Good design and engineering is critical to creating and delivering successful projects – New Civil Engineer

04 Jan, 2022 By Chris Dulake
One of the most significant changes in the civil engineering profession arose from Sir Michael Latham’s “Constructing the Team” report in 1994 which accompanied the development of the New Engineering Contract (NEC) led by the ICE.

Chris Dulake reflects on the unintended consequences of Sir Michael Latham’s Constructing the Team report on good design
The report was a breath of fresh air to an adversarial construction sector which had seen recession drive poor behaviours with organisations grappling to deliver profits in a low margin industry.
The report came in parallel with a drive to implement the NEC contract to address the sector’s challenges. This is a contract form that is now used across all public sector construction procurement and in the private sector in the UK.
But nearly 30 years on from the drive to change the construction industry, did this initiative work or did it create unintended consequences that have now been accepted as the norm by younger colleagues with no experience of what came before?
In unpacking the Latham Report today, it is intriguing to read the narrative and conclusions that were not addressed in the development of the NEC or pursued by the industry and how these resonate today.
An early finding in the report is the need for clients, and especially government, to promote excellence in design. Patronage of good design starts at the beginning of the project by promoting design that future generations will be proud of but also jointly provides value for money. The number of stakeholders with project interests has remained relatively static. However, the need to provide information, seek approval and provide assurance has increased considerably. At the same time, projects are being procured for construction with lower design maturity with the solutions proposed not underpinned by engineered or designed detail.
In 1994 Latham recognised the value of information technology and early design. The report stated: “If clients can clearly understand the likely outcome of projects at design stage, their wishes can be better met…. such information will be repaid many times over if it ensures a well-planned project which meets the client’s aspirations.”
The industry has developed digital tools that are significantly more complex than the simple 3D visual representation tools available in the 1990s. Now, easily produced and convincingly stunning graphic visualisations and animations sell the project vision but create the illusion of engineered solutions without substance.
Good design requires detail to anchor support from stakeholders, building early confidence that a design can be built to equal the vision. All too often, we spend years agreeing the need for infrastructure and once agreed, rush to start on site with insufficient information and limited design maturity. Early procurement of construction invariably passes risks to contractors which should have been resolved or managed by a client organisation.
Clients and government should consider investing in more advanced early design for complex projects prior to letting a construction contract to avoid the later need for considerable change when in contract through stakeholder pressure, immature requirements and preferential design and engineering.
The development of the NEC was not intended to completely replace existing Joint Contracts Tribunal (JCT) and ICE forms of contract. Latham suggested that clients should be free to adopt the principles established into these forms. The ICE 6th edition was developed into the Infrastructure Conditions of Contract but other than through its use by Network Rail, efforts to maintain this form were usurped by the UK government’s use of NEC. Terms lost in the transition have been the “engineer” and the “resident engineer” now the “project manager” (PM) and the “supervisor”.
The engineer was usually a senior director of the design consultancy and his delegates had ready access to design resources able to responsively support the construction process. In the NEC there is no requirement for technical oversight by the designer of the works to confirm they are built as designed, yet inevitably, the designer is involved. This is seen as an additional cost rather than a required function. The involvement of a designer in accepting that the works are built as designed is considered by many to be an oversight in the NEC which undermined both the wider status of the engineer to clients and the civil engineering profession, and the value of good design.
Underlying this issue is a view that PMs, although skilled in many areas, have a weakening awareness of design and the design process with few having design management experience. When instructing change in construction many PMs frequently do not appreciate the impact on the design and that these are inexorably linked. If the PM lacks the experience of design and design management to appreciate the impact that will result, there is a significant risk that the PM will underestimate or miss the cost and delay of their instructions.
Most importantly, with change now requiring amended construction drawings from the designer, the delivery programme is now completely dependent on the performance of the designer, who has no role or voice in the NEC contract or in the management of the project. All too frequently the last party to issue information for construction, the designer, is inappropriately held accountable for both the delay in construction and as the root cause for change.
NEC is frequently set up as a “self-certification contract”. In some arrangements of the parties to the project, the designer is asked to observe the progress of the works as they are being built, and to advise the PM whether or not the design intent is delivered. In NEC, the design is turned into “scope” (ECC4) or “works information” (ECC3) and the supervisor checks compliance of the contractor’s delivery to the works information.
It has been the consistently held view of the industry that self-certification is not appropriate for safety critical works, in particular underground construction where there is little opportunity to rework poor quality. The examples of poor quality in construction and the delays these introduce are now too numerous to ignore. The processes in NEC inadvertently enable construction of poor quality to be side lined while non-conformance reports are raised and root cause analyses are undertaken.  There are very few examples of the contractor being instructed to stop work while quality issues are resolved.
If the designer observes the progress of work on site to confirm whether design intent is delivered, this introduces changes to the roles of the parties and often adds substantial cost and time through organisational duplication of roles with those of the supervisor. If the client and PM truly want the designer to observe the works as constructed and to check their compliance with design and specification, acting as the supervisor, then this is a positive move. If the supervisor and designer are retained through two separate roles, the workflows in the NEC become complex and introduce delays. The addition duplicates roles leading to excessively large client teams with diffused accountability. Deriving value in these circumstances calls on management with more skill and experience rather than less.
The designer could be brought more closely into the processes defined in the NEC by re-creating the role of resident engineer to replace that of the supervisor. A connection to the engineer or often the chief engineer within the client or designer organisations who has authority to challenge and balance decisions made by the PM would appear to be essential.  As a designer of the works, the resident engineer would be accountable to the employer for design integrity and ultimately the assurance evidence for the completed work. Ideally, they should be the original designer or lead designer, if this is not the case, the client should satisfy themself that those undertaking the role have sufficient skill and competence to take on the design verification role and be able to advise the PM on design modifications to the works under construction.
The resident engineer should verify that the contractor has built the works as designed in accordance with the scope. This provides a logical, efficient way for a client to receive assurance from the supply chain that evidence has been independently attested by a fully accountable party.  Without doubt there is a view that clients need more definitive guidance on how to structure the relationship between the PM, supervisor and designer. All too often programme management groups overpopulate site teams where man marking occurs without added value, increasing client costs through the increased complexity of delivery with limited added value.
Nearly 30 years has passed since Latham’s Constructing the Team was published. The construction industry has evolved to reflect changes in technology and to reflect the environment created by the NEC. The time is now right for the industry to look once again in the mirror and critically reflect on how we need to evolve in the next 30 years putting good design and efficiency at the centre of everything we do by simplifying and standardising our approach.
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