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The cost of over engineering

Belt-and-braces' approach is costing design and build clients dearly, says managing director at civil and structural engineering consultancy Paul Waite Associates, Paul Waite.

These are undoubtedly intensely challenging times in which we live and work.

But while such pressures may cause us to behave in unorthodox ways, even the biggest downturn for many a decade can’t explain the emergence of a disturbing trend in our industry.

It could be down to a lack of trained engineers, sloppy management or consultancies that are risk averse but the 'belt-and-braces designers' are coming out of the woodwork again. Regardless of what has prompted it, our industry needs to respond if it is to build trust and confidence.

An increasing number of design and build clients are seeking an objective view on engineering schemes that even they think have been grossly overdesigned. They sense that economies can be made on some of the structure but need expert advice to examine if cost savings can genuinely be made. All too often, they are right.

If our industry is to thrive in challenging times, then it surely makes sense to provide clients with innovative and cost-effective solutions? Consultancies that maintain a strategy of delivering tender-winning designs on time every time will help to ensure that their clients secure more business and maximise their profits.

Clients have been scratching their heads at projects characterised by the following:

- The recommendations given in the site investigations are too loose and open to interpretation, ranging from acceptable to risk averse. Engineers then design to the risk-averse solution, sometimes duplicating two foundations systems, where only one is required.

- A lack of understanding of how slabs interact with the ground. Often, when the ground is perceived to be poor, we have seen examples of engineers detailing a thick floor slab and two layers of heavy mesh reinforcement where, in fact, a 150mm floor slab with one layer of light mesh is sufficient.

- A poor understanding of how the superstructure relates to the rest of the building and how the loads are transferred through the building.

While it might appear easy to criticise from afar, the facts speak for themselves. For instance, a client asked us to look at plans for a commercial development and identify any any cost saving opportunities. The project centred on a two-storey, 18m wide office block on ground more than adequate for simple pad foundations. Even so, the tender design was piled foundation (five piles on the inner columns), a 350mm suspended floor slab with double reinforcement and an unbelievably heavy steel frame. Our contractor client cost this design out at £5m. It wasn’t rocket science to spot the opportunities and we saved him £300,000 after some rejigging.

Needless to say the client was delighted but also perturbed.

It is vital that our industry becomes more adept at eliminating overdesigning. It is possible to do a first class job that combines the best in design capability but also value for money – particularly in this tough climate.

Paul Waite is the managing director at civil and structural engineering consultancy Paul Waite Associates

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