For commercial real estate developers, in-house civil engineering experience can be a game-changer

Civil Services

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It’s an understatement to point out that commercial real estate development has a lot of moving parts. From design and logistics to regulatory hurdles and approvals, and from thorny financial calculus to in-depth tenant negotiations, the requisite toolkit is extensive. Which is why many of the best developers have a demonstrated ability to navigate that complexity not only by coordinating with consultants and professional partners, but also by applying their own in-house insight and expertise.

One perhaps underappreciated piece of the commercial development puzzle is the role played by civil engineers. Civil engineering impacts the due diligence process and is connected to everything from planning and design decisions to costs and consequences related to environmental considerations, utilities, and a whole host of municipal and site-specific nuances.

The unique point of view that civil engineering experience and perspectives can bring to the table is not only a significant asset for developers, but it can help make tenants, consultants, civic officials, and other interested parties work more closely and collaboratively to bring profitable projects to life.

A sharp eye and a familiar language

For a commercial real estate developer, having members of the team with civil engineering consulting experience means there are experienced eyes viewing every step of the design and development process through a different lens. That expertise and perspective means that in-house assets can help catch technical details in site planning that save a potentially significant amount of time and money.

It also means you have someone at the table who can “speak the language” of civil engineering consultants. As WMG professionals can attest, providing consultants with detailed information about what you need and why you need it—instead of the context-free delegation consultants all-too-often encounter—leads to both a better working relationship and a better finished project. Someone who has worked as a civil engineering professional has a unique understanding of what consultants need and what the developer can provide to help them do their best work. In the concept planning phase of a project, for example, a change in committed users can result in an evolving site plan—and there can be a lot of frustration on the consulting side if nothing is shared about why changes need to be made. On the flip side, knowing why changes are needed can inform the finished product and help civil engineers do their jobs more effectively.

Giving diligence its due

With a potential site selected and tenants’ interest piqued, the all-important due diligence phase of a project can begin. The myriad variables that impact the cost, design, and planning information that goes into a pro forma not only impacts potential rents and rates, but the very viability of the project. Which is why due diligence is so vital, and also why the extra filter of an in-house civil engineering perspective can be so valuable. Gathering detailed data about the site, conducting environmental reviews, and assessing the impact and cost of any major changes to the site all goes into the pro forma. Coordinating with municipalities regarding permitting timelines (to make sure the developer under-commits and over-delivers to tenants) is another element of the commercial development process where civil engineering expertise can make a positive difference.

Challenges: accepted

That in-house civil engineering expertise can help navigate and overcome a wide range of development hurdles that may otherwise have been costly, consequential, or even devastating to a project’s chances. On the permitting side, insight into the process can help expedite approvals, especially for smaller or understaffed municipalities. Building relationships and working collaboratively with civic and regulatory officials can be essential not just for securing approvals, but for getting accurate information about timelines and passing that information along to tenants.

On the design side, states like Florida make the value of civil engineering expertise all the more apparent. Florida projects not only have to deal with codes meant to protect against hurricanes and a high water table, but in areas with dense development, remaining sites often include wetlands and floodplains. It can take 18 months or more to get any approval for a wetlands permit, and topographically variable sites may need a large number of retaining walls or stormwater management measures—all of which impact the cost and pro forma. Stormwater solutions that amenitize a potential liability by turning a pond into an asset or reusing stormwater runoff for irrigation can be a game-changer. It’s all about being creative and understanding how to transform these civil engineering issues into opportunities. The right piece of inspired value engineering can quite literally save millions on the final development price tag.

Partners and possibilities

From a partnership standpoint, civil engineering expertise facilitates a great many insights and efficiencies that can benefit tenants and professional partners. Those benefits are particularly evident in programmatic work, where familiarity and a close working relationship can help developers leverage civil engineering know-how to deliver results faster, smoother, more efficiently, and in a more cost-effective manner. It’s also a big part of why WMG’s commitment to listen closely to every client and work collaboratively to address pain points and identify creative solutions works as well as it does. Our in-house civil engineering perspective is consistent with the creation of innovative development solutions such as our Developer Buy Out and SYNCS programs. It’s ultimately about being flexible, creative, and client-focused—and those are goals that every developer should strive for.