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AUS-7 Managing changes to design

Report ID: 822

Published: CROSS-AUS Newsletter 2 - July 2019

Report Overview

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

Report Content

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

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.

The underlying cause, the correspondent believes, is inadequate fees to fully document 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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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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