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Construction Estimating: the Odd Numbers game

As a design professional, you have likely seen your share of construction estimates.  You may be in charge of evaluating bid proposals and/or in reviewing projects for value engineering possibilities.  Of course, you are almost certainly involved in submitting your own proposal estimates for architectural or engineering services on a project.

I saw a recent blog discussion on construction estimates, and how owners view them.  In the situation discussed, a contractor was losing business because his estimates were in nice round numbers, creating the suspicion in the owner’s mind that the numbers were not carefully put together.

One commentator, a civil engineer, said:

As a Professional Civil Engineer and owner’s representative, I am very leary of proposals received that are round (up or down) unless I’ve done business with this group before and am aware of it. I agree with the other comments that it appears as if the bidder has not put much effort into their proposal.

What do you think? Are you leery of an estimate that is a nice round number? Do you round your own estimates? Does an estimate of $21,975 look more legitimate than an estimate of $22,000?  Share your thoughts, and your practice, below.

architecture tall building

While you are at it, consider taking a 20 question, 10 minute poll on cost estimating processes and best practices.  The survey planners are trying to collect as many responses as possible from industry professionals. 

The data collected from this survey to develop a benchmark report about construction estimating. Once prepared, the report will available to anyone as a free PDF download from the survey planners’ website.

Photo credit: Håkan Dahlström.

Roofing performance & codes – Free webinar tomorrow (the “it’s-not-Tue” Tip)

Apologies for the late notice, but this one just crossed my desk:  Tomorrow, January 26, 2012, at 2pm EST, Architectural Roofing & Waterproofing UniverArchitectural Roofing Universitysity will present a free webinar entitled

“Code Changes, Point Programs and the Roofing Industry.”

Here’s the description from the presenter:
Webinar will discuss issues that are important to both roof performance and to assure the new Code requirements are met. A few lessons learned and industry needs will be presented along with things that can or must be done in the meanwhile. It is not all bad news; after all, we are the industry problem solvers. As new problems arise our value and opportunities increase.

Attend this webinar to learn:

• How to identify and avoid trouble with new regulatory requirements
• New approaches and product to best avoid constructability and performance issues caused by compliance with new regulatory requirements
• Solutions to problems encountered and venues to help share solutions utilized
• How to think forward concerning the pitfalls associated with implementation of new technology and regulations

Speaker: David R. Hawn, FRCI, RRC, CEM, President, Dedicated Roof and Hydro-Solutions, LLC

Webinar qualifies for 1.0 AIA Learning Unit

Registration is required.

Do you know of upcoming webinars, seminars, or conferences that you think readers of this blog should know about?  Drop me a line or comment below.


Specialized Certification for Structural Engineers: a necessity?

States with Certification RequirementsIn North Carolina, as in 39 other states, there is no special certification for structural engineers.  As structural engineering becomes more complex, is specialized certification an idea whose time has come?

“Increasingly, structural engineers, architects and construction firms work together at the earliest stages of a project,” says Jon Schmidt, Associate Structural Engineer and Director of Antiterrorism Services at Burns & McDonnell and Chair of the Editorial Board of STRUCTURE Magazine. “In today’s world of complex structures and 3D modeling, structural engineering is a partnership among architects, contractors and engineering firms. The structural engineer must be able to offer insightful and pragmatic suggestions, and doing that requires strong technical knowledge, depth of experience and problem-solving abilities that have been well-honed over time.

“To this day, only ten states actually license structural engineering as a unique discipline; among these ten states, the requirements vary substantially. This has made it very challenging for contractors to determine what skills and experience structural engineers bring to the table,” says Schmidt.  “In the 40 states that do not specifically license structural engineers, they are typically licensed as Professional Engineers. This is a generalist license that does not distinguish between structural engineering and related disciplines such as civil engineering. As such, engineers in these states are allowed to perform structural engineering tasks, yet there is no formalized way to know if they possess the in-depth skills and experience that can make all the difference in a major project.”  (For a state-by-state look at the 10 states which do license structural engineering, click on the map above to enlarge the image).

SECB certification is the structural engineering profession’s self-imposed benchmarking process that was initiated in 2003, when the National Council of Structural Engineers Associations (NCSEA) voted to establish an independent entity to develop a process of certification. One of the biggest challenges the structural engineering profession faced, until SECB was formed, was that there were no clear benchmarks by which to evaluate the skill levels of professionals in the discipline.

Eight years after its formation, and over 1,752 certifications later, the goals of SECB remain, since there is still no national licensing process for evaluating the discipline-specific skills and expertise of structural engineering professionals. SECB hopes to transform its certification process into the basis for national licensure.


What do you think?  Should a national licensure program be established?  What about other disciplines within the engineering umbrella– should there be separate certifications for those disciplines too?  From a legal standpoint, if an engineer has the SECB designation, he may be seen as holding himself out to a higher standard of care.  With a higher standard of care may come increased liability.  Is this fair for an engineer who voluntarily studies for additional certification?

Share your thoughts on certification and specialization in the comments section, below.

Top Design Products of 2011 (Tue Tip)

funky toiletED+C (Environmental Design & Construction) magazine recently released a list of its top 10 design products for 2011, based on reader requests for additional information. 

Topping the list?  The Energy Star LED lightbulb

Most popular type of product? Materials relating to air quality.

Item which made the best picture for this post?  The Invisi Series II toilet by Caroma, which is designed to maximize floor space by making smaller bathrooms more roomy and luxurious while using the company’s award-winning Smartflush technology.( The half flush uses 0.8 gallons-per-flush (gpf) for liquids, and the full flush uses 1.28 gpf for solids for an average volume of 0.9 gpf.).  Funky little toilet, isn’t it?

What do you think were the top design products of 2011?  Share in the comments below.

Photo (c) Caroma.

Rapunzel vs. the Structural Engineers


A little light-heartedness for your Friday morning………….

Do your kids’ eyes glaze over when you tell them what you do for a living?  The only exposure many kids have to architects and engineers is Mike Brady (thru Brady Bunch re-runs) and NASA folk.  If you don’t work for NASA (and I’m pretty sure you aren’t Mr. Brady), then you may have trouble generating enthusiasm within your brood.  Never fear!  How about showing your kids exactly how *you* would design Cinderella’s pumpkin-turned-carriage, the smart little pig’s brick house, or, better yet, Rapunzel’s castle. 

Yes, that’s right– there are now sketches circulating the web showing a prototype castle for the long-haired beauty, all part of a challenge created by NYC architect Andrew Bernheimer and his sister (and children’s book author) Kate Bernheimer.  They asked three A/E firms to create designs for popular fairy tale stories.  Guy Nordenson and Associates had the coveted story currently popular with 4 year old girls everywhere: RapunzelThey created a design to meet the story: a “tower that stood in a forest and had neither a door nor a stairway, but only a tiny little window at the very top.” When asked about the key structural elements, the structural engineers responded, “We were able to meet the Grimms’ strict design requirements by employing a slender tower design of vertical cylindrical stems that are joined by intermittent outrigger beams with a reinforced space at the very top for Rapunzel’s long captivity.”

Create your own fantasy design to show your kids that yes, you are too cool!

(Hat tip to Behold the Architect for the story).

Sketch via Design Observer.

How to Avoid (?) Professional Liability Claims and Manage Liability Exposure (Tue Tip)

Tuesday plaqueHave you made it your New Year’s resolution to practice better risk management at your Firm this year?  If not, you should! There is always something you can do to lessen your risks of a lawsuit.  Here’s an easy one:  make plans to attend the next Hall & Company webinar, entitled: “Lessons Learned: Practical Advice on how to Avoid Professional Liability Insurance Claims and Manage Professional Liability Insurance Exposures“.  

The presentation promises:

1.  An overview of some of the largest professional liability insurance claims Hall & Co. has seen the past 20+ years
2.  A review on how these claims could have been avoided
3.  A review on how these claims could have been better insured
4.  And finally, a discussion on how these claims could have been better managed.

  • When: Tuesday, January 17, 2012
  • Time: 1:00 pm EDT/12:00pm CDT/10:00am PDT
  • FREE to attend, and the class is approved for AIA Continuing Education (1LU).  Preregistration is required.

Do you know of an upcoming conference, webinar, seminar, or presentation that others might benefit from?  Please share and let me know.

Photo:  (c) Leo Reynolds via CC.

Duke’s Power Lines Project & Native American Sacred Mounds (News Note)

Tuckasegee RiverDuke Energy has been cleared to update power lines near the Eastern Band of the Cherokee’s reservation in the western North Carolina mountains.

Late last month, the North Carolina Utilities Commission handed down their rulingallowing Duke’s project to continue despite protests from the Cherokee tribe and other residents of the Kituwah Valley. The Valley is home to a sacred site for the Cherokee and fear of damage being done prompted their reaction against the plans floated by Duke. The Valley is located along the Tuckaseegee River east of Bryson City.  

The state utilities commission decided that Duke had not acted illegally by beginning construction on a 161-kilovolt transmission line upgrade. The upgrade is intended to help with increased demand in the area, specifically from the Harrah’s Hotel and Casino and surrounding development in Murphy, North Carolina.

The tribe and local citizen groups argued that the construction project would damage property values by destroying the natural beauty of the area. They requested that either the project be stopped entirely or that they be compensated for their predicted loss in property value.

The Commission ruled that the complainants had not met their burden of proof and had failed to show that Duke Energy had acted unreasonably or inappropriately in their planning of the power upgrade. The Commission also said that it was not empowered to order any compensation for loss in property value. “The complainant’s members will need to pursue that remedy in the appropriate court,” the Commission said.

This isn’t the only issue the group has had with Duke’s planned project. The original complaint filed by the Cherokee included an objection to Duke’s plans to locate an electrical tie station in the area. Duke subsequently voluntarily relocated that station. Duke plans to build a tie station, which steps power down from high-voltage transmission to lower levels needed to serve distribution stations for residential and commercial customers, to serve growth in the bustling casino area.

Duke says it has found two alternative sites for a power station so the company can avoid construction near the sacred mound which Michell Hicks, chief for the tribe, says is the home for the tribe’s mother town. One option is 13 acres in the Swain County Industrial park that is almost 4 miles from Kituwah, says Duke Spokesman Jason Walls. That site would cost $400,000. The second site is about 12 acres at Sheppard’s Creek, and would be about 1.4 miles from Kituwah. Because that is private property, Duke is not disclosing the cost.

The necessary improvements should be completed in 2012.

Have you followed this dispute?  Have comments or questions about the decision? Drop me a line in the comments section, below.

SourceDuke Energy cleared to build high voltage line near reservation,” by John Downey.  Photo (c) Kevin Dobo-Hoffman via CC.

Top 3 Take-Away Lessons for Engineers from the Sewage case (law note)

takeaway signAs we discussed yesterday, CH2M was held liable in negligence for the accidental death and other injuries sustained by workers at the Spokane wastewater treatment facility.  Today, a few take-away lessons for design professionals, regardless of where you work:

  1. Never assume that you cannot be sued.  The engineers at CH2M thought they had a slam-dunk case, because there was actual language giving them immunity in the law.  However, even then that immunity language did not stop the lawsuit and liability.  You can always be sued, even with the best language in the law or your contract.
  2. Even limited work can give you significant liability.  One of CH2M’s arguments was related to the fact that they were providing limited work on an “on call” service contract.  As the Court noted, just because you have not actually put pencil to paper (or made the CAD drawings), doesn’t mean that you are not “designing” in the eyes of a court of law.
  3. You must assume the negligence of others.  Okay, the case doesn’t specifically say this, but it does note that CH2M could not escape liability because the City had made modifications to the plant over the years.  The Court held that “a reasonably prudent engineer in the position of CH2M could reasonably have anticipated” that the plant might have been modified over the years, and that a prudent engineer would have conducted an engineering analysis to make that determination.

Comments, thoughts, or questions?  Drop me a line!  I want to hear from you.

Photo:  (c) Debbi Long via CC.

Engineer: Immune or not in Sewer collapse? (Part 2) (law note)

riverside plantUPDATE 1/9/2012:  In the original version of this post, an incorrect picture was used of the new water reclamation facility for Spokane County, WA.  This photo is the facility discussed in the lawsuit.  Many thanks to David Moss, PE, for the correction. 

When last we left off, the causes of the Spokane wastewater treatment disaster were revealed to be a combination of three things: 1) a blocked overflow pipe; 2) a malfunctioning monitoring system inside the digester; and 3) a failed attempted to transfer sludge out of the digester.

Once this information came to light, the plaintiffs and their families filed a negligence action against CH2M and the city. The city of Spokane was immune from liability under the state’s Industrial Insurance Act.  The only issue at trial was whether CH2M was negligent. The lower court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding CH2M negligent. CH2M appealed the ruling, contending that it too ought to enjoy immunity under the Industrial Insurance Act.

The Court was confronted with determining whether immunity should be granted to the engineering firm. One provision of the Act states that that an injured worker may not seek damages against a design professional who is a third person retained to perform professional services on a construction project. However, a different provision states that immunity does not apply to the negligent preparation of design plans.

CH2M argued that the entire plant was a construction project, thus entitling it to immunity. It further argued that it did not prepare design plans, and as such the design plans provision of the Act should not apply. The plaintiffs argued the plant was not a construction site, and that CH2M did, in fact, prepare design plans negligently.

The Court found that there was undoubtedly construction occurring on the sewage treatment campus. The question was whether the existence of construction somewhere on the campus triggered automatic immunity. The Court concluded it did not. The construction was isolated on various parts of the campus and not widespread enough to cause the entire campus to be deemed a construction site.

With regard to producing design plans, the Court said that there was no appreciable difference in recommending a change in the piping of the sludge and the locations of the skillets under an “on call” service agreement, and preparing wirtten plans and specifications to accomplish the same thing. The Court found that it was difficult to believe the legislature intended to allow design professionals to escape liability for negligent work by simply not writing down their plans.

The Court also held that CH2M owed a duty of care, as all such professionals do, and that the duty extended to the injured employees. The Court found that the duty was breached and that the breach was the proximate cause of the employees’ injuries.

Taken as a whole, the Court stated that the legislature, when enacting the Industrial Insurance Act, intended to protect design engineers from the sort of liability imposed on general contractors for workplace safety.  The Court refused, however, to believe that the legislature intended to protect design engineers from their own negligence.

Tomorrow, 3 take-away lessons from the case.

Thoughts, comments, or questions?  Post in the comment section, below.

Is an Engineer ever immune from lawsuit? (Law note)

Spokane city towerCan an Engineering firm be held liable in negligence despite provisions in a state law which allegedly gives design professionals immunity?  That was the issue confronted recently by the Supreme Court in the state of Washington in a case entitled Larry Michaels vs. CH2M Hill.

The Washington court analysed its state Industrial Insurance Act, which is similar to North Carolina’s Workers’ Compensation Act.  These acts are often described as “grand compromises” between workers and their employers.  Injured workers are given a fast, no-fault compensation system for injuries in the workplace. Employers, in turn, are given immunity from civil suits.  The workers get speed and certainty, while the employers are required to pay less than they would be in a lawsuit.

Washington state’s Act, unlike North Carolina’s Act, provides some immunity for design professionals performing design services, and the court had to wrestle with the applicability in a particularly gruesome case involving a catastrophic failure at the Spokane wastewater treatment plant.

One man was killed and another two other seriously injured in May 2004 when a digester dome (a huge, sports stadium-like contraption) collapsed at the wastewater treatment plant. The collapse caused Mr. Cmos to fall into heated sewage sludge, where he drowned. The lower court judge described the incident as arguably one of the most disgusting and terrible deaths imaginable. Mr. Evans was thrown from the dome and drenched with the sewage, while Mr. Michaels was knocked down by a cascade of sludge. The survivors, and the family of Cmos, sued CH2M for negligence.

CH2M was an engineering firm hired by Spokane as a consultant on a 10-year capital improvement project to upgrade the plant. One of the tasks the engineering firm oversaw was replacement and re-engineering of several transfer tubes between various digester domes at the plan. Ultimately a buildup of sewage occurred, shattering the dome on digester #3 and fatally injuring Cmos.

A series of unfortunate events took place on that day in early May of 2004 that all conspired to lead to the sewage buildup. After failed attempts to transfer the sludge to another digester, foam began leaking out of a pressure relief valve at the top of dome #3. The effluent ran down the outside of the dome and a concerned plant superintendent worried that the discharge might enter the Spoken River. The supervisor gathered Cmos, Evans and Michaels and asked if the three could assist him in diverting the sludge. Cmos and Evans climbed the dome with a fire hose to siphon foam while the superintendent and Michaels attached the other end of the house to a drain.

The dome continued filling with sludge until it finally cracked and collapsed. Cmos, alive and conscious, dropped into 100 degree sewage sludge and died in excruciating physical pain, darkness and utter helplessness. Evans and Michaels suffered varying severe injuries including broken limbs and lung damage from aspirating the sewage.

The city hired an engineering firm to investigate the disaster. The firm concluded there were three main causes: 1) a blocked overflow pipe; 2) a malfunctioning monitoring system inside the digester; and 3) a failed attempted to transfer sludge out of the digester.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss the Court’s analysis and ruling concerning whether or not CH2M had immunity from being sued, and Friday we’ll discuss a few take-away lessons from the case.  Stay tuned……

Have you signed up for the blog to be delivered directly to your in-box? If not, do so now, so you’ll be sure to catch parts 2 and 3 of this article, and never miss any other posts here, either.

Photo: (c) via Creative Commons license.

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