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Clients and Civil Engineers

Clients and Civil Engineers

There’s a lot to be learnt from a terrible experience, especially if you can see yourself reflected (no matter how palely) in it.

Let me start by pointing out that the following story is, obviously, not literally true. Over the last few weeks, however, I have had the fun of taking my bike back-and-forward to Halfords; and with every altercation I’ve had with their engineers(/technicians) I’ve thought: “Am I ever like that?- is this how clients feel all the time, like dears in some reinforced concrete emitting headlight?”.

So while this story has been crammed into a non-too-subtle metaphor, and rearranged to include other people’s experiences too; I hope it still serves as a bit of a reminder to the key considerations civil engineers should approach when dealing with clients.

Taking my Bridge in for Repairs

I’ve had my bridge for 20 years now, no problems. Well, that’s not strictly true: About five years ago the surfacing had worn so thin that it started to crumble- or something like that. I went back to the firm that had built it, but you wouldn’t believe how much they were going to charge. Luckily I found some other guys that would sort it out for half the price; tarmac is tarmac, right?

A few weeks ago, however, some tit drove straight into the parapet, taking a chunk out of the bridge wall. No surprises- the insurance won’t cover it, they say the structure should have been able to take it and I’ll have to chase up the original designers. I called them up, however, and it turns out they were one of the victims of the recession.

I asked about, and found a reasonable firm to do it. They quoted me just under £200k, which isn’t too bad. However, when I sent them the drawings they told me that they were in the old BIM 1.0 formats, which no one can open anymore. I argued that when I brought the bridge the designers had assured me BIM was the future, but with a pained expression the engineer attempted to explain to me that it was the ‘wrong sort of BIM’, and that with preliminary works we’d be looking closer to £250k.

Feeling a little put out, but acknowledging that I no longer had any options- I consented. About half a month later I get a call; “How often do you paint your bridge?”. “Never,” I admitted, attempting to defend myself: “I knew it was looking a bit shabby, but I just don’t have the money to repaint it all the time”. “Ah- you see you’ve got to paint your bridge every five years, sir,” he says, “else you’ll get pitting.” “Pitting?” I reply, thinking that I know no one who painted their bridge regularly. “Yeah, we’ve found some serious pitting when we took a look under it”.

I mentioned it looked alright to me, but the engineer just shook his head: “Well, it’s hard to see, but at this rate I’d only give the bridge another five years”. Alarmed, I asked for an estimate. He said it’d be another 50k, so I went online to see if I could do it myself. Turns out there’s this putty you can use, that’ll fill the void and provides some galvanic protection, so I resolved to get my hands dirty and do it myself. Problem was, before the bridge could be re-opened I needed approval from the council, and that meant I needed a series of tests- can’t even recall the name- and they basically had to be done by an engineer.

Imagine my despondency when I called the firm back, explained where I had got to, just to be told that what I’d used wasn’t really compatible with those tests. “Yeah,” he agrees “it will stop it, but you can’t be sure how long, better just to do a full blast and clean- find out where the water’s getting through.” Suddenly this repair’s nearing half of a million, but by now I just want it over with; I’m haemorrhaging money by keeping my bridge closed for as long as I’ve had to.

The next week though, “we’ve found your problem, you’re waterproofing’s bust; gotta replace the whole surface”. “But-” I lamented, “I’ve only just had that done five years ago,” and I sent him through the details. “Yeah,” he said; “but you didn’t specify that they should re-patch the waterproofing, that’s why they didn’t do it.” “How was I supposed to know that, I don’t evening know what a re-patch is?!” I cried in exasperation; “it doesn’t say anything like that in the Maintenance Manual”.

“Ahh,” he replies, “it’s in the Operational Risk Assessment appendix of the hand-over documentation.” – That 500 page document, written in engineering, and hidden somewhere in the massive pile of paperwork that accompanies the ‘amazing’ (and now, it seems, unopenable) digital model that included “everything you needed to know”, apart from, it turns out, this.

– And there I thought bridges were supposed to last 120 years.

So while this story has been crammed into a non-too-subtle metaphor, and rearranged to include other people’s experiences too; I hope it still serves as a bit of a reminder to the key considerations civil engineers should approach when dealing with clients. Maybe it’ll also help seeds of a few lessons in empathy; especially after the 70th design change…

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