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Institution Forums > General > An ethical issue View modes: 
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Mr Richard Harris - 09/05/2010 00:00:00
   
An ethical issue
I noticed the following on the Yell.com site: “Tips for finding a qualified structural engineer Picking a structural engineer is not as difficult as you might think. More important than anything else is membership of either the ISE or ICE. As with choosing the services of any professional, recommendations can be priceless, so ask around with family and friends. Shopping around for at least three written quotes is always a good idea, as is seeking out references for past work.” This advice implies that we should compete on price. This is not altogether surprising: we operate in a culture that expects us to compete on price, & where the idea of trust between the client & their agent has been sidelined. As for references, who is competent to assess our work? However, structural design or structural assessments are not ends in themselves; rather, they are the means to an end. We can carry out design or assessments efficiently in terms of our costs by spending a minimum amount of time on our work. In the case of design, this would result in heavy structural members, inefficient use of labour on site, & a lack of consideration of, for instance, serviceability, durability, aesthetic, & sustainability issues. In the case of assessments, this would result in condemnation of structures, or expensive remedial works, that with more time spent on assessment would not be needed. Obviously, none of this would be in our clients’ best interests. Concerns have been raised in The Structural Engineer recently over trends in declining quality in construction. The Yellow pages advice seems to be promoting a culture that encourages poor quality in construction, and also works against the client’s various interests in the project, such as overall costs, aesthetics, etc. This seems to me to be an ethical issue that the IStructE, ICE, (& RICS, & RIBA too), should be taking an interest in.

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Mr Kieran Coyle - 10/05/2010 00:00:00
   
RE: An ethical issue
I agree Richard, low fees resulting in the over design of members and inefficient construction methods only serve to diminish the professionalism of the structural engineer. We should be encouraging clients to appoint us so we can save them money, not because they feel obliged to appoint an engineer.

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Mr John Irwin - 10/05/2010 00:00:00
   
RE: An ethical issue
The issue of building construction standards and the standard of structural design especially with regard to "designing with economy", and how that is influenced by fee levels I think is a big issue? However, can it be dicussed here in a forum run by a learned society? If anybody from IStructE HQ sees this, could we have guidlines for discussing this subject without falling foul of the Institutions charter or for that matter the Office of Fair Trading. I agree with Kieran Coyle. Although I do get clients who come to me because they see me as saving them money by producing efficient designs, it is the exception rather than the rule. Most cleints see the appointment of a structural engineer as bad news as they associate us with extra costs, both in terms of fees and additional construction costs.

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JB - 10/05/2010 00:00:00
   
RE: An ethical issue
Is there a bit of hypocrisy here? Do you shop around for services? If so why shouldnt others? If asked to provide a fee, you have an opportunity to convince that you are the right person of the job. The offer should show more than fee. Typically, I price tha job for what I am prepared to do it for. If someone undercuts this, then that is up to them. If they do not perform, then there are mechanisms for dealing with that too. Given that the Yell advice is targetting householders, I do not think the "over-design" is going to be a big cost problem. Also, as a lot of designers seem to underestimate the ability of masonry to crack, I do not mind an overdesigned beam in this scenario!

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DB - 10/05/2010 00:00:00
   
RE: An ethical issue
Yell is making people aware that they ought to: 1) make sure their engineer is professionally qualified; 2) get references; 3) get quotes; This is no different to anything that happens during a tendering process for any size job. Also as JB says it's what most people do when they buy anything - If I was buying a digital camera, I'd ask friends for opinions, and look for different prices in different shops. I'd also make an effort to educate myself for what I was getting/looking to ask for - if I'm doing this for something small like a camera, I'd hope most peope did this when approaching engineers to work on their houses! Assuming that you're doing design it doesn't take any more effort to design a large (over-designed) member than it does a smaller, more efficient one - unless you're happy just to 'eye-it-in', so I don't see why that should be a problem anyway. Surely what we ought to be trying to do is educating people about what they are appointing an engineer to do, and what they ought to be asking for, which is where the ISE ought to be leading/representing it's members.

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Mr Richard Harris - 10/05/2010 00:00:00
   
RE: An ethical issue
JB and DB, there is no hypocrisy here. There is a fundamental difference in providing a service that is an end in itself, & one that is to help the client achieve an end. My main point is that building design services are not an end in themselves, & should not be treated as such by clients. Any designer can cut their costs by cutting corners to win a job. When I used to check Building Regulations applications, I saw some designs that were adequate for safety, but which were obviously going to be expensive to build. I am sure that other checking engineers have similar experiences. Taking more care on assessing loads can result in considerable savings. For instance, I recently had cause to assess the load on a beam that had been designed by another engineer. My evaluation came out at 75%. This wouldn't save much on the steelwork cost, but it had another major benefit. I was able to use the existing footings, instead of having to upgrade them. My client was delighted. But it's not just designing a member that I'm concerned about. There are issues such as taking the time to investigate the best way of achieving a suitable structure, sorting out problems at the design stage rather than leaving it to the people on site, providing good working drawings, and checking that the structural details work with other construction constraints. We are stuck with competitive tendering because the Office of Fair Trading has ruled on this. I think, from what I've read, that the people making this decision were not aware of the fact that the service that building designer's supply is not an end in itself. From what I see, this regime is not serving the public well. Practices working in the design professions all seem to be under-funded by fee earnings, as a result of competitive tendering having set the benchmarks low. Practitioners mostly want to do a good job, but often there is insufficient time allocated, because all but the simplest job throws up unexpected problems. I think that this issue is something that the building design professions could tackle by making the public aware of the consequences of not properly funding design. I know that some in the architectural profession are concerned about the effects of competitive tending on quality in construction

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Mr John Irwin - 11/05/2010 00:00:00
   
RE: An ethical issue
Often the ethical issue that I get faced with, with regards to fees is some prospective clients will ask me to design a few beams and while looking at the job with the prospective client, I see other structural issues which need to be addressed. When I point this out, often the answer is something like, "oh never mind that, Building Control has not queried that and I only want you to design the beams". In fact for me it is not an ethical issue as after explaining what I do as a structural engineer and after getting nowhere, I poliely say perhaps I am do not provide the service the prospective client is looking for or words to that effect. Yes, I get annoyed that the client probably goes to an unqualified person doing "homers" to earn a little extra pocket money, and the rate-payer picks up the costs in extra checking fees required by Building Control, but there is nothing I can do about that. On the other hand, some other prospective clients will say, something like "oh in that case I am glad I came to you as I would like the thing done properly" and I take on the job. We can offer a service and expalin exactly what that service is, but we cannot force a client to accept our offer.

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John de Graaf - 11/05/2010 00:00:00
   
RE: An ethical issue
Of course it's true that good engineering can save construction costs, but I can't see that Yell.com's advice is inappropriate. There certainly isn't the implication that price should be the only criterion for selection. If anyone can improve on Yell.com's general advice without increasing the word count, please share.

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DB - 11/05/2010 00:00:00
   
RE: An ethical issue
"JB and DB, there is no hypocrisy here. There is a fundamental difference in providing a service that is an end in itself, & one that is to help the client achieve an end." I agree. The problem (I think) is that most clients don't know what they want apart from a finished job and don't really know where to go for advice. If the BCO asks for for certain things to prove their extension or whatever is Ok, then as far as their concerned that's all they have to do. We are employed designers/consultants - turning up to site and saying that X, Y and Z also needs looking is, I guess, more likely to resemble a plumber turning up to fix the tap and going 'oh, errr... I 'll need to do that too while I'm here and... and... and... and it'll all cost lots more I'm afraid.' I guess what I'm getting to is that the title 'Building Control Officer', combined with being the person who approves work is likely to sound much grander/important to most clients than 'structural engineer', and is in the absence of any other information, going to be who the client assumes is the knowledgable authority on the work and will thus ask for everything that they (the client) might need/want. Again I come back to the idea that clients need to be educated - they need to know what they want, what they need, where to go, and what to ask. The question surely is: "How can we educate clients?" (After all, if we can educate them about that then they might begin to understand what we actually do...)

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John Hardy - 02/05/2015 07:27:43
   
RE: An ethical issue
I am a Construction Safety Officer in British Columbia, Canada. I have unearthed an Engineering Report that appears to conceal structural safety concerns for the Provincial Government.  There seems to be corruption in the construction industry and the local Association of Professional Engineers.

I would like to find a Structural Engineer from outside Canada to assess the incomplete Report and give an opinion on the falsified nature of the Engineering Report and how they violated their Code of Ethics to

Hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public, the protection of the environment

and promote health and safety within the workplace


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