Legislation empowers us to fulfil the responsibilities we undertake as engineers
21 November 2017
‘The more things change…,’ as the saying goes. But do they stay the same? I base this opinion on over 55 years of civil engineering practice. It is a career that I have enjoyed and, even though I am now retired, I try to keep up to date. I must be blessed with a vocation for civil engineering.
As a graduate engineer with a local authority, having two years of on-the-job experience, I was given the task of designing a small item of works. I was responsible for ensuring that the design satisfied my brief, the owner’s vision, and that it was practical to construct while durable in use.
I had to oversee its execution and installation, ensuring that good quality materials and workmanship was used throughout. Finally, I had to ensure that it worked as expected and performed the designated function. The job well done gave me great satisfaction and the owner was pleased with the result. Thus, I continued a traditional method of working, from the master builders of the middle ages.
As a site engineer with an international contractor, my function was to ensure that works were set out correctly and that the correct materials were available to those in my group, on time, in sufficient quantity and the correct quality. Workmanship was continually monitored and there was little trouble because everyone was expert in their respective fields and enjoyed a job well done.
Many craftsmen had gone through apprenticeships or had achieved certified craft recognition. We soon learned that the clerk of works and resident engineer would trust the work we were able to perform.
As a clerk of works and later a resident engineer, employed by a consulting engineer but representing the client, I was ruthless in rejecting substandard materials and workmanship, while praising work of exceptional quality. I always tried to be fair and even handed, while ensuring that the client got the workmanship and quality that was specified.
Quality became secondary to profit
A little later in my career, things began to change as the importance of good quality work became secondary to profit, time saving, the ‘bottom line’ or end-of-project costs, along with the concept of ‘super profit’.
We were recommended not to attend the site because we were not being paid to monitor site quality. That was the responsibility of the contractor; ours was the design of the project and the production of drawings with specification. The job became dreary and I took the opportunity to change and revert to a more pleasant work ethos under my own direction.
After a while, it became clear that very little checking was being done at site level; that was not our responsibility because we did not attend the site for inspection, but only progress meetings. The contractor was required to self‐certify the works constructed to the design information supplied.
However, who was checking that this was in fact correct? Where was the oversight of the works as built?
As consulting engineers, we were obliged to ensure our work was checked and, if the project was of great importance, the documentation we produced was checked by senior personnel or by a third party with expertise in the field.
In more recent times, legislation now requires an oversight of the entire project by the assigned certifier. Is there still a flaw in this arrangement? Self‐certification is still prevalent.
I have heard anecdotally that it is becoming difficult to find qualified welders with up-to date-certification. Why is it necessary to travel overseas to become a certified craftsperson? Are there apprenticeships anywhere?
How many steel fabricators are certified to complete works to the appropriate harmonised European standard? Are they aware that it is illegal to put construction products on the market without CE marking to the appropriate standard, and that the manufacturer must be qualified and competent to produce these products?
Perhaps it is the effect of legislation transition: we appear to have an inertia that is reluctant to change.
Obligations under legislation
There are apprenticeship schemes available in Ireland through SOLAS. The assigned certifier and the design professional now has the authority to undertake inspections and insist upon proof of competency by receipt of third-party test certificates that must be kept up to date.
We must insist that these are produced and are valid to satisfy our own obligations under the scope of the assigned certifier, design certifier, builder and building owner. Manufacturers of construction products must satisfy the requirements of the Construction Product Regulations and, if they do not, we should not accept the product for inclusion in our design or construction.
We are now empowered to fulfil the role that we undertook as engineers, or master builders from our medieval forbears.
Colin Short is a retired fellow of Engineers Ireland. Born in London, he had graduated as a civil engineer, with two years’ work experience, before he was 21. He has worked with local authorities, international contractors and well-known international consulting engineers; opening as a consulting engineer on his own account in the mid-1980s. He has had partial or total responsibility for projects including flood-alleviation works, tunnelling, sugar mills, cement works, television studios, power stations, sewerage, water systems, gas pipelines, city gas conversion, hotels, apartments and housing. He has travelled widely to the far east, middle east, Australia and Europe, settling in Ireland during the mid-1970s. Since retirement, he has been more involved with building standards development and currently represents Ireland as the liaison engineer for structural steel to steering committees developing the Eurocodes.