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The emergence of the 'expert client' is excellent news for the ground investigation sector - but are mainstream practitioners at risk of 'dumbing down'?

It is boom time in the ground investigation sector - but, suggests Mike Newton of Soil Mechanics, summer is always busy; it is just part of the annual cycle.

'Having watched the quite regular workload ebb and flow over many years, you should be worried if you are not really busy at this time of year, ' he says.

Year on year, Soil Mechanics' level of enquiries is similar to 2003. Most agree last year was pretty good, so static is not a bad place to be. On this basis, expect the UK ground investigation contracting market to run at about £125M in 2004.

But significantly, the industry is divided on whether the Egan and Latham initiatives to improve quality and efficiency in construction have had a real, positive benefit for ground investigation practitioners.

Phil West, technical director of Bureau Veritas Consulting, says: 'It's the same arguments coming round. There has always been a cowboy element in the sector and with nobody to police it, it is hard to see how improvements will come about.

'In the past it was assumed market forces would drive up quality - but this hasn't happened.'

The implication is unless the need for a geotechnical specialist becomes embodied within contracts, raising the quality of the output and the value of the site investigation process will be an uphill struggle.

'The age-old problem is how do you differentiate the good from the bad? For the most part clients can't tell what is a good or bad site investigation report, 'West muses.

Newton believes the situation is not helped because 'there is still a degree of misconception among clients over what they are buying' John Chick of May Gurney believes we are starting to see the emergence of the 'expert client' They tend to be those who offer framework agreements and are most likely to be utility or transport infrastructure owners.

'Typically these clients use a consulting engineer or cost consultant, will have done a cost benefit analysis on the value of site investigation and as a result are prepared to invest in the process, ' he says.

More importantly, Chick says, the expert client will commission a 'useful' site investigation and is willing to accept advice.'Even if they don't fully understand the technical issues, they clearly recognise and acknowledge that we are experts too.'

Clients are 'rightly starting to get more demanding in what they want. We have to ensure we are right at the top in terms of quality and customer service' Expert clients, Chick says, don't want caveats, get-out clauses and heavily qualified and guarded conclusions. They want high quality interpretation and clear conclusions and recommendations.

He maintains that to work at this high end of the sector you definitely need engineering back-up. May Gurney's site investigation and piling operations are closely integrated, he explains, which helps focus the site investigation reports on to the needs of the end users.

Chick is clearly concerned that certain elements in the industry are still banging out low quality, poorly compiled reports.

'We are a user as well as a producer of site investigations and get to see maybe 10 ground investigation reports a day with piling tenders.

There is a wide range in quality.' Some, he says, are very piecemeal, with no real continuity or purpose and of questionable value.

West fears the mainstream site investigation sector is at risk of 'dumbing down'For example, as the popularity of window sampling increases - because it is fast and cheap - contractors are now using the technique in inappropriate situations. As a consequence the ground investigation is not achieving the quality of sampling and borehole depths needed to allow an informed engineering judgement on the project in question.

'While window sampling has its place and for some jobs is by far the best approach, we are increasingly seeing window sampling used where cable percussion would be much better.'

West believes there is also a problem with environmental engineers doing geotechnical reports and vice versa. Again it comes down to clients not appreciating the differences, a situation that is not good for the industry.

Chick says that as an industry 'we're not there yet' but he believes there are signs of hope. 'A few companies are managing to set themselves apart and it's nice to be competing in a smaller market.'

The emergence of the expert client group coincides with an increased awareness of health and safety. Clients are starting to demand high standards through their supply chains.

This requires a big change in attitude by the ground investigation industry that for many years has relied heavily on subcontracting, particularly drillers.

Chick says: 'As far as the client is concerned the driller is May Gurney and we need to make sure they get all the support, backing and supervision that we offer our employees.'

Newton agrees; he believes health and safety and how companies introduce and operate quality systems are the industry's big developments.

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