Over engineering for the insurers?

Foundations and indeed any supporting structure need to be designed by a structural engineer to comply with Document A of the Building Regulations, regarding structural stability.

This group has always been held in the highest esteem within the construction industry, dealing as the do with the higher theories of bending moments, moments of inertia, radii of gyration etc. All or most of this stuff passing well above our heads and therefore placing these venerable folks on a par with a surgeon or rocket scientist….

Over the years, I have noticed a steady increase in the level of engineering required to construct what appeared to be fairly simple elements of a building. I have also noticed a reluctance on the part of some engineers to visit a site and to actually explain how some of their weirder proposals are going to work. I understand that the first casualty of a high-level university education is the complete loss of common sense, but some of engineers appear to have lost all sense of reality.

An instance comes to mind of a job, which required the fitting of 18mm plywood panels in segments of 400mm – 800mm, as the base layer of a curved roof somewhere in Kent…this was to be fixed, according to the engineer with 100 x 4.5mm galvanised nails at 40mm centres! I pointed out to him that as well as requiring the pre-drilling of some 70,000 holes in the boards, the proximity to the edge of the board may well cause some splintering and in addition the penetration into the oak rafters of such a long nail at such a rate, could well weaken it physically. Apart from all of this, was the matter of the cost, which was enormous.

When I queried the design his reply was to say “ Well you guys never do what we want anyway, so just do what you think is right” Aghast at the suggestion that anyone would dare to defy the wisdom of an engineer, I spluttered and denied any such thing would or could ever occur…. He then gave me the most telling piece of information I had ever heard to date. “Well when we design a piece of work,” he said “We always double the requirements to keep our insurers happy” Now I don’t like to point out the obvious… but that would double the cost of an element…double!

I have heard this statement many times since and I believe it comes from a period of time when the professional indemnity insurers were taking a hammering from contractors who were being tested with more and more…lets call them ‘distinctive’ designs from architects, who had in turn been asked to build something different…always a dodgy request to make of an architect.

What seems to have happened since is that this doubling of requirement has become a habit and like all habits, it is hard to break. It has been relied upon by the insurers, who charge ever-higher premiums, to cover the cost of failures of those ‘distinctive’ designs. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of us it has created an enormous cost implication and a them and us situation for the engineers. They may not have noticed, or they just don’t care, that no one seems to completely trust their judgement anymore…not a good situation for anyone!

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