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Close expertise gap, construction urged

THE FAILINGS of the construction industry were vividly detailed by Sydney Lenssen at the ICE this week.

Weak links between management and designers is one of construction's biggest failings, said Lenssen, former director of Pell Frischmann and founding editor of NCE.

'One great weakness is that the best designers and builders are quickly promoted upwards into roles where they abandon their most precious talents. They forsake proven skills for higher salaries and supposedly higher positions in the managerial chain, ' Lenssen said.

In his presidential address to the Conseil National des Ingenieurs et des Scientifiques de France (UK section), Lenssen urged companies to close the gap between those in charge and those responsible for design.

Lenssen drew on his experience of early 1970s steel box girder bridge collapses to highlight the industry's weaknesses. The division between technical experts and senior managers was highlighted in a series of high profile collapse inquiries.

'There is a gap that exists between the partners and directors of firms of consulting engineers and their engineers and designers, ' Lenssen commented.

He claimed the gap in expertise is widely known within the construction industry but seldom acknowledged. Managers and designers are still divorced today, he said.

'The gap is worth closing, ' he explained, 'not because we want to drag someone who really knows what's going on into the witness box, but at all times, when they are working productively.'

Division between senior managers and their staff was made particularly clear, he said, at the 1971 inquiry into the collapse during construction of Melbourne's West Gate bridge, which killed 35 people.

Key witnesses called in to give evidence in Melbourne were, with a few exceptions, company partners and leading figures in the profession.

The collapse was triggered by the unfastening of friction grip bolts in the top deck of the bridge, in the zone of highest compression, close to the centre of the span. Erectors were trying to remove a buckle in bridge's the steel plates.

UK consultant Freeman Fox, responsible for design, was severely criticised for failing to identify the hazard involved in loosening the bolts and for not designing a remedial solution.

Lensson quoted from the inquiry report: 'Calculations supplied to the Commission by Freeman Fox demonstrated complete inadequacy. Perhaps the most significant matter is the absence of some vital figures for which no satisfactory explanation was ever forthcoming.

'We were left in the unhappy position of being unable on the evidence to decide whether these calculations were ever made, lost or simply not supplied to us despite repeated requests.'

But, explained Lenssen, 'On many of the key issues the men giving evidence simply did not know enough about what had gone on. They were not aware of how, or even whether, calculations had been made. They did not know the basis of assumptions made, or the standards applied.'

Appearances and evidence from the engineers who had actually carried out the design work were limited. 'Those who produced the drawings were not heard or exposed to questioning.'

Lenssen emphasised that managers in the construction industry swiftly become remote from day to day technical issues.

'In few other activities is the nittygritty experience of people thrown away so quickly, ' he said.

And the risk of bad decision taking and poor accountability continues to make structural failure a far greater danger than necessary, Lenssen warned.

'I have seen little evidence of change or improvement over the years. Rather the opposite.

'In these days of ever-larger corporations and corporate thinking, it is the chairman or chief executive of organisations who speak to the public, or answer questions. Those who are really in the best position to speak and influence decisions are often kept gagged in the background.'

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