind the scenes to make the project work, and believe me, watching that wouldn’t make for good TV. Moreover, in government construction, the administrative tasks are even more voluminous than they are in the private sector.

The government enters into a contract with the construction contractor. The government agency has an obligation to the taxpayers to responsibly manage the funds that the transportation agencies have been given by the legislature. And it has an obligation to see to it that the taxpayers receive the work that they have paid for. The Resident Engineer essentially serves as the overseer of the contract between the government agency and the construction contractor, serving as a representative for the agency & for the taxpayers.

So what does the Resident Engineer do? Let’s take a look at some of the “Big Chunks” of the RE’s responsibilities:

  • Managing the Flow of Contract Information
  • Serving as the Hub of the Communication Channels
  • Facilitating & Monitoring Job Progress
  • Troubleshooting & Resolving Problems
  • Inspecting, Measuring & Authorizing Payment for the Work
  • Serving as the Official Record Keeper of All of the Job Documentation

And let’s be clear: When we say “Resident Engineer” we’re not just talking about 1 individual person. Although it is a title for the leader of the team, the Resident Engineer is the embodiment of the entire on-site squad working on behalf of the agency.

Simply looking at the “Big Chunks” knowing there are multitudes of tasks associated with each one, it is obvious that there is A LOT that needs to be done. But, you don’t eat an elephant in one sitting. It takes lots of bites. This article is meant to provide you with a knife & fork so that you can get your dinner started….

Let’s Create an Example Project

So, just to put some context to our discussion, let’s assume that the set of plans that your boss gave you is a 1-mile long, $5 million roadway improvement project. The scope of the 1-year project includes all of the major components that we normally see on a roadway construction project:

  • Removing & replacing the roadway pavement
  • Reconstructing a small, single-span bridge
  • Reconstructing the drainage system
  • Installing a new traffic signal & roadway lighting at a busy intersection

There are a lot of other components of the project that will need to be navigated:

  • Earthwork & erosion control
  • Maintenance of Traffic
  • Utility relocations
  • Public involvement & communication

The value of the project is not huge. The timeframe to complete the work seems reasonable. Let’s assume that this is a straightforward project, no unique features, just rebuilding a road & a bridge. Your boss gave you a good job to cut your teeth on…..

So Where the Hell Do I Start?

Getting out of the starting blocks correctly is a super-critical part of getting a project started up. There are obviously dozens of issues and tasks that need to be taken care of. But, there are also lots of traps & rabbit holes that you can run into which will waste valuable pre-construction time.

So the question is this: How do I get ready for the project?

Job Planning Starts with a “Size-Up”

When a firefighter arrives at the scene of a fire, the first thing he does is a “Size Up” of the situation. What kind of structure is on fire? Are there lives being threatened? Where is the structure located? What types of equipment & manpower are going to be required to extinguish the fire? What kind of weather conditions do I have to deal with? Have I done a 360-degree assessment of the structure & the location? Have I communicated what I’m observing both up and down the chain of command?

A “Size-Up” happens quickly & efficiently. It sets the stage for the initial plan of attack for the firefighting team’s mission.

I love the analogy of “Size Up” as it relates to what we do as Resident Engineers. As soon as your boss gave you plans, your “Size Up” of the project begins. You will be making the initial assessment of the project’s parameters and preparing an attack strategy for performing all of the tasks required to complete the mission.

The key to a good initial “Size Up” lies in its conciseness. This is not the time to start reading detailed pay item specifications or counting proposed catch basins or worrying about how you are going to set-up your filing system. That will all come later.

Right now, your #1 job is to understand the project on the large scale. You want to get into the initial plan review:

  • What does the entire construction corridor look like?
  • What types of work are being built? Roadway? Sewers? Lighting & traffic signals? Structures?
  • What type(s) of paving are we building?
  • Where are the structures located? What type(s) of construction are involved?
  • How much earthwork is involved?
  • How is the traffic staging setup?

One of the most important pieces of advice I can give you at this early stage is this: Avoid details. Don’t worry about the little bits and pieces: They are not important right now. All you want to do during your “Size Up” is flip sheets, take mental snapshots & digest as much global information as you can about the overall scope of the project.

This is one of the biggest problems I see when young or inexperienced engineers are given a new set of plans. They start shoveling dirt because they know how to use a shovel. We’re not digging holes yet. In fact, we don’t even know where the holes are yet! This is not the time to start reading detailed pay item specs or making light pole counts – All you are going to do is clutter your mind. You’ll have plenty of time to dig into the details later on.

Keep a pencil & paper handy. Jot down things that you see that you’ll want to dig into deeper later.

Do the same thing with the job specifications – just scan them quickly. I like to make a copy of the Table of Contents and keep it with my other jot sheets. Again, this is a scanning & quick glance exercise, just to plant seeds in your mind as to the types of things you’ll be dealing with, not a page-by-page reading of the spec’s.

Lastly, make a copy of the pay items. Quickly scan it in your mind, again, just to get a flavor for what you’ll be building & paying for.

This process, depending on the size of the job, should only take you a couple hours or so. All you want to do is get the general scope of the project in your mind. When you are done, you should be able to briefly describe the job to anyone.

“Drill In” – The Next Level of Planning

After you’ve made your first pass through the plans & specs, your next step will be to start digesting the actual scope of the work. In this round of review, we want to get a better handle on the landscape of the battlefield. We still, at this point, don’t want to be counting anchor bolts, we are still looking at just the big picture.

The goal of this next pass is to get a better feel for the scope & size of the various elements that we’ll be dealing with and their general inter-relationship. What are we building? Where are we building it? How do major elements of work fit together?

Let’s take a look at a tickler list of the kinds of things we want to better-understand in this review:

Paving Plans

  • What are we building – Concrete? Asphalt? Both?
  • What are our pavement bases – Stabilized, aggregate, HMA?
  • What do the typical sections look like? Are we overlaying existing pavement? Fully reconstructing? Combination sections?


  • What are we building – Bridge(s)? Walls?
  • What kinds of foundation systems are we building – Piles? Caissons? Spread footings?
  • How are the foundations configured?
  • Are we building any temporary retention systems – Pile/lagging? Sheeting? Wire walls?
  • What are the bridge’s major components made of- Steel beams? Plate girders? Precast? Are we doing any rehab/redecking?
  • How do the structures relate to the rest of the project? Are we building anything in stages?

Sewer / Water / Electrical

  • What are the general drainage patterns of the site?
  • Where are the storm sewer trunk lines going? How big are they? Where is the storm water detention?
  • Water supply features – Where is it installed? Where are we tapping the existing system(s)?
  • Are we building any new traffic signal? Roadway lighting? Are there any temporary signals/lights? Where are the conduit routings going? Where are we getting power from?


  • Where are the existing utilities? Which companies will we be dealing with?
  • What is remaining in-place? What is being relocated & where is it going?
  • What relocations would you anticipate to be open cut vs directionally bored?


  • Where are your major earthwork activities?
  • Are we balancing the site? Is this a fill job or a haul-off job?
  • What are we doing with the existing topsoil?
  • Are there mandatory undercuts prescribed? Do we have peat or other bad soils to mitigate?
  • Where are the soil borings charted? Where are the borings provided (plans or specs)?
  • Do we have non-special waste quantities to manage?

Maintenance of Traffic / Staging

  • How is the project generally being staged? How many stages are there?
  • What work is being accomplished in each stage?
  • What type(s) of pavement markings (temporary & permanent) are specified?

Erosion Control

  • What do you anticipate to be sources of sediment that need to be controlled?
  • Where are the likely release points – Overland flow, on paved surfaces, creeks or open channel ditches?
  • What pay items have been provided for controls? What items aren’t provided?

I like to think about the Order of Magnitude’s when stepping into each level of review. Your “Size-Up” is looking for the $100K – $500K pay items & scopes of work, the large-scale elements of the project. When you make your next pass as part of your “Drill-In,” now you are starting to refine your look, thinking about your $25K – $100K items.

At this point, you’re still looking for major elements, but now your review starts to put things in order. You’ll start understanding the inter-relationship of the individual elements – What stage does the 42″ storm sewer get built? What are we doing with the retention pond excavated material? Are all of the bridge piles being installed in a single mobilization or are the retaining walls / bridge structures being built in stages?

Obviously, keep pencil & paper handy since you’ll be jotting down notes to yourself about what you want to dig deeper into later. I know I keep repeating myself but I have to: Don’t clutter your mind with details at this point. Leave yourself bread crumbs to come back to later.

You will also be wanting to flip back-and-forth in your pay item roster and your Special Provision’s Table of Contents. Again, you’re not looking to read individual specifications or worry about pay item quantities, you just want to start understanding the items you have. As things pop into your mind, just write them down on your jot sheet: There will be plenty of time to research the details later.

At the end of your “Drill In” review, you should be able to confidently present the job to your boss. You should be able to identify all of the major work elements, some of the minor elements, and be versed enough to start thinking about the job schedule & the resources / people / roles you think you’ll need to be part of the crew.

This is the first step in getting a job set-up. Don’t worry about the documentation or field office-type stuff, it’s still too early for that. Keep your focus on the scope of work at this early stage of the game. We’ll deal with the administrative & managerial tasks later on.


In next week’s article, we’ll take the next steps in getting the job set-up. We’ll be expanding & refining our understanding of the scope of the project. By the way: Remember to bring your boots & your hardhat next time as you will need them….

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