The Role and Efficacy of Consulting Engineers in Construction

S.K. Ghaswala, Consulting Engineer, Mumbai

The Role and Efficacy of Consulting Engineers in Construction
A Consulting Engineer is a person who with his high engineering qualifications specialised background, and wide experience, can plan, design, supervise and help in undertaking maintenance of any type of structure according to the needs of the client. Besides this, simple definition lies a plethora of parameters.

This article gives a snug indication of these parameters such as qualities, functions, selection, availability, career prospects and future outlook, which ultimately decide the role and efficacy of consulting engineers.

Each project has a specific mission or purpose to be achieved within a specified period and specified cost. To attain these, six parameters are needed to be strictly evaluated. These are: size, complexity, quality, productivity, completion time and cost. The planning, controlling and implementation of these parameters reflect the final outcome and it is in here that a consulting engineer can make a lasting contribution depending on his skill, experience and expertise.

Functions

The functions of a consulting engineer can be broadly classified as under:
  • Studying project reports including their financial reliability and cost estimates.
  • Preparing, designing and/or scrutinising structural drawings and designs.
  • Inviting tenders and checking tendering procedures.
  • Supervising works and ensuring highest quality of performance standards.
  • Advising on repair, alteration and maintenance of existing structure.
  • Offer advice on inter-related matters such as selection of plant and equipment like elevators, electrical and water supply work etc.
  • Act as Proof Consultant for cross-checking design in case of complex structures to ensure complete safety and economy.
  • He should be distinctly familiar with modern developments in construction technology: have knowledge of ISO 9000 Quality Management and Practice as well as done Lead Instructor's Course, ISO 9001/-2008.
    The Role and Efficacy of Consulting Engineers in Construction
  • He should have a knowledge of Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) useful in aerodynamic design and complex wind engineering analysis as well as in Visual Design which enables construction professionals to pinpoint the potential \ problems well in advance of the start of the construction.
In short a consulting engineer has to ensure that the leading edge technology is used for all solutions which should be creative but at the same time environmentally sound.

Apart from technical qualifications and expertise, a consulting engineer should have other qualities for the success in his profession. Some of these are:
  • A fair working knowledge of finance and business procedures.
  • Team spirit and human relations.
  • Leadership to convince clients.
  • Language skills when working in foreign countries or with foreigners.
  • Keep client's information completely confidential.
  • Accept no commissions in connection with supply of materials or manpower.
  • Hold no directorship or controlling interest in the project handled by him.
  • It is not the code of conduct itself but its rigorous and intelligent applications which finally determines the real professional worth and integrity of a consulting engineer.

Need of a Consultant

The necessity of calling in a consultant very early in the gestation of a project cannot be overemphasized. Serious errors are known to occur in delaying such an appointment. Once a site was procured / purchased, to later prove that it was absolutely unsuitable. Bridges have been designed to replace existing bridge structures without taking into account problems in soil, loading, aerodynamics, and traffic expansion; and long–term projects decided upon without studying the effects of price fluctuations over the intervening period on the overall budget. When the producers of the film 'Bridge on River Kwai wanted a bridge unit built and then blown off at the right time as the story demanded, they called in a consulting engineer for such precision work. Fortunately such a professional was found and the bridge built and later blown off at the right time and at the right place as demanded.

Large engineering organization often maintain in-house consultants on a regular payment basis. While not trying to belittle their work and ability, in-house staff may have their own set of ideas and pinpricks as well as traditional and fixed concepts, while an outsider independent consultant can push in fresh proposals, latest concepts and be totally unbiased in their approach.

Selection of Consultants

The Role and Efficacy of Consulting Engineers in Construction
In selecting a consultant the client or the contractor should have a fairly good knowledge about the consultant’s experience, expertise and background. There have been cases where thoughtless selection created problems. The consultant and in-house staff with their assumed outlook and knowledge are often limited by years of obsolete traditional practice. In third world countries the clients — with their financial limitations — generally try to choose a consultant on price rather than on the basis of competence, resulting in delays and project losses. When turn-key bids are called, contractors who do not have a good design office of their own with competent staff, generally team up with consultants with whom they have regular association, but who may not necessarily be of the highest caliber. In such a case again the benefit of low prices which could be offered by medium - sized contractors are lost due to inferior and expensive designs emanating from less competent consultants.

The contours of consulting fraternity are changing from the original one-man show to large consulting organizations which have come up providing multi-disciplinary services and serving global clients including those in India. A case in point is the recently built 4.7 km. Bandra Worii Sea Link. It has two cable-stayed bridges of 500 m and 150 m span. The bridge system was designed by Seshadri Srinivasan, Director of the London based multinational consulting firm Dar AlHandasah with inputs from engineers from several other countries. Incidentally this septageraniun engineer also designed Mumbai's J. J. Flyover and the reknowned Jamarat bridge in the holy city of Mecca. The proposed 720 m long Manori creek bridge, connecting Manori, Gorai and Bhayander will have a cable-stayed bridge of 420 m span with the rest comprising viaduct roads. It appears that this project will be handled by foreign consultants. It is high time. Indian consulting firms gear themselves up for handling such projects and show their skill and resourcefulness in competing with foreign consultants.

Availability

On a global basis the World Bank and other leading organisations keep a roster of consulting firms and individuals. Among these are The Asian Development Bank, UNIDO, ILO, UNDP etc. These consultants render services in over 70 specialized fields ranging from aerial, hydro and geological surveys; disaster planning; forensic engineering; architectural and industrial design to civil works, rehabilitation, manpower requirements: project monitoring and virtual design. Nearer home there are a few Indian engineering organisations whose membership covers consulting engineers with considerable experience. Selection of consultants can be made from them.

Career Prospects

The Role and Efficacy of Consulting Engineers in Construction
For those aspiring for careers in engineering consultancy, the training has necessarily to go beyond guides and text books. The field of consulting engineering is rapidly widening and as such practising engineers should take in their fold the students with bright background and give them hands-on training in their offices.

The doors of universities should also be opened out widely to bring more of the 'design office' within the classroom. The mechanism of a stable, effectively planned and rightly motivated interaction of 'educator-practitioner' has to be evolved on a priority basis which can go a long way in the training process.

As far as dissemination of engineering knowledge is concerned, in India pitiably there are very few consultants who present papers at engineering forums or write articles in technical and professional journals. Most of the substance emanates from professors and research personnel from various universities and research institutions. It is high time consulting engineering professionals come out and contribute in print the fruits of their matured experience and knowledge for the benefit of the fraternity and even the public at large.

Future Outlook

The construction industry is the second largest employer in India after agriculture. A HUDCO - IIM Ahmadabad study revealed that every rupee invested in building and real estate adds 78 paisa to the state's GDP and for every job created in the housing sector, as many as Eight other jobs are created indirectly. Thus investment in the construction, sector has a multiplier effect on income and employment. A study by the global consulting firm of Merrill Lynch showed that this sector will grow from $12 billion to $90 billion in 2015. According to the international firm of Goldman Sachs, over the next decade India will require in addition to building and real estate around $1.7 trillion to finance its like infrastructure needs, roads, ports, airports, power, railways etc. Needless to state that in all these endeavors, consulting engineers are bound to be connected and play a significant role.

The Role and Efficacy of Consulting Engineers in Construction
The focussed efforts of government in building rural infra-structure through Bharat Nirman and other agencies hold the possibility of rapid rural transformation. The observed climate change and CO2 emissions coupled with the oncoming concepts of Green Buildings' are becoming major issues. In fact, ITC's Green Center at Gurgaon is the world's largest green building with LEED Platinum rating. The National Missions on Solar Energy, Enhanced Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Habitats contain specific measures to move forward towards a low carbon strategy.

In this connection, two specific examples can be cited. The Orchid Hotel in Mumbai's suburbs and the proposed Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. While looking quite plain on the exterior the Hotel has one of the largest arrays of environmental technologies far too many to be detailed here. The Masdar City is the most sustainable development scheme in the world. When completed after seven years at a cost of $20 billion, it will be the world's first Zero Carbon, Zero Waste city powered entirely by renewable energy sources. In all such projects consulting engineers are bound to play a significant role in the growth and progress of construction industry in these projects.

NBMCW July 2010

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