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Letters to the editor

The Editor welcomes letters at 151 Rosebery Avenue, London EC1R 4QX

fax: (0171) 505 6667 e-mail: nceedit@construct.emap.co.uk

and reserves the right to condense.

Expert assessment

I was surprised to see your report and commentary (NCE 21 May) raise questions over the composition of the Expert Group which we have set up under the chairmanship of Professor Leslie Clark to investigate and report on the thaumasite form of sulphate attack.

Since the first case of thaumasite in foundations came to light in 1990, my department has been funding an ongoing programme of research at BRE to better understand the nature of the chemical reactions involved and to keep a watching brief for any further cases. It was as part of that programme that, some months ago, before the M5 cases were discovered, we commissioned BRE to undertake the field tests you reported. Professor Clark's group will have the support of the team of independent experts at BRE, who are probably the leaders internationally in this field. In addition, the group includes a number of leading practioners from industry with experience of concrete deterioration and sulphate attack. It also includes a former chief highways engineer and the consultant leading the current investigations on the M5 for the Highways Agency.

The group has been asked to develop advice and guidance on the implications for existing buildings and structures and on the specification and design of new construction. Its members therefore also include specialists in underpinning, geotechnics, materials technology, housing defects

and standards writing.

Members were chosen principally for the balance of skills they could bring to the work. But we also wanted to provide good links with the key stakeholders. This will help ensure that the group's advice is both technically sound and also practical and implementable.

In your profile of Leslie Clark, following his appointment to chair the Expert Group, you said that he was widely acknowledged by industry to be the right man for the job (NCE 9/16 April). I believe, as he does, that he has the right team and support to do a first class job. He knows that if he requires any additional assistance or resources they will be made available.

Nick Raynsford, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Eland House, Bressenden Place, London SW1E 5DU

Inside information

I am writing to correct a few inaccuracies in the otherwise well crafted article 'Man on the inside' (NCE, 28 May).

You state that the ACE is planning a professional indemnity scheme. In fact we have had such a scheme, run in conjunction with insurers Griffiths and Armour, for over 50 years.

We have already established a client relations committee with the purpose of encouraging greater trust and understanding between clients and consultants.

The Association's client referral service has been in operation for many years and is one of the ACE's most popular and most used services for members and clients alike. We are currently updating and expanding it.

Nicholas Bennett, Chief Executive, The Association of Consulting Engineers, Alliance House, 12 Caxton Street, London, SW1H 0QL

Courting the Act

The New Construction Act is a step in the right direction for the industry. It should sharpen us all up, but only if it is interpreted in a responsible way.

Unless a balanced approach is taken by all parties, we are in danger of creating ill-will, which is one of the main things the Act was designed to prevent.

I believe we should all guard against the danger of too many adjudications. While I fully support the Act's main aim - to enable specialist contractors to collect money quickly and make the resolution of claims cheaper - adjudication should not be resorted to unnecessarily.

It will be extremely counter-productive for industry partnerships if businesses now start to resort to formal proceedings as a first option, rather than seeing if the issue can be resolved by honest, old fashioned negotiation.

If the major industry players are proactive in managing potential adjudication quickly and constructively, I'm sure a lot of grief and stress for all could be avoided.

I also believe that businesses and trade associations should think carefully about the response times for the parties and the time needed for the adjudicator to prepare his award. Setting unrealistic time scales may result in unsatisfactory awards to the l ong term detriment of the process.

I applaud the spirit of the Construction Act, and I am glad that it has finally arrived after such a delay. Responsibly interpreted, the act will benefit the entire industry, not least consultants, by ensuring that we all think more carefully about the business implications of commercial proposals and decisions.

But unless there is a real need to fight, the act should not be brandished as a weapon.

Richard Clare, Chairman, EC Harris, Capital Projects and Facilities Consultants, Lynton House, 7-12 Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9LX

Whose fault over-design?

I recently attended a lecture at the Institution of Structural Engineers entitled 'Over Design - Fact or Fiction'. The speaker pointed out that office buildings are invariably designed for floor loadings far in excess of those recommended in BS6399, even though the recommended loads are adequate. This over design gives rise to increased structural costs for which the engineer is often blamed but it is in fact the letting agents who are responsible for requiring the floor loadings in excess of the BS requirements.

In his letter (NCE 7 May), Brian Clancy adopts a similar approach in blaming lawyers for having frightened insurers into acting as they have in relation to the 'Construction Act'. In fact, there is a widely held view among construction lawyers that the insurers' stance is untenable. Although, as always, much will depend on the exact wording of the policy, the suggestion that an insurer will not have to pay out on the basis that certain types of adjudicator's decision will not give rise to 'legal liability' is highly questionable. It is not the lawyers' fault that insurers have realised the undoubted impact which the Construction Act will have on the way in which they do business and are taking steps to minimise it.

Similarly, lawyers are sometimes blamed for the presence of 'pay when paid' clauses (now, largely, banned by the Act) in subcontracts, but those were only drafted because main contractors requested and paid for them. Already, some contractors are seeking to undermine the Act with 'pay when certified' provisions and backdated contracts. Like members of another old profession, lawyers will adopt whatever position the paying customer requires. Whether or not the Act succeeds will depend not on the lawyers but on its interpretation by the courts and, above all, the attitude of the industry.

Peter McNamara, (M), Edge & Ellison Solicitors, 18 Southampton Place, London WC1A 2AJ

Paper slip

I was pleased to read of Autolink Consortium's efforts towards achieving the dream of a paperless office (NCE 7 May). Here too in South Africa we are implementing similar tools in an effort to overcome geographical difficulties on a single project to upgrade and reconstruct over 500 kms of transnational highway over three years.

However, what caught my eye in your feature was the user interface screen which showed some interesting statistices, such as:

Drawing register: 0

Design certificates: 1

Quality procedures: 77

Nonconformance reports: 514!!!

Gremlins in the system, or a wind-up perhaps?

Mark Presswood (M), markiep@global.co.za

Play the Card right

I write in response to your interesting article 'Steam Dream' (NCE 23 April) and would just like to clarify that the Swanage Railway Company's first move to appraise the condition of the railway was to employ BBF Consultancy Group to project manage and carry out the necessary engineering surveys, and not Card Geotechnics Ltd as indicated in your article. The BBF Consultancy Group appointed Card Geotechnics to assist it in carrying out the condition survey of the permanent way.

BBF is also commissioned to undertake structural condition surveys of the station structures and associated buildings. The station buildings at Corfe Castle and Swanage are fine examples of Victorian architecture and are important listed historic structures. The challenge is to preserve these structures while undertaking improvements to meet modern day safety standards for the rail industry.

Dr Geoffrey B Card, (M), Director, Card Geotechnics Ltd, Alexander House, 50 Station Road, Aldershot, Hampshire, GU11 1BG

Look to the law for status

While I disagree fundamentally with Mr Rahman (NCE 21 May) that failure to introduce licensing could in any way represent an indication of falling standards, he has hit on a fundamental point. All the continual talk of new exams does nothing for status, since no-one outside the profession is

remotely affected by them.

If the term Engineer were given legal protection, I'm certain this would be the Holy Grail of status that so many of us aspire to. Are there any moves to try and make this legal move?

Chris Brown, (M), chrisb@zoo.co.uk

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