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CROSS Safety Report

Managing changes to design

Report ID: 822 Published: 1 July 2019 Region: CROSS-AUS

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In the correspondent's experience, change is the root of many of the problems discussed in the current debate about standards of construction.

The need for clear communication (to all involved) of design intentions, details, and especially when changes are made, has been and remains crucial to successful construction of buildings and structures.

Key Learning Outcomes

For structural and civil engineers:

  • Communicate and record design information clearly, and share this information with all parties involved. This is very important when changes are made to the design

  • Recognise the importance of as-built drawings and insist on fees which allow time for these to be produced

For construction personnel:

  • Insist that all changes to designs are documented fully and correctly, and that they have been approved by the design engineer and the appropriate certifying authority

For building authorities and policy makers:

  • Recognise the need for all changes to designs to be recorded in an appropriate manner, and that as-built construction must be the same as the designer intended

  • Require inspections by certified persons of construction work at critical times to ensure that as-built work is as indicated in the drawings, including any changes that have been made and correctly documented by the designer

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A correspondent has written in response to the current debate about standards of construction.

Failure to produce documentation of significant changes in design

Their experience is that change is the root of many problems - planned, instructed or otherwise. One example of a major issue they encountered when working with the builder was that the design engineer refused to document significant changes that arose during construction, choosing instead to document the changes via mark-ups on shop details, meaning anyone who didn’t review 3000 shop details was not apprised of the changes. This made erection sequencing difficult and the builder’s life impossible for planning.

Inadequate fees

The underlying cause, the correspondent believes, is inadequate fees to document fully the project in the first place, let alone allow for incorporation of changes during construction. It then becomes a blame game between client, designer and builder. This, says the correspondent, is another example of the harm that is caused by selecting the design consultant on the lowest price that is prevalent in the commercial building sector.

Threat of rejection of inadequate documentation in transport industry

The correspondent notes that in the transport sector there is not the same effect, as processes and gateways are mandated and strictly complied with, and proper change management practice is instilled culturally from top to bottom. Rejection of poor documentation is also a real and serious threat, and significantly more is spent on design and QA processes in this sector.

Loss of control by regulatory authorities and designers over as-built construction

With buildings, there now appears to be a loss of control by the regulatory authority and by the designer of what actually gets built compared with the approved design documentation. In the correspondent’s opinion, the majority of such change could be prevented by proper planning, refusing last minute changes and proper QA by experienced individuals at all stages of the development. Registration and competency assessments are part of the solution; however, without proper and rigorous competency assessment across the industry, just having labels misses the point.

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The issues raised in this report, particularly around Building Control and control of what actually gets built, are typical of the issues addressed in the recent public reports including the Building Confidence report by Shergold & Weir and the Opal Tower Investigation Final Report. Similar conclusions were reached in the UK Hackitt Report on Building Regulations and Fire Safety following the Grenfell Tower fire. These reports should be required reading by all professionals in the building and construction industry.

Changes during construction occur on most projects and the reluctance by designers to update their drawings is not uncommon in this competitive market when designers may have exhausted their design and documentation fee by this time, and in many cases their client is not interested in any claim for additional fees. Part of the problem is that the designers of the building may not be retained to carry out inspections to confirm that what they have designed is being correctly constructed on site. Even if they are retained, it will usually be for periodic inspections that are essentially very limited in what they can achieve.

Split responsibilities make matters worse

Designers are also depending more on specialist subcontractors for key elements such as prefabricated (precast) concrete, reinforcement fixing, post-tensioned floors, structural steel and the like to be manufactured, installed and certified by the specialist subcontractor that the works comply with the approved shop drawings, resulting in split responsibilities.

While in most cases subcontractors and suppliers try to do the correct thing, they may not have structural engineering expertise, and small changes that may seem simple to them and may assist manufacture, could in fact affect the original design intent. In the case of specialist subcontractors who are interstate or overseas, they may not carry out any inspections themselves or they may get a local engineer to make periodic inspections, thus involving a third party.

Need for Inspections by Registered Engineer

CROSS-AUS supports the recommendation from the Opal Tower Investigation Final Report that there should be a mandated regime of critical stage on-site inspections by a Registered Engineer who certifies that construction is as per the design. We also agree that all changes to critical structural elements that are proposed and made during construction should be certified by an independent Registered Engineer; and that “as constructed” drawings should be mandatory and lodged with the authority responsible for approving the building.

Potential for criminal prosecution

It is important to note that designers also have obligations under work health and safety legislation to provide adequate information to persons involved in the construction of a structure on an ongoing basis. Failure by a designer to provide current information could result in criminal prosecution.

The Shergold & Weir and other reports referenced above make it clear that the issues are a consequence of a culture within the building and construction industry that is out-of-date, being based on past practices when much simpler systems of managing design and construction were the norm. As the Dame Judith Hackitt Report states, what is needed is "an integrated systemic change not a shopping list of changes which can be picked out on a selective basis" in order to change this embedded culture.

More information

A good starting point is a recent presentation An Introduction to complexity and how it influences Risk by Black and Hurst given to Engineers Australia’s Risk Engineering Society. A key point they make is that effective solutions to the risk management of systems vary according to their complexity. Accountability is a key part of risk management, but complex systems require a different approach from simple systems. Understanding this should be a key part of the education of professionals in the industry.

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