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Rock and a hard place

Consultants continue to experience poor quality site investigation according to a recent survey. Without some joint industry action there will continue to be difficulties in the procurement of reliable and competent investigations. Ed Cookson and Bob Skin

Most site investigations are commissioned on behalf of the employer by an agent - a consulting geotechnical or civil engineer, architect, structural engineer or main contractor - who needs to design and manage each project to a budget.

Consultants have to balance a costconscious approach (as most projects go to tender) with the quest for quality. When allocating limited funds, the more visible above-ground aspects may be more easily justified, leaving project preliminaries such as site investigation to take a back seat.

The Association of Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Specialists (AGS) last year issued guidelines to members and clients to promote high-quality site investigation, including technical management of the project.

Site investigation contractor Foundation & Exploration Services recently commissioned a survey of 500 consultants by Heathrow Industrial Communications, to seek opinions in the 'quality versus commercial expediency' debate, the standard of investigation services, and consultants'aspirations for these services.

The survey also sought to determine the standing and acceptance of the AGS guidelines and code of conduct and other accreditations.

It hoped to discover opinions on the practicality of the guidelines, whether AGS members signed up to the code of conduct would be restricted by its requirements, or whether their reputations would be enhanced with corresponding reward.

The survey split consultants into two groups: those awarding less than £250,000 of site investigation work a year (U250) and those awarding more than £250,000 (A250).

Eighty-four responses were received, with 45 U250s and 39 A250s. Eighty-three per cent of respondents were involved in geotechnical work and 70% in geoenvironmental.

Interestingly, 69% of A250s have a geo or ground reference in their titles, compared with only 13% of U250s.

Quality considerations The vast majority of respondents said they had experienced poor quality investigations and felt there was a need to raise standards in both geotechnical and geoenvironmental investigations.

Overall, nearly 74% recognised that profitable claims opportunities for piling and associated works could result from poor quality site investigation. This figure rose to 97% for larger consultants. While most said that they calculated an approximate figure for additional costs, only eight respondents said they carried out a precise calculation.

Nearly 90% said that the greatest benefit of good quality investigations was the accuracy and relevance of the data acquired. Thirty-five per cent felt better quality investigations could lead to reduced costs in field supervision and 44% felt there would be a drop in overall project management costs.

Nearly half said consultants had the most influence on good practice, 30% placed the onus on employers and 30% on the site investigation contractors. Thirteen per cent felt all three had more or less equal influence.

Subcontract engineering personnel - drillers and laboratories In general, consultants preferred contractors not to employ engineering staff from contract staff agencies. They believed contract staff were less likely to produce benefits. There was far greater acceptance of subcontract drillers and laboratory services.

Nearly a third of respondents preferred a contractor to have an in-house analytical/soils testing laboratory. However, 13% of respondents, mainly U250s, felt that it was important not to use the same contractor and laboratory.

Overall, almost half felt that an independent laboratory service was not normally an issue.

Just over a quarter of respondents felt it was important for contractors to be regionally represented and only 19% that it was unimportant. The remaining 54% thought regional representation was useful.

Contractors' investment Respondents were asked whether major site investigation contractors were making the best commercial decisions when investing in modern plant, well-equipped analytical chemistry and soils laboratories and in employing qualified geotechnical and geoenvironmental specialists. They were also asked if it could be argued that a lesser resource could provide an adequate service.

An overwhelming 80% ofA250 consultants considered it important that high standards of equipment and personnel be maintained. In six of the nine categories, no A250 consultant thought that the higher standards were 'unimportant' (see Table 1).

Partnering Some 60% of respondents favoured closer, long-term relationships between themselves and contractors in respect of the changes they would like to see in the industry. When asked directly about partnering and/or framework agreements, 45% supported the idea and 14% were against.

Changes respondents would most like to see Respondents were given a proposed list of industry changes (compiled by FES). They were also encouraged to make comments of their own. Comments covered both 'state-ofthe-industry'and consultants' opinions of the AGS guidelines and code of conduct.

The AGS code Nearly half the respondents said AGS membership influenced their choice of contractor.

The figure rose slightly to 54% for A250s.

Most (76%) preferred a voluntary code over a regulation by statute. They felt that while AGS guidelines were good, obtaining compliance by all sectors of the industry might be difficult. It was suggested that steps should be taken to educate employers, perhaps through a joint approach by the consultants and the AGS.

General industry changes Most of the major changes sought by consultants were aimed at employers rather than contractors. Consultants would like to see greater technical appreciation among employers of potential commercial risks from poor site investigations. More than 70% of them felt this was important, with 64% placing it as the top priority.

Other priorities included a higher level of spending by employers to bring about higher quality (65% support/49% a priority), and more education aimed at employers (60% support/third highest priority with 38%).

Although not chosen as priorities, about 60% of consultants would welcome a closer, long-term relationship with selected contractors and the same figure favoured higher levels of site supervision. Almost 40% would like less subcontracting by site investigation firms and 48% felt that modern plant was important.

Respondents felt that better communication/education was needed between all parties and that this would lead to better quality.

There were more than 50 responses to the requests for consultants'comments. A number remarked on the low prices charged by contractors and wondered whether better prices would lead to better quality. Others said they always chose the lowest tender. Several said they kept preferred lists of contractors and some that they had framework agreements which work well.

Consultants would like to see a greater knowledge of construction practice by site investigation contractors and a greater understanding of the implications of the investigations. Some criticism was again aimed at the employers and fellow consultants for a lack of experience in specifying clear and appropriate scopes of investigation work. A small number of respondents felt there was a need to identify ways of improving site supervision during investigations.

One of the main complaints was the standard and lateness of reporting. Several respondents felt that better communication was needed between all three parties and that this would lead to better quality.

Overall it is clear that without some joint industry action - by employers, consultants and contractors - there will continue to be difficulties in procurement of reliable and competent site investigation contracting resources.

Bob Skinner is managing director of FES.

Ed Cookson is principal of Heathrow Industrial Communications.

A full copy of the research report is available from FES, tel: 01256 340000; www.fes.co.uk Conclusions 100% of A250s and 86% of all respondents have experienced poor quality site investigations.

97% of A250s believed that better quality site invest igat ions would have saved costs on subsequent piling, grouting or anchoring works.

When asked who they felt had the most influence on good practice, most consultants [70%] placed the onus upon themselves and the employers rather than site investigation contractors.

Respondents preferred contractors not to use agency engineering staff. There is far greater acceptance of subcontract drillers [51. 4% among A250s] and laboratory services [70% among A250s]; some consultancies, mainly U250s, preferred the latter.

Three quarters of consultants did not attach importance to regional representation.

About 60% of consultants favoured closer, long-term relationships with contractors; 45% supported partnering with contractors complyiing with the AGS code of conduct.

80% of A250 consultants considered it important that high standards of equipment and personnel be maintained.

Nearly 50% of respondents said AGS membership positively influenced their choice of contractor. Consultants felt AGS guidelines were good, but felt that obtaining compliance by all sectors of the industry might be difficult.

Most consultants (76%) preferred a voluntary code to regulation by statute. This was despite the fact that most consultants have experienced poor site investigations and the financial consequences that flow from them.

Most of the major changes sought by the consultants were aimed at the employers, rather than the contractors. Consultants' highest priority was to promote a greater technical appreciation among employers of potential commercial risks from poor site invest igat ions. Steps should be taken to educate employers, perhaps through a joint approach by the consultants and AGS.

Regarding contractor services, the standard and lateness of reporting received most complaint.

Consultants felt better communi cation was needed between all three parties and that this would lead to better quality.

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