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Institution Forums > General > An ethical issue View modes: 
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MW - 11/05/2010 00:00:00
   
RE: An ethical issue
"How to educate clients?" Excellent question! How come public be educated if IStructe doesnot even participate in ecobuild or similar seminars every year while RIBA and RICS are educating the public without mentioning the word 'structural engineer'?

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Mr Richard Harris - 11/05/2010 00:00:00
   
RE: An ethical issue
DB, I think that quite often on small jobs like knock-throughs, the builder is the client's first contact. And the builder says to the client, "You'll need an 8" RSJ there. You'll have to get an engineer to do the calculations for Building Regs". I get the impression that clients often think we are nothing more than an overhead, increasing their costs, just to get approvals. These little projects sometimes get more complicated when the supporting masonry is between windows or doors. Then you get into questions of whether or not a steel post within the wall thickness is warranted to open things up so that the kitchen units can run past, uninterrupted. This sort of situation is where the client does not really benefit from an engineer doing the quickest design. For instance, I recently had a project where, once I had drawn the layout, it was obvious that a steel beam under the floor would look awful, even with a bulkhead to cover part of it. I gave the client an alternative design for a hidden beam, with working details, so that builders could quote for both cases & the client could decide if losing sight of the beam was worth the cost of the extra labour on site. I could have not bothered, and got a better hourly rate.

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Mr Richard Harris - 13/05/2010 00:00:00
   
RE: An ethical issue
On ‘Restoration Man’ recently, (dealing with a barn conversion), the client said, “You’ve got to keep the Building Inspector and the Structural Engineer happy”. No! No! No! Her role is not to keep the Structural Engineer happy. She should have employed a Structural Engineer to, amongst other things, ensure the safety of the building, design for economical construction in terms of material and labour costs, address issues of functionality and aesthetics, etc. In other words, she should have employed a Structural Engineer to keep the Building Inspector happy, and to keep herself happy by getting good quality, economical construction. This client’s lack of understanding of the Structural Engineer’s role is, in my experience, quite typical. They have absolutely no concept of the science and art of structural engineering, and often seem to think that we are just an overhead necessary for granting approvals. In that context, competitive tendering would appear to them be appropriate. Are some engineers responding to this situation by providing quick and poorly conceived designs to go with the low fees? As wage earners, we have a duty to our families to provide well for them, and why shouldn’t that trump any duty to a client who seeks to employ us on inappropriate terms? Although I no longer check Building Regulations applications, I have recently seen some schemes that were doing the client no favours. In one case, in a domestic loft conversion, the engineer had designed a beam that literally weighed one tonne. It was enormous, and looked totally inappropriate. I checked to see what size beam I would get, using the same loading, and worked out it would have been 600 kg. This would have been cheaper, easier to install, and less visually intrusive. Of course, this is merely anecdotal, but I suspect that it is symptomatic of a trend that is adversely affecting the quality of construction. For instance, the concept of structural engineering being a vocation might be stronger for one generation of engineers than for another. The I Struct E Code of Practice is at odds with a competitive tendering regime so long as practitioners take different, but perhaps equally valid, ethical stances.

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Mike M - 14/05/2010 00:00:00
   
RE: An ethical issue
Richard, regretably this is a sign of the times we live in. With competitive tendering Structural Engineers have been reduced to mere number crunchers with the cheapest fee proposal securing the job. I have now seen 'Structural Engineers' offering Building Regs calculations online where a client anywhere in the country (or world for that matter) can shop and pick calculations for various stuctural elements, add to basket, checkout and pay by paypal or credit card. No site visits required even for work like loft conversions, knock throughs etc. And individuals without the basic of structural mechanics knowledge can download software, enter numbers and printout calculations for submission. Scary...

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Mr John Irwin - 14/05/2010 00:00:00
   
RE: An ethical issue
Mike M Yes it is scary. But maybe we should take note of it and look at the ways we are doing things as well. I noticed that recently my PII insurance company (probably the oldest and most respected one used by the profession) has changed to doing nearly all their business online - they do not even ask you to sign anything anymore. JI

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Mike M - 15/05/2010 00:00:00
   
RE: An ethical issue
John, I am all for progress and agree with you that as a profession we should move in line with the times. However I also believe that there are certain aspects of our services that can not be dispensed of remotely esp and including the two examples of working on an existing structure that I mentioned earlier. Without a site visit to carry out a structural assesment and dimensional survey how can one be certain of the accuracy of load paths and transfer arrangements. Put faith and trust in the information supplied by the client or their builder?

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Mr Richard Harris - 24/05/2010 00:00:00
   
RE: An ethical issue
This example quoted above seems to show that the consultants in question, and their clients, are operating without having established a relationship formed on trust. Their relationship appears to be based solely upon the consultant performing the design function efficiently, and quoting a cheap price for their service. There appears to be no consideration given to meeting the client’s needs, (i.e. achieving economy in materials & site labour, resolving serviceability, aesthetics, and durability issues, etc.), other than obtaining Building Regulations approval. Clients, in my experience, are ignorant of the need for establishing a relationship of trust with their consultants, because they do not understand our role in the construction process. As Francis Bacon noted, "the greatest trust between man and man is the trust of giving counsel". When a client draws on expert help they ultimately have to judge for themselves where to place their trust. To do this they need to find trustworthy information. But how can anyone tell whether a service will live up to its billing? In our business activities, we all need to place our trust in some strangers and some institutions, and to refuse it to others. How can we tell whether and when we are on the receiving end of hype and spin, of misinformation and disinformation? Francis Fukuyama, in his book, “Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity”, has detailed the role of trust within different societies, and makes a convincing case for how a relative lack of trust by individuals in some societies has resulted in adverse economic consequences for them. What enables human societies to flourish is not suspicion, deconstruction, and self-interest, but just the opposite: it is trust, a social virtue, formed in certain kinds of relationships. This leads to the formation of ‘social capital’. Those holding public office in the UK are required to conform to the seven 'Nolan' principles. These principles demand selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Their common core (leadership, perhaps, apart) is a demand for trustworthiness in public life. I think that much the same should apply to our relationship with our clients. I am not alone in thinking this, which is why the Institution of Structural Engineers has a Code of Conduct that requires, ‘Members of the Institution in their responsibility to the profession shall have full regard to the public interest’. Obviously, selection of design consultants by competitive tendering for the cheapest fee is inimical to our Code of Conduct, or to our ability to dispense our duty of care where clients are treated in a properly ethical manner. I believe that competitive tendering for the cheapest fee often leads to a poor economic outcome for the client because of increased costs on site, often without adequately resolving serviceability, aesthetics, durability issues, etc. The extent to which some engineers do address these issues is reliant upon their goodwill, or sense of vocation, as opposed to their taking a commercial stance. As I see it, the question that should be addressed by the design professions is this; To achieve quality in construction, how do we educate the public and reintroduce a basis of trust between client and consultant? As I indicated above, this is not easily achieved, and of course, it may be the case that we, as a society, are now too far down the road of abandoning the social capital of trust.

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Phil Wardle - 26/05/2010 00:00:00
   
RE: An ethical issue
As far as I see it, I'm yet to be convinced that clients are ever going to be interested in structural engineering, structural integrity or the processes that are involved with justifying our designs. I'm also not convinced in some cases that they are actually interested in best practice techniques to ensure safe construction - and I say that of a large percentage of clients from small domestic clients to the major developers. In recent years it has become my opinion that architects are promoting schemes before realising the structural implications of what has to be done - and your local builder doesn't think beyond installing a lintel when it comes to advising domestic clients of taking out a wall. What we need to do is insist to RIBA/CIOB that architects and builders are not qualified to give preliminary advice on structural issues, and this should be sought at the outset by IStructE/MICE qualified persons to give a better understanding of the practicalities and costs associated with developments proposals. We do actually provide a role that assists clients/builders/architects achieving their designs but it is not seen that way because all too often we are asked to give advise too late in the process. In a large number of cases our advice contradicts preliminary advice/assumptions made by a builder or architect who has over simplified the situation. This leads to us being seen as an unfortunate and necessary evil that eats into preliminary budgets. If any one watches Grand Designs it demonstrates my point week in week out. We need to change the mind-set.

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Mr Richard Harris - 27/05/2010 00:00:00
   
RE: An ethical issue
Phil, I was not suggesting that the public should be educated about structural engineering. That wouldn’t be feasible, 99% of the time. I meant that the public should be educated about an appropriate means of selecting a consultant. If a consultant is expected to compete on price alone, as a lump sum bid, this implies that the consultant should maximize his efficiency. That means doing the work in the shortest possible time. And that means cutting corners, by simplifying loading assessment & over-designing members, & by not sorting out serviceability, functionality, aesthetic, durability, etc. issues. It also means not investigating alternative ways of achieving structural stability, to find the one that best meets the conflicting requirements of strength, economy, etc. The result is poor quality construction. Such an approach is in conflict with our Code of Conduct that requires we give full regard to the public interest, & properly discharge our duty of care. As an analogy, imagine that you want to buy artworks for your home, & you don’t have the time or resources to select them yourself. You approach several consultants to select one of them for this project. You would specify how much money was available, & what your taste in art is. Would you then give the job to the consultant who offered the cheapest fee? Well, if you had nothing else to go on, you might do that. And you’d wonder if you’d done the right thing. (This isn’t really a very good analogy, but I can’t think of anything, that isn’t overly contrived, that’s better.) Anyway, I think it’s obvious that the missing ingredient in the above scenario is trust. You would really want to retain a consultant that you could trust to achieve an outcome close to what you wanted, even if it meant spending more on the consultancy fee, which, after all, is just a few percent of your total outlay. And so it should be with architectural & structural design consultants. If a culture of trust were to be achieved, that would also help resolve the situation you identify where we are brought in too late. The question is, how to achieve a culture of trust?

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Phil Wardle - 28/05/2010 00:00:00
   
RE: An ethical issue
Hi Richard – my post wasn’t particularly referring to yours, and I mainly picked up on the thread and added my thoughts for what they’re worth. I think in general terms I agree with what you’re saying but your artwork analogy enhances my point I think. If I did employ a consultant to advise me on appropriate artwork to suit my tastes, then yes I would look at value for money from that consultant and decide whether I felt I could trust his advice more than the next consultant who might be a little cheaper. But when it comes to whether this artwork can hang from a ceiling in my gallery (not that I have one) I wouldn’t expect him to give advice because he has a basic understanding of a subject outside of his field, and generalise that it will be OK. I’d expect him to tell me I needed to seek and pay for that advice from a qualified person, and not expect him play down the importance of that advice in the process. I may be generalising too here, but in a large number of cases that’s what happens when the client is only thinking about the end product – ie the artwork hanging from the ceiling. He is not concerned with how it is managing to stay up there just as long as it doesn’t come crashing down. In many cases it is left up to the first point of contact (in our case the architect/builder) to say that this further advice is needed and it comes as a disappointing blow that more fees are having to be incurred. The client, particularly on a domestic scale, is probably expecting the whole package to be dealt with by the architect/ builder for the price quoted, which usually won’t include our services or fees. I agree it’s not about educating the public about the specifics of structural engineering, but maybe that an architect & builder have limitations to their expertise and cannot/should not generalise on how to make their designs structurally safe. Again I refer to Grand Designs and you only see an engineer on that programme when the builder messes up or the client is having to reassess proposals because of a failure to employ the correct advice. Even then we are criticised for applying professionalism because it isn’t what the client wants to hear. I’m afraid that might have come across as a rant, but I am slightly disappointed by a frequent expectation to compromise on structural integrity because of a general reluctance to accept advice, or because it doesn’t get included for properly in budgets. Thanks

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