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Success of a major construction project can be determined as early as procurement but what degree is this also true for decision making on deep excavation support? Claire Smith from Ground Engineering reports.
Value engineering, optioneering or innovation – call it what you want but the process has a key role to play in adding efficiency, reducing cost and enhancing safety on a project. Early contractor involvement is now recognised as an essential part of achieving these improvements but earlier involvement and collaboration in the supply chain is often the missing link in this process.
Decisions around the approach to construction of deep excavations – top down or bottom up and structural steel or proprietary props – is often made in the early design stages. But as well as the decisions themselves, who makes these decisions and the level of engagement these choices are based on can affect the overall project.
“You can’t be involved too early,” says RMD Kwikform commercial director John Breen when considering what stage specialist subcontractors should become part of the discussion.
However, Breen believes it is not just about the stage at which specialist are involved, but also about the relationship too. “It’s all about relationships and trust but customers are often unwilling to share all the details,” he says.
“The block comes from the contractor’s point of view that their added advantage may be given to others if they share all the information.”
Breen believes that the solution could be to formalise the relationship at an earlier stage in the collaboration. He says that when working with supplier for manufacture of new equipment, the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) is common yet he says that he has rarely been asked by customers to sign one when working on design for a tender. “Maybe they should use NDAs to create a more open discussion,” he says.
“The lack of information means that we are designing in the dark.”
As an example, Breen says that ground shoring specialists are often not given details of the ground conditions. “The reports are large documents and there appears to be an unwillingness to pass them on,” he says. “Sometimes we ask for details of the pile design but the details are not available.
“We are going into the unknown without this information.”
According to Breen, building relationships is key to developing benefits for everyone. He points to a major contractor that he first worked with when it was a small business and one that has now grown significantly over the years. “They had a collaborative approach right from the outset and we grew to understand how each other’s business operated,” he says. “The result of this openness was that they had confidence in our solutions and that helped them to grow their business.”
Breen would like to see more contractors take a greater collaborative approach when engaging with specialists and draw on their capabilities to benefit the overall scheme.
“Suppliers of temporary ground shoring, cladding and waterproofing are all specialist contractors who can bring knowledge and innovation to the table but contractors, who are pricing multiple aspects of a project, are more likely to base assumptions on past projects and past pricing,” explains Breen.
“The impact for contractors of not engaging is that when the client asks them to trim costs, they do not know exactly where costs can be reduced,” adds Breen. “They need accurate prices to allow them to do that.”
Time can also be a factor in procurement and Breen says that the time allowed to design a solution and price the work is often very limited.
If suppliers are given enough time, Breen says that they can re-visit the design and go through more iterations to develop the optimum solution.
“Very rarely is the optimum solution developed first time,” says Breen. “Limited time means that there is often limited scope to improve the efficiency of the solutions, and this means the project does not always benefit from advice and expertise of the specialist contractor.”
Breen also adds that more time would also give contractors greater access to the skills sets that exist within specialist contractors. “The level of engineering experience that we can bring at tender stage would cost a significant amount if delivered through consultancy,” he explains.
In the past main contractors had their own temporary works divisions but now this role has moved to a subcontracting market.
“Relationships are essential to allow contractors to benefit from in-house capabilities of sub-contractors,” says Breen.
There is also an issue resulting from the lack of understanding of temporary works by engineers. Temporary works can be critical to achieving the end result but site engineers receive very little training on this aspect of civil engineering at degree level and this lack of knowledge persists.
The result is that the solutions developed are often not workable and the impact of not sharing enough details in the early discussions means that these problems are often not uncovered until later in the contract. These problems impact on risk, programme and cost.
Getting the engineering team to communicate with the site team is also vital. “This interaction and dialogue allows issues to be dealt with before the scheme moves onto site,” says Breen.
According to Breen, provision of greater information also unlocks the use of digital solutions which can be used to assess the workability of a design and avoid clashes. This approach can aid discussions between the engineering and site teams and enhance collaboration.
Breen’s top tips for improving procurement are to speak to specialists early, sign NDAs, be ready to give any information that the specialist asks for and develop dialogue between the engineering team and site team.
“When we have the chance to present a good solution, the contractor can benefit from that in their tender,” says Breen. “This allows the client to have confidence in the project team as contract awards are not always just about cost, reliability can be a major factor for some clients.”
Earlier and more collaborative involvement is more likely to result in a more reliable programme, which will have a positive impact on the rest of the project.
“It’s all about programme,” says Breen. “If you make a mess at the beginning, it will have a knock on effect all the way through the project. The same is true for costs.”