photo of construction site

The authors of a new ASCE Press book, Construction Quality in the Alternate Project Delivery Environment, don’t mince words when it comes to safety options.

Civil engineers have two choices:

They can embrace new means of quality management and quality control.

Or they risk tanking their reputations, losing money, and losing projects.

The book’s authors, Tara L. Cavalline, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, Dennis Morian, P.E., M.ASCE, and Clifford J. Schexnayder, Ph.D., P.E., Dist.M.ASCE, recently talked to Civil Engineering Source about the book and the shifting construction landscape.

Civil Engineering Source: How has the increased use of alternative project delivery methods changed the way civil engineering gets done?

Cliff Schexnayder: It’s shifted the risk. Who’s responsible for delivering the quality, and who has the risks for delivering the quality, that’s what’s. Actually, some of these methods changed it for the engineers on the project, because they get into the operation of putting the project together very early, and, in some cases, they stay in it all the way through combined with the builders. 

Tara Cavalline: Some of the risks have shifted but also some of the upsides. I think that there’s also been an increased emphasis on doing quality work as part of being a profitable, stable company nowadays. If you’re not capable of meeting the quality requirements of the construction industry, you’re not necessarily in business that long … I think as sustainability and resiliency become more of a focus too, you won’t necessarily see just (anyone) off the street being able to meet some of these challenges. It’s going to take people who really have an attention to detail and are technically sophisticated and procedurally on point to meet some of these new specifications and challenges of 21st century construction.

Schexnayder: You’re right on target. I’ve looked at different companies and the ones that have a culture of delivering quality, they make a better profit. They spend money to do it, but, in the end, it pays off at the bottom line.

Source: What are the most important things for project managers to adjust to in this new climate?

Cavalline: You have to make sure that what you’re building is what’s designed. That question of “Is the owner getting what they paid for?” is sort of at the heart of this – whether it was 100 years ago or now.

It’s just that now the systems have become complex. There are a lot more challenges … as our materials and our equipment and our designs become more sophisticated – and so does our workforce. … So it’s the inspectors and the leaders who are working with these teams to make sure that they understand what they’re to do and making sure they get it done right. And if something isn’t quite right, they catch it, fix it, and address it in a timely manner so that it doesn’t hold up the schedule and cost $1 million and typically screw up the next three things they had planned. …

The level of sophistication of what we’re doing is demanding an increased attention on – or at least an awareness of – what role people play in quality systems, too. Whether you’re labor force, whether you’re a superintendent, or you’re a project engineer, whether you’re a designer who turned over the set of drawings in the first place, everybody plays a role. And understanding those systems and how they changed based on contracts can only help us as construction faces these new challenges.

Dennis Morian: I can remember when the agency inspector was the quality monitor. And that’s largely gone now. It’s been transferred to the contractor, and the contractor has to do all the things you talked about to be able to get there.

From talking to the guys at Lindy Paving [a company case study featured in the book], they all told me that it starts at the very top. It’s the guy who sets direction, who provides the flexibility for them to be able to do it. The [company] president's response to that is that he has to have good people, but that loop comes back to him again because he’s responsible for the people he puts on his team. So that leadership is very, very important.

Source: Do you think that most companies and organizations from a leadership standpoint have recognized that and adjusted, or is it still a work in progress?

Morian: There are many companies that traditionally focus on making money, making sure there’s a profit. They don’t take the time; they don’t make the effort to do these other things. And that’s part of the initiative in the industry to do things to encourage contractors to improve their operations.

Schexnayder: In our prologue we talk about Lindy Paving, and one of the closing statements in there comes from the president of Lindy: “Does quality cost more? (Darn) right, it does. Is it worth it? (Darn) right, it is.”

If you build that culture, you can do it and you can make a better profit. When you cover something up and you just keep going, then it comes back to haunt you. And when it comes back, it’s expensive. … That hurts your reputation, too. Agencies and owners do not need you if you cannot deliver the product.

Source: What is the most important thing, do you think, for project managers or companies to deliver that product?

Cavalline: The heart of doing things right is having people who are willing to do what it takes to do things right.

[That means] attention to detail, to looking at the bigger picture, to having a system of checks and balances, to making sure that folks are willing to speak up when something’s not done right.

I think another piece of quality is having those incentives there for good work – companies that have a culture of quality at the heart of what they do. “What you do matters” should be that focus … One rotten apple in the barrel can lead to some bad things and an increased risk for everybody involved – whether that risk is financial, schedule-related, or even safety-related. Poor quality can result in a whole lot of safety issues for both workers themselves and the eventual building inhabitants.

So having good people is at the heart of this whole thing, but also having those people understand that quality matters. It matters from top to bottom, from day one to when you close the project out.

Schexnayder: Our book has all the technical ways to measure and make decisions, but it’s about people. It’s about building a team that’s dedicated to quality. Listen to the people who are out there doing the work. Listen to the flag person on the job about the traffic, about being careful. Otherwise, somebody’s going to get hurt; somebody’s going to get killed.

It’s a team, and if we work together, we deliver the quality and make a profit.

Learn more about the book.