Canadian Consulting Engineer

Why are engineering firms blurring their names? Editorial

The trend to anonymity goes hand in hand with globalization. It also goes with what everyone complains about: the “commoditization” of engineering services.

September 3, 2015   By Bronwen Parsons

From the August-September 2015 print and digital edition, page 4.

While reporting on the disappearance of yet another Canadian consulting engineering firm into an international conglomerate, I found myself struggling to remember the new company’s acronym. There are so many companies that have “rebranded” and adopted acronyms for their names, they tend to sound the same. It’s easy to transpose the letters and I kept typing in the wrong version.
Irritated, I wondered why so many companies today adopt acronyms and vague abstract nouns as their names. It’s as if they actually want to hide behind an anonymous nondescript label so that no-one in the wider world would have an inkling about what they do or how they distinguish themselves from the competition. Do they think that by stripping out their founders’ names, they sound more businesslike and efficient?
The consulting engineering industry is becoming more and more depersonalized, more and more corporate, more international. There’s no more Halsall, for example, no more Conestoga-Rovers, no more Marshall Macklin Monaghan. Well, at least those entities do still exist, but they’ve dropped the names of the real people and places with which they were associated.
The trend to anonymity goes hand in hand with globalization. It also goes with what everyone complains about:  the “commoditization” of engineering services. Kyle V. Davy, keynote speaker at the ACEC Summit in Niagara Falls in June, said engineering firms have become simply “time sellers.” When all the firms start to look and sound similar, I’d say that the client is more likely to fall back on price as the deciding factor about who to hire.
The growth of design-build and public-private partnerships is also depersonalizing engineering firms and pushing them further into the background. The contract for a mega-hospital, transit line or power plant will likely go to a consortium with an indistinguishable name concocted for that project alone. Sometimes the news release will name the companies in the consortium, but these again are often giant international firms whose names have little local significance.
But you can’t extinguish the human spirit, and it will always drive some individuals to differentiate themselves from the crowd. There is still a place for small, specialized firms who want to tread their own path. That’s not to say that individual engineers can’t do imaginative and excellent work within gigantic corporations, but some people thrive better in a studio environment.
Which brings me to Michael Allen of Adjeleian Allen Rubelli, interviewed on page 58. Given our theme of recreational and sport buildings, it was fascinating to talk to this Ottawa structural engineer about how he and architect Rod Robbie came up with the idea for the Toronto Skydome’s retractable roof. Initially just the two of them worked on their competition-winning scheme and at the time they were both in small firms. Allen got inspiration on a plane, and afterwards they passed drawings backwards and forwards via a bus! It just shows that even big ideas for big projects start with individual designers sometimes doing idiosyncratic things. These are men and women who have courage — and above all, who have personality.

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