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Time to invest in investigation Ground Engineering takes a look at the latest issues and trends in the site investigation industry with the results of a recent survey into the sector.

DIRECTORY SPOTLIGHT

This month's round-up of the site investigation industry is based on a recent survey of the sector by Ground Engineering. Response, as usual, was high, reflecting the strong feelings held by firms that something has to be done to revive what is a traditional, mature industry from its present doldrums.

The main issues, as ever, are the falling quality of site invest- igation, low rates and margins, and intense competition as project size continues to fall. The lack of major infrastructure work is a serious problem for many. By its very nature, site investigation is carried out well in advance of construction, so even the start of the first phase of the CTRL has had little effect this year.

While most toe the 'party line', there are a few dissenters in the ranks. One contractor says 'there is too much moaning about low standards and low prices', a point which is echoed by another contractor, who says: 'It would be nice to see a move away from everybody grumbling about short lead-in times and cut-throat pricing.'

He nevertheless believes that there is a general lack of confidence in site investigation, which lowers standards and there is eagerness to push down prices 'every time we sniff a recession'.

Outlook is, on the whole, positive, with 52% of respondents expecting workload to increase over the next year, matched by an increase in staff numbers - although almost half expect both to stay flat.

This is probably a reflection of the increasing adaptability of practitioners, who have to be able to react to changes in the market by developing new techniques and embracing new technology. 'There is a gradual eclipse of the traditionalists by the modern- isers,' says one contractor.

There has been a marked change in the main areas of work from Ground Engineering's survey last year, mainly because of the lack of infrastructure work. Rail, the top sector last year at 24%, has fallen to second from bottom at just 8% of the market. This is undoubtedly due to cut-backs in Railtrack's infrastructure spending and uncertainty over whether projects are going ahead or not.

One surprise increase is in the road sector, probably as a result of some DBFO road projects entering the maintenance period of their contracts, and subsequent work in maintaining earthworks.

The Government's drive to redevelop brownfield sites for new housing in urban areas has also been reflected in the dominant areas of work, namely brownfield remediation, local authority work and private development/ housing.

So, is the situation getting any better? This year, respondents were asked to comment on the attitudes of clients to site investigation, to try and gauge whether or not the message is getting through that quality investigation is essential to the success of a project. From the wide range of responses received, estimated average figures are quoted on the next page.

Worryingly, it seems that only 30% of clients appreciate the value of good geotechnics. 'There is a lack of awareness of the benefits of sound site investigation strategy by clients and their advisers,' says one contractor.

Some 38% of clients see site investigation as 'a necessary evil' although the range of answers, from 2% to 100%, shows that while some have faith in their clients, others have little.

Respondents say that while 33% of clients appreciate the value of a quality investigation to the success of a project, only 31% are willing to pay for one. 'Fixed budget allocations mean investigation work has to be fitted to available monies rather than to ground conditions,' comments one contractor.

Even fewer clients (26%) see it as a risk management tool. 'The site investigation industry suffers from improved risk assessment techniques. The extent of knowledge is such that for many 'standard' development projects (housing, industrial units and offices, for example), clients and consultants are prepared to insure the risks and undertake less investigation,' says one contractor.

Another adds: 'Continued use of the geotechnical or geoenvironmental contractor as a cheap alternative to insurance remains a problem.'

An average of only 39% of investigations include a desk study, which could be considered as the most important stage of the work. It appears that this is a result of ever-decreasing timescales, with half of the respondents saying they have lead-in time for contracts of less than one week, and half saying they have between a week and a month.

And it also seems that not enough time is given for the investigation itself. 'Increasing timescale pressures are restricting a full appraisal of investigation results and reducing scope for variation as findings are disclosed,' says one respondent.

Few clients appear to be employing geotechnical specialists at the early stages of contracts and often do not use them at all.

Typical comments include: 'there is too much involvement in site investigation by non-specialists making judgements on behalf of their clients that they are often not qualified or experienced to make,' and 'too many investigations are designed by the geotechnically inexper- ienced'.

But despite the doom and gloom, nearly two thirds say that client attitudes are changing for the better. Only time will tell.

Ground Engineering would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who took part in this survey.

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