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Episode 1 | Fixing the 'intergenerational low' in quality of design information

NCE Editorial

Special registers of civil engineers deemed competent enough to sign off on designs for construction are needed to arrest the decline in quality of design information, ICE vice president Ed McCann has suggested.

McCann, talking on New Civil Engineer’s brand-new podcast The Engineers Collective, says that action is need to address an “intergenerational low” in the quality of design information being passed to contractors from designers.

“People are talking about an intergenerational low in the quality of design information; they are talking about design drawings that are incomplete, incoherent, uncoordinated and they arrive at site and have to be redrawn and reengineered,” says McCann.

“Lots and lots of people who spend their life building stuff point to problems of that character and they argue that some of the skills that were historically in design teams about producing and co-ordinating information are not there now and they are having to come back and do it as part of a construction play.”

McCann, who led the ICE’s 2018 review into professional skills and also fronts the Get It Right initiative which is dedicated to eliminating error in the UK construction industry, has explored the issue in great depth and points a number of causal factors.

He points to significant changes to the way the industry operates over 25 to 30 years: the abolition of fee scales; the fundamental shift in way work is procured with the shift to design and build; and also the digital revolution in the 1970s when firms started to do computational modelling.

But the core of it, he notes, is contractual.

“If you speak to designers a lot will say ‘actually we are not paid to do this any more’; that ‘our fees are being pressurised and we are having to put a different business model in front of the client with lots of junior staff’. These are the causal factors,” he says.

The solution, McCann moots, could be a special register along the lines of the register the ICE maintains of panel engineers qualified to design and maintain all large and high-risk dams on behalf of the UK government.

“I have a view that I would quite like to see it on signing construction drawings,” he says. “If I wanted to transform construction through a register it would be that you are not allowed to sign off on a drawing until you are qualified to do it.”

Examining this option was one of the more controversial recommendations made in McCann’s Professional Skills review for the ICE and it is clear that he remains keen on it.

“Where the rubber hits the road is when the person signs a construction drawing and is satisfied that this can be safely built; that all of the processes that have ended up with the information on this drawing are trustable and have been done properly,” he says.

He adds that such a role could be a way to engineers earning great respect – and reward – for their efforts.

“I would like to see that person as a person of significance in the world,” he says. “And I would like to see these people being a particular breed and quite valuable.”

Also on this month’s Podcast: Stop the Cuts II

Fifteen years ago this month New Civil Engineer launched its Stop the Cuts campaign, aimed at persuading then chancellor Gordon Brown to maintain spending on crucial infrastructure projects and not swing the axe in his Autumn Comprehensive Spending Review. Fast forward to today and we are approaching another Comprehensive Spending Review where another chancellor is widely expected to swing the axe.

Last time around Crossrail, the New Mersey Gateway and the Thameslink Programme topped the list. What schemes do we need to campaign to save this time around?

Editor Mark Hansford and deputy editor Alexandra Wynne debate some of the likely candidates and ask the audience to submit their own suggestions for debate on a future podcast.

The Engineers Collective is available through all regular podcast hosts including Apple and Spotify and via Subscribe to receive notifications of when new pods are uploaded. 

The Engineers Collective is powered by Bentley Systems. Around the world, engineers and architects, constructors and owner-operators are using Bentley’s software solutions to accelerate project delivery and improve asset performance for the infrastructure that sustains our economy and our environment..



Readers' comments (5)

  • 'the decline in quality of design information'. Does this mean the Institution is failing to maintain standards of professional competence?

    If so, perhaps the ICE should up its game and start producing better engineers. A register is a pointless exercise.

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  • I expect a register would eventually raise the profile of engineers in society, as well as the quality of IFC drawings. In Queensland, Australia, engineers need to be registered (RPEQ) to perform all 'engineering services' (or otherwise directly supervised by and RPEQ) and engineering is a very well respected profession. Clients often demand drawings are signed off by an RPEQ as they know they'll get a better quality product.

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  • I have not worked in the UK for the best part of 30 years but from the time I graduated to the time I left (1974 to 1989) the quality of design drawings was assured by having experienced drafters with ONC or HNC qualifications. What has happened to them? In the main engineers alone have never been capable of producing good drawings.
    Being a Singapore Registered Professional Geotechnical Engineer (PE(Geo)) has raised my profile and is keeping me in employment beyond the normal age of retirement but it is not tackling the problem of not having competent drafters.

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  • As an engineer set to enter semi-retirement next month I am very surprised to read this. For the last few years NCE has been repeatedly telling us that the future lies with complex computers that will replace engineers in the design process, that artificial intelligence will render us all redundant. And now it's being suggested that we need 'civil engineers deemed competent enough to sign off designs.' Where has all the machine learning gone that is supposed to be replacing us?

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  • Whilst I agree with the principle of registered sign off (railway signalling engineering does this for good reason) nothing will change until sufficient resources, time and money, is given to design. It has been commoditised and seen as a secondary item by many consultants. Many practices are run by project managers who take that route as they are not interested in technical detail, so the people making decisions are uneducated in the nuances of design and the need for resources to do it. We need changes in the procurement methods for design to orientate it towards best value not least cost, without this registered sign off will either not happen, or more likely be fudged.

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