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Investigating attitudes

Ground Engineering takes a look at the latest issues and trends in the site investigation industry and assesses its reaction to the release of the AGS code of conduct.

This month's round up of the site investigation industry is based on a recent Ground Engineering survey of the sector. It shows that while the outlook appears positive, the recurrent complaint is that clients are still not willing to pay for quality site investigations despite it being widely known that this is a key stage in any construction project.

'There is insufficient support for a high quality approach [to site investigation] in the UK,' is just one comment that typifies the perception of clients' attitudes.

However, 84% of respondents expect workload to increase or stay the same over the next year and 94% say staff numbers will do likewise.

The main areas of work are in the rail and water sectors, with 24% and 19% of those replying involved. Light industrial and commercial developments are also prominent.

Environmental work is an important area, with the average split between pure geotechnical and pure environmental work at around 60%/40%. There appears to be a trend towards combined investigations, probably a reflection of the amount of brownfield remediation, with 74% saying these investigations should be carried out at the same time.

Finding quality engineers with experience to supervise site investigations and to interpret the data gathered is still difficult, according to the survey.

One consultant engineer says: 'There is a need for more risk based assessment of what the underlying geology is and more knowledgeable interpretation of data.'

But trying to be proactive in this respect does not appear to help. 'The tendency [for clients] to take cheaper prices rather than pay for quality means that those companies investing in development, staff training and quality assurance lose out to smaller non-accredited companies.'

It is hoped that the launch of the Association of Geotechnical & Geoenvironmental Specialists' Code of Conduct for Site Investigation, and the accompanying Guidelines for good practice, will go some way towards educating clients on the importance and value of quality site investigation.

Former AGS chairman and Mott Macdonald divisional director Bill Rankin, who was a key driver of the code's development, is keen to see it improve practice and is convinced there should be greater emphasis on thorough desk study and 'less but much higher quality and more reliable data'.

But critics say that while codes and best practice are a good thing, they make little difference if clients continue to award work on the basis of cost rather than quality.

Rankin hopes that this latest initiative will help. 'The code and good practice guidelines are aimed at clients and it is hoped they will raise awareness and improve practice across the UK.'

Judging by many of the comments received by Ground Engineering, most clients have been slow to change their attitude.

'The majority still see site investigation as a necessary evil, few see it as essential,' says one respondent.

Another adds: 'Some are more interested in collateral warranties rather than content and recommendations made in the report.'

There are still some complaints that geotechnical specialists are not being involved in projects as a whole and that site investigations are still being designed by 'non-specialists'.

These are 'poorly specified and under-designed by professionals who fail to appreciate the value and need for a proper ground investigation'.

Some 84% of the 95% respondents who are aware of the new code say they intend to comply with it.

However opinion was divided on whether it would help the industry. Some say it is a welcome step towards standardisation and will improve the status and image of the industry.

But the majority are sceptical, and believe this will only happen if the entire industry complies, and more importantly if it is accepted by clients as part of the procurement decision making process. 'It must be applied in an even handed manner and adhered to by all parties,' says one contractor.

Some companies, it seems, are happy to ignore any codes in order to win work. In fact, one respondent says that 'some may find compliance commercially unacceptable'. 'Those operating in a professional manner will gain nothing, those who do not will continue to ignore best practice,' says another.

Some respondents hit out at the industry, saying that it could be doing more for itself.

'It is time for radical change. Old techniques and attitudes are increasingly irrelevant and there are opportunities for innovation and free thinking,' says one contractor.

'There is a failure by the site investigation industry to appreciate the client's true needs and act accordingly,' complains another.

It may be that attitudes are changing within the industry itself, but changing clients' attitudes appears to be the priority. The consequences of continuing price cuts, tight margins and a drop in quality could be disastrous, according to Rankin.

'Unless there is a recognition that good quality comes at a fair price, there will not be an adequate site investigation capability left in the UK,' he warns.

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