With the ever-rising costs of civil construction, municipalities feel the pressure to save on project costs wherever possible. And, often, the construction inspection process is the first place they look to reduce project costs. On large projects in particular – roadways, bridges, underground tunnels and sewer networks – the idea of handling the inspection process in-house by training current staff or by hiring additional people with construction experience may seem attractive. However, this approach can potentially lead to much higher overall costs either during construction or afterward.
Understanding the Full Scope of Inspection Activities
In order to accurately weigh the costs versus the benefits of construction inspection services, it is important to have an understanding of the full scope of activities they entail. According to Jeremy Morris, Director of Construction Engineering for Christopher B. Burke Engineering, construction inspections begin early in a project and continue throughout its entire lifecycle. “We act as a liaison between the owner, the designer, and the contractors and have boots on the ground the day construction begins,” he said. One thing that all projects have in common – they are designed to protect owners and ensure they get a completed project constructed per the design and which meets all the necessary standards for materials, durability, and operational safety.
Morris said the inspector’s role would include:
- Ideally, daily inspections and observation of construction activity to ensure plans are properly followed and the appropriate materials are used
- Materials testing when needed
- Thorough documentation of all the changes that occur on a day-to-day basis on a project
- Assistance in resolving any disputes that arise on a project
In the close-out phase of a project, the inspector is often involved to confirm through testing that the project has been constructed properly and any post-construction requirements the contractors may have are met.
Morris said depending on the project, the inspector’s role can be part time or full time. “Having a part time inspector can be okay on a small job,” he said, noting that in these cases, the inspector would handle many of the different activities noted above. However, for bigger, “heavy” civil engineering projects, such as building wastewater treatment plants and large tunnels to consolidate combined sewer overflows, municipalities may find they need dedicated people for all the different activities involved in the inspection process. This can result in significant costs associated with construction inspection.
As a result, municipalities sometimes look for ways to reduce those costs by either settling for part-time inspectors or by hiring and training their own. While these approaches might appear to provide a cost savings at the beginning of a project, they can potentially result in higher costs over the longer term.
Morris said he understands the reasoning behind wanting to handle construction inspection services in-house. “When you multiply the daily rate to have an inspector on site every day by the time the project will take to complete, daily inspection services can seem pretty expensive compared to doing it yourself,” he said. However, he pointed out that owners could run into a couple of issues with this approach:
Finding the right expertise — Morris said, “Finding an individual with all the different kinds of experience you need for this work is difficult because they aren’t readily available. ” Morris added that for municipalities that have multiple jobs, hiring might seem to make sense. However, to get the broad range of expertise needed can potentially require hiring a large number of professionals.
The short-term nature of construction activities – Hiring additional staff to perform construction inspections in-house is often problematic from a budgetary perspective. Morris pointed out that while this approach may be attractive to municipalities with several construction projects all happening at once, they may find themselves in one of two difficult positions. “If you hire just a few people to handle the work, you may not be able to keep up,” Morris said. “And, if you hire all the people you need, what happens when all those projects are complete?”
On smaller projects, owners may try to save money by hiring a company to conduct spot inspections on a part-time basis – an approach that despite the cost savings, may not serve the best interests of the owner. Morris said, “Construction inspection is all about providing a system of checks and balances.” He offered this advice for anyone weighing the costs and benefits of hiring a company to provide construction inspection services: “Consider the experience and training you get with expert inspections, and resources you need to protect yourself if something goes wrong.” No matter what approach is taken, it is important to understand the benefits and risks associated with guiding a particular project through construction with the technical staff and resources that will get a project to completion.