The Institution of Structural Engineers The Institution of Structural Engineers
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Communication in construction

Date published

This guidance provides details of the consequences of poor communication and how communication between the designer, contractor and client can be made more effective.

Definition of communication

The imparting and exchanging of information verbally, in hardcopy and by digital media. The information may comprise messages, reports, letters, sketches, drawings, or a combination of these.

The starting point

Everything we construct has a purpose.

The purpose and the user requirements must be defined and documented at the outset. Ideally, the end user would be party to this process, but in many cases the end user is not defined until later, so the promoter of the project must determine the requirements. The term used here to describe either, or both, parties is Client. Inexperienced Clients may need assistance from the design/construction team to derive the user requirements. Mutual understanding at that stage can be a great positive.

The requirements must be documented to unambiguously inform the design and the construction. This document will become the reference which steers all the processes from inception, through design and construction, culminating in handover and use.

The document must be available to all parties involved, in a form which can readily be interpreted. It must include a change management process to capture the evolution of the requirements and to facilitate change control. This is useful particularly when the end user input occurs later in the process.

The Client will get what they set out in the user requirements. This may be a performance specification detailing their requirements as a user, rather than a technical building specification. They need to be clear on that. They also need to understand any constraints and limitations on what can be delivered and the implications of changes to the requirements.

High level communication

The key to good communication is keeping all relevant parties informed accurately and timeously.

The art is not to overburden all the parties with all the information, because the important information will get buried.

The project information systems, such as 4Projects and ViewPoint, which are regularly used to store and control digital data can be very effective, but the data still needs to be accessible and managed efficiently.
The filtering of data posted on the system can be problematic; all parties being advised each time data is uploaded can result in information overload. To overcome this, individuals often resort to emailing others when data considered relevant to them is posted, thereby devaluing the system.

Used properly, these systems ensure that all parties are working to the latest information.

The systems also provide a common means to record the review and sign off documents.

General communication

Developing design in the different disciplines contemporaneously has always been a challenge. Spatial coordination can be even more difficult on projects where the MEP (mechanical, electrical and power) design consultants only prepare conceptual designs, the full design being carried out by the specialist contractors.

Shared models are a major step forward in resolving coordination and will become increasingly important with use and further technical development. The topic of BIM is beyond the scope of this article but this Institution guidance provides details of BIM and its uses.

Poor communication

There are many examples of poor communication and how it adversely affects the outcome, these are some of the key ones:

  • Lack of design coordination between design team members
  • Gaps between the main design team and subcontractor designers
  • Gaps between subcontractor designs
  • Poor flow of information from the design team to the contractor
  • Misinterpretation of the design intent
  • Inappropriate materials used due to poor specification
  • Designers not communicating the appropriate design risk assessments to the contractor
  • Lack of clear definition of responsibilities for design
  • Poor communication of the project risks that impact on cost, program, and quality

Impact of poor communication

The promoter and end user want an outcome which satisfies their user requirements and is delivered safely, on time, to budget and to the quality they expect.
Poor communication jeopardises any, or all, of these aspirations.

Gaps and ambiguities in the documents which are used to procure and execute the project will lead to disputes, which are likely to impact on quality, program and cost.

A common example of a gap is secondary steelwork required to attach cladding. In many cases, the main frame and the cladding contractors are separate entities. They are unlikely to be in conversation about the design at tender stage, and the gaps therefore only become apparent during detailed design. In this example the gaps have the potential to add cost, to cause delay and to lead to a contractual dispute.

When the contractor has design responsibilities it is critical that the overall design intent is communicated and observed.

The collapse of the Hyatt skywalk in 1981 is an example of this type of communication failure, which lead to 114 fatalities and many serious injuries. The design intent was for continuous steel ties to support the walkways, the steelwork fabricator installed discontinuous ties. The tie rods tore through the supporting channels leading to a catastrophic collapse.

Clearly the consequences of poor communication can result in a wide spectrum of issues, ranging from minor disputes through to serious financial and health and safety consequences.

Why poor communication occurs and how to improve

The answer to the fundamental question depends to a large extent in the procurement method.

In some design and build contracts the employers requirements simply set out the requirements and may contain no design or specification input. In this scenario, the design responsibility lies entirely with the contractor, so the full coordination of design and communication is potentially easier to manage. However, in this case the user requirements need to be very precise, to ensure that the outcome satisfies the Client’s aspirations. This applies particularly to quality and appearance, both of which can be difficult to define sufficiently.

Often the design team is initially employed by the Promoter/end user to take the design to a point, which may be the RIBA Stage 3 or 4. The team, or parts of the team, are then novated to the contractor and the design is completed under the design and build contract. In this case the Client retains more control over the design, but some find it difficult to accept that after novation the team is working for the contractor. Mistrust can arise, leading to guarded communication.

On projects where the main design is completed by the design team on the Client side, but there are contractor design portions, such as precast concrete elements, detailed MEP and so forth, the risk of gaps between designers can be greater, down to lack of communication. Each interface must be managed to facilitate and monitor the smooth transfer of both information and responsibilities.

One of the answers is early contractor engagement in the design process. Often Clients resist this because they feel it damages the commercial advantages of the tender process, but that need not be the case.
The construction industry must recognise that designers are good at designing, contractors are good at constructing, but relatively few people are sufficiently able in both disciplines. The competent contractors are selected for the value they can add to the process, drawing on their experience and expertise. These contractors are much more than a resource for plant, labour and materials.

Allowing all disciplines to think freely, to collaborate freely and to communicate freely is essential.

Generic tick box processes for design, health and safety, specification and many other parts of construction discourage all of these.

The best communication of designs, ideas, constraints and concerns occurs when these are set out in a concise form, with the critical information clearly stated and not masked or buried within a mass of less important words and data.

Andy Leask
Safety, Health and Wellbeing Panel


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