I have been learning about this business for 29 years now. As I transition to retirement I get both reflective and annoyed. Annoyed because certain things do not get better, they may be getting worse, and of course I am crankier than I used to be. I recently bid some “simple” precast panels for a retaining wall (aka “lagging” panels or “soldier piles”). I have done a few; therefore I know a little, though not much, about them.
If you are unfamiliar with these structures, here is a primer, created by searching for “lagging panel” (you can try this at home).
The bid documents were created by a very large (well, maybe the largest) multinational design firm. They showed a detail I had never seen before. Intent was clear: visually cover up the vertical H-beam. But to my limited knowledge the detail smelled of serious installation/constructability problems and of likely durability problems as well. (If the basis of such thoughts interests you, ask and I will explain).
I called a GC bidder I knew to be highly experienced with this type of wall. estimator and he concurred that it was borderline nightmarish. So I wrote up something for the pre-bid meeting. There were actually 5 separate confusions or errors pertaining to the precast in the bid documents (what about the rest of the project?). I summarized the main one by asking: Has this use of a slot been fully engineered and is there a known example where it was both successfully installed and durable?
Subsequently, one of the many addenda issued to the bid documents featured a different detail. The revised detail was new to the project and obviously new to the original designers, but is not new to anyone with experience building these piles.
What lessons are implicit in this situation?
Designers sometimes “wing it”
They may have no idea of the best ways to solve a problem and they are under the gun to get the drawings out, so they just take a stab at it. Not uncommon in my experience.
Contractors are designer’s proofreaders and reviewers.
In effect the prebid questions and subsequent RFI’s are people with more knowledge checking and commenting on the work of those actually paid to design but with less knowledge of each specific material. The cost of all these people-with-relevant-knowledge reviewing the work of those with very limited knowledge never shows as a design cost; it is included in the overhead of every bidder.
Once-upon-a-time there were “master architects”
Everyone I know who has had to work from historic (100 years or older) drawings is very impressed with the level of detail, precision, and how it generally matches what was built. There are a multitude of reasons it is no longer possible for an architect to have deep knowledge of what they are designing. Somewhat surprising is how little the process has changed given how much the reality has changed.
Big name implies big size + good marketing, little else.
Small boutique firms often bring much deeper knowledge to the table. In order to stay big, big firms have to be good at getting lots of client work. Owners are not in a position to assess expertise, and particularly the expertise of the people assigned to the project. The firm may have a world-class expert in one of it’s offices, but as in this case, that knowledge never made it to the project. This design firm is considered a leader in “knowledge management”; what must the laggards look like?
This phenomena is not unique to construction. In custom corporate software, the large consultancies (IBM, PWC, Accenture, etc.) are always the safe choice (decades ago when I worked in corporate software the mantra was “no one was ever fired for going with IBM). Many small independents were much better, but not at marketing.
Why IPD is critical to the success of BIM
A model that does not reflect deep, usable, knowledge does not contribute to efficient construction. This was recognized in early experiences with BIM, and Integrated Project Delivery is all about bringing expertise to the model earlier than design-bid-build does.