By Dan Becker, M.ASCE
A wise old attorney once said, “The party with the best documentation wins!” This is advice to take seriously. By documenting events that occur on projects — such as decisions and site visits — design teams can successfully manage claims that could potentially impact their practices.
Document, document, document!
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions made throughout the planning and design phase of a project. Decisions arrived at during the design phase are initiated by a number of project stakeholders from multiple organizations, starting with the client’s organization (project manager, operations and maintenance staff, etc.) and extending to other design team members, such as government agencies, permitting authorities, and utility providers, to name a few. Some of those decisions may include a selection of design alternatives, materials, and equipment to be incorporated into the project, affecting the timing of when materials and equipment are available.
As projects move into construction, more issues arise that require engineers to respond to new or previously made decisions. Those issues can be the result of conditions uncovered during construction, availability of materials, and work conditions.
To keep track of the decisions — particularly major ones — a recommended practice is to document those decisions accepted as well as those rejected.
Documenting a decision should include identifying alternatives considered before arriving at the decision. This can be beneficial if these issues are raised again when new stakeholders come onto the project or as additional information becomes known.
To aid in tracking decisions, some engineers keep decision logs. These can be kept on something as simple as an Excel spreadsheet or as involved as a database with lookup capabilities. Documentation should include:
- Who helped arrive at the decision.
- Factors that were considered to arrive at that decision.
- The date the decision was finalized.
- The people informed of the decision.
Decisions could affect the availability of materials and lead times as well as aesthetics, so the decision record should be detailed.
Consider this example:
At the start of a project, there was a decision to be made on the structural system for a building. Some wanted structural steel, others wanted cast-in-place concrete, and still others wanted mass timber.
The decision to move forward with structural steel was based on the schedule and cost. The availability of mass timber could have delayed the erection of the structure by as long as six months. Concrete was overruled because of the look that turned off some stakeholders. There were also concerns about weather impacts and delays that would not impact the erection of structural steel.
This sample explanation is too brief; documenting a decision like this should have more information. The decision should be documented so that in the future if there are problems procuring materials or there is a steep increase in steel prices due to supply chain changes, shortages, etc., you have a way of reminding people of what went into making that decision.
Documenting site visits
As an engineer, it’s critical to understand your role and what you are contracted to do before setting foot on-site. Your role at the site is to observe the contractor’s progress and then determine whether the construction is proceeding in general accordance with the construction documents. You should keep in mind that the overall purpose of a site visit is to confirm that the work installed generally meets the requirements of the contract documents. Observing the work is not the same as inspecting the work.
Site visits can be valuable in facilitating communication with the contractor. Site visits can also provide early warning signs of potential claims, such as the contractor falling behind schedule, failing to follow quality assurance procedures, etc. These issues should be addressed sooner rather than later. Engineers should always keep project risk management at the forefront of their thinking during site visits.
Before visiting the site, you should plan what part or parts of the project you are planning to observe, review the contract documents to confirm that you have the latest information, and review shop drawings and request for information queries.
A site visit provides an opportunity for the engineer to effectively manage its risk and safeguard his or her firm against possible claims. During a site visit, the engineer can observe possible contractor oversights, such as beginning follow-on activities before completing the construction of elements, e.g., installing some bolts without fully torquing them down, tack welding vs. full welds as the structural elements start absorbing loads.
During the site visit you will meet with the contractor’s team. The contractor’s staff will most likely ask your opinion on matters in what can be thought of as a casual conversation. Be mindful that these casual conversations can have lasting impacts as part of the project records.
If asked questions about the work, either refer to the contract documents or tell them you will get back to them in writing after you have a chance to review. Many contracts state that only written directions can change the contract documents, however some contractors will take verbal direction in the same light. Remind the contractor of this fact when answering questions.
After the site visit it’s critical to document your visit in a site visit report. You should identify:
- Date and time of visit.
- What you observed.
- With whom you met and spoke.
- Any discussions regarding the work in progress, materials, or equipment.
- The areas you visited — which is particularly critical for larger projects.
If there was an issue on a part of the project you didn’t visit or observe, you don’t want the contractor or anyone else claiming that something occurred while you were on-site, arguing you were aware of the issue and should have some responsibility.
Some organizations have standard site visit reports to record the above data and problems observed (if any) and plans for follow-up to problems observed. You should sign and date your documentation as a report and share it with the client and contractor as soon as possible.
In summary, it is crucial to recognize the significance of documentation in mitigating the impact of future claims on your projects. This can be achieved by timely recording decisions made during the planning and design phases, with a particular emphasis on proper documentation of site visits. It is essential to recognize and adhere to the distinction between observation and inspection.
Dan Becker, M.ASCE, is a consultant and founding member of the ASCE Committee on Claims Reduction Management. The goal of CCRM is to provide best practices for engineers to be more effective and avoid claims, or if they can’t avoid claims, minimize the impact of claims on their practices. This is the first of an ongoing series from the committee.
This article is published by Civil Engineering Online.
The content provided in this article is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice. Readers should not act or fail to act based on this article without first seeking advice from legal counsel on their specific circumstances.