The Art and Science of Engineering and Design

The best water system projects are a combination of both.

By Ed Butts, PE, CPI

People often confuse the two terms “design” and “engineering.”

While engineering is an educated and trained vocation, design can apply to virtually anyone with a creative mind. I have often applied the concepts of engineering without observing adequate design techniques during my career. I have also applied strict design techniques in a few cases, while sacrificing and falling somewhat short on the engineering aspects.

This can be a true conundrum. Engineers need to make their structures operable, safe, and secure (i.e., the function, even if it means ignoring the design aspects or form of the structure). However, humans, being what we are, like to include design elements into our work to complete the well-known phrase of “form and function.”

I have often heard the basic difference between an engineer and a designer is the designer knows how to build something using anything necessary or available, while the engineer knows how to build the same thing but by using the least amount of material to make it economical and still retain the form and function. Obviously, whether that definition is accurate or not will largely depend on the past experience, attitude, and yes, even the prejudice of the individual.

This month, we will examine a few aspects of the art and science of engineering and design and how they are similar and different.


Engineering is defined as “the application of science and math to solve problems.” Engineers design, evaluate, develop, test, modify, install, inspect, and maintain a wide variety of products and systems. They also recommend and specify materials and processes, supervise manufacturing and construction, conduct failure analysis, provide consulting services, and teach engineering courses in colleges and universities to prospective new engineers.

Engineers determine how things work and find practical and economical uses for the scientific discoveries made by others. Scientists and inventors often get the credit for innovations that advance or improve society, but it is engineers who are generally instrumental in making those innovations available to the world and applying them in a practical and efficient way.

Although many individuals believe the practice of engineering is only reserved for those with the needed education or title, all of us occasionally or regularly practice engineering in one form or another—even perhaps without consciously knowing it.

For example, a father who plans and builds a treehouse for his kids has undoubtedly applied the principles of engineering. After all, to provide a structurally strong and resilient treehouse, he had to figure out the physical layout and dimensions—including the lumber sizes, thickness, grade, and bracing to use to resist implied loads such as wind and gravity.

The father has had to understand the span between, and the load on, the supporting branches must not be excessive to avoid overloading and sag, or worse yet, breakage of the floor or branches that could cause a total collapse of the structure. The ropes or boards he selects for the ladder to enable access to the treehouse must be adequately strong and not break or snap when the weight of the children is applied. Finally, even the selection and spacing of the nails must be made with enough care to prevent pulling out from the tree or breaking under load.

A successful project will result in a design that constitutes consideration of three elements or E’s: “effective,” “efficient,” and “economical.”

Many of these skills, generally made by non-engineers, may reflect the inherent benefits gained from past experience, recommendations from The Home Depot, reading the instructions from a website, or even an intuitive sixth sense on what will work and won’t. This, in essence, is engineering: the application of scientific principles “to solve problems” (in this case, building a treehouse).

As basic as the use of engineering is in many cases, when improperly or illegally applied in other situations, it can be destructive, dangerous, and lead to the possible loss of property and human lives. This means that engineers, specifically professional engineers, are entrusted to use their education, experience, and training to directly and safely improve the human condition through the real-world application of scientific techniques, principles, and discoveries.

It is also why the public practice of engineering is carefully controlled and regulated by all states. To become a professional engineer or “PE,” candidates must pass specific exams and accept personal responsibility for the systems and structures they design and adhere to a strict code of ethics that, among many others, restricts practice to their stated specialty, and defines conflicts of interest, and the responsibility to clients, employers, fellow engineers, and the public.

Typically, PEs are examined and registered for a specific field or branch of engineering. There are many well-known branches—including civil, electrical, mechanical, and environmental—as well as lesser-known branches such as ceramic, petroleum, control systems, and fire protection.

Many believe for whatever reason that professional engineers are distant, arrogant, and difficult to work with. Although this perception may be true in some cases as there will always be a few bad apples in every profession, for the large part, engineers are only interested in designing or delivering a product or system that economically satisfies the client’s intent and service conditions.

For the most part, the engineers I have known and worked with are conscientious and ethical individuals. Whatever ego or arrogance exists will generally be weeded out within a few years from lack or loss of clients and regulatory oversight.

Certainly, engineers are not deities or above reproach, and the vast majority I know rapidly acknowledge an error in their design when one appears and seek out a mutually satisfactory outcome. In a working relationship, I believe engineers are entitled to no more or less respect than any other individual employed on the project.


The term “designer” denotes a broad definition that may mean one thing to one person while representing an entirely different definition to another.

Although those in the water well and pumping industries regularly apply engineering theories and practices in their work, due to legal limitations associated with the term “engineer” and a strict interpretation of the term “designer,” I prefer to refer to most who lay out, design, and even engineer water systems as “water system designers.”

A designer is defined as “one who creates and often executes plans for a project, system, or structure.” To me, this perfectly fits the description of one who both creates and executes a plan for a water system.

The main distinction for me is I have known numerous designers who knew basically nothing about engineering principles but could reliably execute a plan and design an excellent water system, while I have also known at least as many engineers who could cite complex theory off the top of their head but knew absolutely nothing about effectively designing a water system. In fact, in the worse cases, I have personally worked with both young and seasoned engineers who tried to find a matching design from a textbook.

As far as I am concerned, the fundamental distinction is that engineers are often more concerned with the “science” behind a design without being cognizant of the need for the “art” of the design. Water systems should be designed with respect and observation of the proper engineering fundamentals but not lose sight of the visual aspects, aesthetics, and functionality, particularly in domestic installations.

In my experience, water system designers employ their experience and fundamental knowledge of hydraulics and electrical theory to effectively design and construct a water system that will reliably serve the customer for many years.

In fact, without trying to downplay my profession, virtually every time I experienced an issue with or was asked to  correct problems with a new water system, it was invariably designed by an engineer. I’m not implying all engineers are incapable of designing water systems. Most are quite competent, but it’s just that many engineers, especially young ones, may not know the correct way of designing the system at hand.

There’s a simple explanation for this in my opinion. It seems to me that misplaced arrogance and unbounded ego is often introduced and indoctrinated by the collegiate experience so much that it has given many new and young engineers the perception of personal infallibility.

These are the rising individuals who generally will assign blame to subordinates or workers on a project when the actual responsibility lies with the engineer. This is truly an unfortunate outcome as how are they going to learn the right way of doing something if they insist on deflecting responsibility from doing it the wrong way?

This trait generally passes or wanes in a few years as the individual develops more experience and observes that not all problems are to be inferred as a disaster, embarrassment, or always reflects on them in a negative light.

Almost all water system designers I have known are more concerned with doing it right the first time, but if problems arise, correcting the problem even if it costs them a few bucks. Most water system designers are open to dialogue and suggestions on how to apply engineering principles to their designs so they can provide a better water system for their client. Of course, there are also designers from time to time with unchecked egos and unbridled arrogance often developed from years of experience. Fortunately, I have found this to be the exception and not the rule.

The Art and Science of Design

Now that I’ve explained my definitions of engineers and designers, it’s time to define the differences and similarities between the art and science of water system design. As with many things in life, developing a successful water system project outcome is a matter of balance.

In most cases, effectively balancing three separate components is necessary for a successful project. A successful project will result in a design that constitutes consideration of three elements or E’s: “effective,” “efficient,” and “economical.”

An effective outcome simply means the water or pumping system delivers the required flow rate at the appropriate head when called for, required, and as scheduled. In other words, it does its job or duty point, nothing more or less. This is always the principal planning and design element.

An efficient system, on the other hand, means that while the system may provide the rated flow rate and head, it does it at the lowest feasible operating cost considering pump, driver, and conveyance efficiency.

Figure 1. The three elements of a successful design.

An economical system means the system was purchased at the lowest practical overall cost while considering the service life, performance, life cycle, and maintenance costs.

These three factors are not always compatible or equally distributed. In some cases, the system must be implemented quickly to satisfy a stated completion date. When this happens, the use of less efficient but more readily available equipment may be necessary to comply with the construction schedule. In still other cases, the allowable construction period may be so long that the supply and delivery of more efficient and usually more expensive equipment may be warranted. This second scenario obviously impacts all three E’s.

Remember that a system does not necessarily have to be efficient or economical to simply be effective. This is when good design and engineering is important. The proportion of these elements will be largely determined by the project’s scope, importance, cost limitations and budget, service conditions, and the expected service life.

The three E’s are further defined by three project variables referred to as cost, time, and quality (Figure 1). All these variables must be considered in various overlapping proportions for a meaningful and successful outcome.

This is generally when the proper balance of applying art to science must be observed. For example, planning a domestic water system using only stainless steel piping and fittings is usually uneconomical and unnecessary, where it may be necessary and even required for an industrial or wastewater project. This constitutes greater overlap of the quality and cost variables.

Another example is accelerating the execution and completion of a project to accommodate a tight construction schedule or provide an operable facility quickly for system growth or summer water demands. This involves greater overlap of both time and cost variables.

As you can see, the three variables often overlap, although in different proportions. The relative importance applied to each one must be determined from the project’s specific goals and timetable and how important each of the three E’s are to the owner or client.

Thus, the best balance is often obtained when each individual element and variable is considered by the relative importance each applies to the project. Sometimes, the rapid completion of the project is of such critical importance that the overlap between time and cost will be greater than the quality aspect. In other circumstances, if the client desires an outcome with an extended service life or subject to few or no operational failures, the quality and cost will overlap more than time.

On a normal project, the overlapping balance of the three project variables will generally provide the best relationship of all factors and a best-case economical outcome with a cost-effective and long service life. These considerations can be determined through the use of a properly executed lifecycle cost (LCC) analysis, which was the subject of a four-part Engineering Your Business series in the February 2013 to May 2013 issues of Water Well Journal.

Until next month, work safe and smart.

Learn How to Engineer Success for Your Business
 Engineering Your Business: A series of articles serving as a guide to the groundwater business is a compilation of works from long-time Water Well Journal columnist Ed Butts, PE, CPI. Click here for more information.

Ed Butts, PE, CPI, is the chief engineer at 4B Engineering & Consulting, Salem, Oregon. He has more than 40 years of experience in the water well business, specializing in engineering and business management. He can be reached at