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Silent majority must find voice

In the second of their reports on consultants' attitudes towards site investigation, Ed Cookson and Bob Skinner discuss the implications for the sector.

Consultants are still concerned about the quality of site investigation services. The vast majority of respondents to Foundation and Exploration Services' 1999 survey of consultants' attitudes to site investigation (GE October 2000) recognise the value of 'quality' site investigations and support further steps to create a greater technical appreciation among employers.

However, the survey also shows that while the consultants express such concerns, they continue to experience (one might say 'put up with') the current state of the industry. They recognise, yet accept, additional internal costs in the management of a poor quality site investigation and in the subsequent design - which they presumably have to absorb themselves. They also recognise (97% of A250s - consultants awarding more than £250,000 of site investigation a year) that in some cases subsequent additional works have been necessary as a result of inaccurate or insufficient data. Who absorbs these costs?

They are rightly critical of many aspects of the site investigation contracting services they receive, such as late reporting, yet continue to accept this level of service rather than penalise the site investigation company. Perhaps they sympathise with the often tight constraints imposed on the contractor.

On the other hand, a lack of knowledge by all parties could be one of the reasons consultants complain of unsatisfactory work time and again. Do contractors and consultants know what is appropriate in terms of the scope of a survey and the difference between a satisfactory and poor investigation? For example, are all consultants who commission work fully aware of the contents of BS5930?

While a more detailed investigation would provide greater knowledge of ground conditions with which to design an economic solution, the survey suggests a difference between aspiration and what happens in practice.

It could be interpreted that consultants are effectively saying they have been unable, or are unwilling, given competitive tendering, to persuade the employers of the benefits of a more detailed site investigation conducted by qualified geospecialists. Instead, they prefer to compensate for any lack of information by extra internal work on the data or adoption of a more conservative design. In the end, market forces will prevail: current demand is low, capacity is high.

Equally, given the vast experience of consultants over the past 25 years, they could nowadays be more adept at risk assessment and management. Compared with only 10 years ago, there is now greater knowledge of the engineering behaviour of soil. Consultants can often apply this experience to anticipate and allow for any defects in an investigation - although this may not be the case with geoenvironmental assessment where consultants have, by virtue of the relatively 'young age of this industry' far less experience.

The lack of demand for good quality, professional services from site investigation contractors will inevitably lead to further reductions in investment and a consequent deterioration in technical and commercial capability. The industry and the market is unwilling to sustain the service levels to which all participants seemingly purport.

Several answers to the survey indicate that consultants feel better communication between all parties is necessary.

They say their highest priority is the need to instil in employers a greater appreciation of commercial risks from poor site investigations.

The onus for putting across this message should not fall on any individual company or consultant. It should be a prime project for industry umbrella groups such as the Association of Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Specialists, the Institution of Civil Engineers and consultant groups.

Even if the message is taken fully on board by employers, competitive tendering and market forces will tend to drive down the budgets available for whatever is considered to be the least important aspect of any project. Here, geotechnical investigations will always be difficult to value. If a project goes wrong, the site investigation may be to blame. If not, then it is often forgotten. The site investigation budget will always have to compete with more visible above ground aspects, where extra costs may be more easily justified.

Contentiously, there may be doubt as to whether higher site investigation prices would produce better quality work. Even if more money becomes available, some site investigation contractors could still have no incentive to do a valuable job if they feel that any future problems from inadequate data can always be addressed by the consultant.

Better communication would be achieved by providing evidence of the value of more appropriate work, by both the contractor and consultant, and by industry umbrella organisations taking a role in any campaign aimed at the employers.

A further point that came out of the survey is the difference between the higher-spending and lower-spending organisations. It could be inferred that consultants who commission least site investigation work perceive quality to be less of a problem. Most A250s (97%) expressed firm opinions that better quality site investigations would have saved subsequent costs.

There was less recognition of problems among the U250s (those spending under £250,000 a year), demonstrated by the high number unable to offer any opinion on the subject. Perhaps the greater sums spent by A250s equate to greater risks and potentially greater costs to the consultant.

Many U250 respondents hold positions that may reflect broader responsibilities beyond geotechnical matters (they are often a partner or associate) and they may have less in-depth geotechnical experience.

However, while individual U250s spend less on site investigations, their combined share of the commissions overall is a significant proportion. Any industry-wide communication should target U250s to address the lower recognition of risks apparently held by some of them.

Because consultants may face greater internal costs when contractors provide a less than adequate service, there is a strong case for closer ties or some form of framework or partnering agreement between the parties.

With such agreements in place, contractors may in time provide greater resources and in return they will be required to take greater responsibility for any repercussions from their investigations.

For the U250 consultant, a carefully controlled partnership might provide greater geotechnical expertise during the planning stages, with the site investigation contractor effectively working as an extension of the consultant's own service.

The market may have overcapacity because of low capital cost entry, and this will inevitably lead to lesser quality.

Bonding to ensure appropriate resource, regulated consultants and contractors, and greater peer pressure may improve the situation.

Cynically, it could be said that the most consultants, contractors, clients and insurers must be happy with the state of play, otherwise change would have already taken place and poor performers would not exist. Perhaps the fragmented nature of the geotechnical industry does not help to generate a collective purpose.

However, change is taking place, albeit slowly, among those consultants who have the knowledge, experience and professional determination to include competent, well resourced site investigation contractors as part of their engineering team. While most site investigation contractors complain that there may be insufficient demand for better practice, employers' demands for early project completion should encourage the formation of more working partnerships.

The enlightened consultant may recognise the advantages of partnering. He or she can also convince their client of the benefits of incorporating the experience and knowledge of the contractor and the execution of an appropriate scope of work within a shorter period of time.

Bob Skinner is managing director of FES.

The 1999 FES survey of consultants' attitudes towards site investigation came up with a range of conclusions.

Research, carried out for FES by independent market research company Heathrow Industrial Communications, broadly came up with 12 conclusions.

100% of A250s and 86% of all respondents have experienced poor quality site investigations.

97% of A250s believed that better quality site investigations 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 on 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 investigations. 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 complaints.

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

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