At a time when there is a renewed focus on the whole life cost of structures and infrastructure, New Civil Engineer, in association with waterproofing specialist Stirling Lloyd, convened a round table debate to discuss how this was impacting on the way highways structures were designed and maintained.
Industry experts gathered to discuss how the increasing demands on infrastructure impact design and maintenance regimes; examine the temptation to take the lowest initial cost option; and consider how procurement has changed.
The dark art of predicting failure
“We will only keep getting government investment if it is spent well and it is shown to be having a positive impact. We need to ask ourselves: ‘are we currently making a difference, is the strategic road network improving, deteriorating, staying the same?’” asked New Civil Engineer editor Mark Hansford.
Costain asset management director Phillip Russell said the profession is very good at identifying when things fail in structures, but when it came to predicting failure “it is a dark art”.
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“We maintain the strategic road network basically on what it looks like,” he added, arguing that it was harder to make the case for spending money when we are unable to produce better information for structures.
“Visual inspections offer very little. Is there any reason why we still have this archaic way of going around every five years and doing visual inspections. We only apply sensors when we suspect something is bad”.
WSP head of civil, bridges and ground engineering Steve Denton, said the industry could be better at articulating the costs and consequences of the different strategies to maintain a structure.
“This is a fundamental thing that engineers need to be better at doing and in the case of bridges it is tricky. When you talk about roads, you can see the pothole and see the failure. When you talk about bridges we make decisions, not based on failure, but based on risk of failure being unacceptably high”.
Step change to proactive maintenance
“The challenge with sensors is that it is easier to build them into new structures, and perilously difficult to put them into 97% of structures we already have. That is the real challenge,” said Atkins technical director Chris Hendy.
“We know that proactive maintenance is better than reactive maintenance, but you have to break out of it for one or two years and pump money into it to get back on to the right footing, and we never seem to do that.”
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It is the short-termism of contracts that makes it harder to bring about change, added Hendy, citing Connect Plus’ 30-year M25 contract as a good example of long term planning and investment.
Road Consultants senior consultant in highway pavements and materials Ian Walsh agreed.
“Often in local government I see contractors incapable of living up to what they have promised at the time of tender.
“After year three disappointment sets in, after year five they start to ask if it is better to stick with the devil they know or the devil that they are moving to. How do you get a contact that delivers the quality you need? It’s very, very difficult.”
Rebellion against procurement
Arup infrastructure director Tim Chapman said it was time that we stopped being fair when it came to procurement as this meant we were being irrational. “Rational buying means you go and buy something at the right quality at the best price you can get it. Quality first and then you choose the level of price to get the quality you want. UK public procurement forgets anything about long term quality.”
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He argued that clients go out and buy again with no memory of what they have bought before. “Everyone has bought a rubbish TV when they first bought a television, and everybody has learnt from that experience and when they buy their second television they don’t go for the cheapest in the shop, they go for something a bit more expensive.”
He said the same applies to tendering across the board which he said was “essay writing” and that it was time for a procurement rebellion as he did not “believe that the people who buy stuff get what they want.”
Chapman used Crossrail 2 as an example of a failure to use the knowledge already gathered. “Crossrail 1 is rating all of its suppliers. Crossrail 2 is now buying suppliers with no memory of what they did on designing Crossrail 1, even though they are organised by the same people.”
Risk averse UK culture
Stirling Lloyd’s export director John Volpicelli said he thought that UK engineers were not “as free” as their international counterparts when it came to design specification, and this was making it harder for them to justify the whole life cost model for financing.
“We spend a lot of time overseas working with clients to get the right specifications for a job, and we can because they are not constrained. It feels that UK engineers are hamstrung by other professionals. They find it more difficult to ensure the final specification is the right one for the job in the long term, taking whole life cost considerations in to account.”
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WSP’s Denton agreed and said that the industry should concentrate on how it connects a performance-based approach with liability. “If a contract landed that said if this structure lasts 30 years, then it is fine. If it is less than 30 years we will come after you, you would be thinking: ‘this is a risk I don’t want to take’.
“But actually, isn’t there the possibility that you might think ‘we back ourselves for 30 years’ and even put in the contract that if it lasts 40 years, then we get a bonus. It puts some skin in the game.”
Harness the expertise in the supply chain
“We have recognised recently that the level of expertise in the supply chain is quite significant” said Institute of Highways Engineers chief executive Richard Hayes. “But it fails to be recognised because it lacks a professional bias, it’s commercially viewed, rather than professionally viewed.”
Cowi UK’s executive director David MacKenzie agreed and posed the question: “how good are designers in engaging with the supply chain to understand and deliver to clients a product that lasts?”
Standards set in the future, not the past
We need standards set in the future, which get incrementally tougher to achieve argued New Civil Engineer editor Mark Hansford.
WSP’s Denton asked: “To what extent does designing to a standard provide a good design? The reality is that designing to a standard means that you are designing to satisfy a certain level of safety, durability and robustness. It’s still raising the bar.”
At the round table
Clare Anderson Associate director, Arup
Tim Chapman Director infrastructure, Arup
Steve Denton Head of civil, bridges and ground engineering, WSP
David Dunne Principal engineer, Aecom
Arthur Hannah Head of materials technology, TRL
Mark Hansford Editor, New Civil Engineer
Richard Hayes Chief executive, Institute of Highways Engineers
Chris Hendy Technical director, Atkins
David MacKenzie Executive director, Cowi UK
Adrian Pollitt Technical sales support, Stirling Lloyd
Phillip Russell Asset management director, Costain
John Volpicelli Export director, Stirling Lloyd
Ian Walsh Director and senior consultant in highway pavements and materials, Road Consultants
Marianne Walsh Senior engineer Arup
Cliff Weston UK sales director, Stirling Lloyd
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