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Your View | Grenfell and costs

Grenfell pa (37) cropped

In the aftermath of the recent tragedy at Grenfell, several in the construction and wider press have questioned whether we are paying too high a price in our quest for the lowest possible cost of construction. Of course, we will need to await the outcome of various enquiries and investigations until we know the full picture. However, many of us will relate to the enormous pressure that construction professionals face against a relentless desire for lowest cost.

As a student I spent one summer working for a local authority, which adopted an interesting technique to maintain a better tension between cost and quality. Four or five would be invited to tender, on the understanding that the lowest priced submission would be automatically disregarded. The remaining submissions would be judged against appropriate criteria and one would be selected. This approach removed a significant incentive for tenderers to submit the sort of bid which might subsequently require them to cut corners, introducing a counter-balancing effect on safety and quality. I’m not naïve to current financial constraints, but if the alternative is a country full of unsafe structures, might I suggest that it is an approach worthy of wider consideration?

  • Alistair Ringer (M)

The media has described an urgent email between the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation’s project manager and its quantity surveyor stressing the need for good costs for the council. Additionally the process known as value engineering was introduced.

This highlights changes which have happened to the construction process over the years and may throw some light on the problem.

Formerly, the lead designer, architect, civil engineer or other would have been appointed to carry out the construction supervision. The quantity surveyor would have worked closely with them throughout the design and construction process to ensure value for money.

As the reputation of the designer would depend on the performance of the building for the foreseeable future, it would have attempted to ensure quality of construction through the presence of a clerk of works or resident engineer and they would have been available to resolve any day-to-day detail problems.

Latterly this role has been taken over by the project manager who may or may not have design skills.

This should be checked.

  • Eric Finlayson (M) 24 Douglas Rd, Kilburn, London NW6 7RP


The full facts leading to the Grenfell tragedy will emerge in time, including any part played by civil engineers.

I must take issue with Mark Hansford’s pejorative term “dreaded value engineering” (Comment, last month).

Cost cutting is not value engineering and a leading opinion former concerned with shining a light on best practice should make this clear.

Best practice value engineering and value management, of which it is a part, is set out in BS EN 12973:2000 including how they relate to project management. Value management/value engineering are organised processes of group decision making to define and maximise project value, through systematic focus on function; led by a trained value management facilitator. It is not an add-on but integral to sound, right-first-time project management.

I cannot believe that a trained value management facilitator would agree to safety being anything other than a non-negotiable prerequisite – that is a hurdle that any project option or element must satisfy before being actively considered. If value management and value engineering are to be specified, BS EN 12973:2000 should be explicit.

Our tragedy is that 17 years on from the launch of the value management standard, so few civil engineers are trained in value management and value engineering and in value management facilitation.

Carbon Contradiction

In the same edition of New Civil Engineer that President Donald Trump’s removal of the United States from the Paris Agreement is lambasted as “an utter disaster” you go on to devote an entire feature to the Future of Airports, heralding the “Next Golden Age of Aviation”, looking forward to “an unprecedented expansion”, in which the only acknowledgement of any issues of sustainability is the line about “carbon neutral airports”,

an Orwellian contortion of language which is Greenwash of the highest order.

The same article speculates whether “the airport of the future could act as a community hub”. I think that unless and until noise and air pollution as well as congestion are tackled this is a vanishingly small prospect.

Another contributor claims “aviation is by its nature innovative”. The Wright brothers took off in 1903, Frank Whittle submitted his jet engine patent in 1930. Improvements in fuel economy are marginal and dwarfed by the growth in flights. The simple fact is aviation cannot innovate its way out of intensive carbon emissions; that is the elephant in the room.

Even if civil engineers are happy to turn a blind eye to all the above, banks and insurers are starting to look at sectors with a high risk of stranded assets. Darwin said it is not the strongest of the species that survive but the most adaptable; old and dirty industries are already being left behind by adaptive businesses; business flights in the UK declined by 25% from 2000 to 2013 as excellent, actually innovative, technological alternatives gave a real advantage.

If a third runway is built at Heathrow, we will not achieve our carbon emission targets, full stop. The ICE needs to have some joined up thinking when it comes to what surely is the greatest single issue facing engineers today, if “by art we are to master what would master us”.

  • Chris Edwards

Bimodal versus electrification

I find it strange that the government one week announces the scrapping of electrification plans and the introduction of bimodal trains, partly running on diesel, then the following week it announces the end of petrol and diesel powered vehicles by 2040. If it is that committed to electrically powered vehicles why not push forward with the rail electrification? Doesn’t seem like joined up thinking or one department talking to another.

  • John Griffiths, posted online on article headed “Grayling delays rail cash decision and scraps electrification plans”

If bimodal trains were needed then the secondary power supply should be battery or fuel cell. That way the maintenance burden of diesel would be avoided, not to mention the pollution.

  • John Tebbit, posted online on article headed “Bimode trains shouldn’t replace electric, say experts”

Uncomfortable alliance

A few years ago, I had experience of working within this (@one) Alliance. It was actually a poisonous blame culture and quite an unpleasant experience. Very high turnover, and as soon as anything went wrong the partners took defensive positions. Hardly an alliance. The article hints at it but as ever the management spin draws a veil over it.

  • Nigel Scott, posted online on article headed “Interview | Dale Evans”

Strengthening Argument

I refer to the article on the refurbishment of the Usk viaduct (New Civil Engineer July 2017).

Your readers may be interested to know that the proprietary joints were a solution, used by my late grandfather Sir Owen Williams, who was a pioneer in the use of reinforced concrete, to make a redundant structure more determinate in the time before computers were in use for structural design.

The use of joints together with the coffered (voided) deck were an exercise in minimising the reinforcement required and hence the cost of the bridge.

The author states the slots in the thrust joints were cut out. In fact the slots in the joint would have been shuttered out using formwork with the reinforcement in place before the deck was poured. Any irregularity in the slot would have resulted from the movement of the formwork during the concrete pour.

River usk wp 002531

River usk wp 002531

Further, the bridge would have had a resident engineer and team, together with inspectors, and any irregularity to the construction of the joint would have been reported to the head office for consideration.

It must be stated that any irregularity to the width of the gap (and as they were shuttered this was unlikely) would have only a minor effect on the joint’s function. The joint being, by its nature, weak in bending resistance relative to the rest of the coffered slab and at the point of contraflecture, there would be no bending moment, and hence no relative deflection on either side of the joint.

It is unlikely that any movement at the joint could cause the delamination of the reinforcement which, in my view, must have been caused by another reason such as salt contamination.

The author suggests the bridge may have been constructed incorrectly and WSP senior engineer Richard Owen suggests it may have had design faults. All arguments aside, it should be pointed out that the bridge has successfully been in continuous operation for the past 50 years carrying traffic in and out of South Wales.

It has also been carrying far more traffic than it was originally designed for, both in volume and axle load. As the author also points out, the bridge is vital for South Wales, let us hope it remains so for a further 50 years.

  • Richard Williams (F)








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