An odd dance

January 2009 » Columns
"Dance of the Goony Birds" is how an engineer I know describes the gyrations that project participants go through when serious problems arise and disputes and claims seem likely. Chances are you’ve seen the dance.
John P. Bachner

"Dance of the Goony Birds" is how an engineer I know describes the gyrations that project participants go through when serious problems arise and disputes and claims seem likely. Chances are you’ve seen the dance: Just about all project participants shake their heads in disbelief and despair, point their fingers at everyone else on the floor, and yell at the top of their voices, "It wasn’t me." Then, just to spice things up a bit, each brings in a lawyer and an expert who do the exact same thing, but at much higher hourly rates.

Face facts: Any project problem eventually tends to involve all or almost all project participants, so all project participants have a vested interest in preventing problems and addressing problems that arise while they are still molehills. Do not say, "But we do that," because I know for a fact you don’t. And you pay dearly for that deficit.

Here’s another fact: The leading cause of construction industry disputes is problems associated with engineered construction beneath the surface of the earth. Problems might include subsurface information that is inadequate for effective bidding, unanticipated conditions, delays, unpredicted settlement, floor-slab heaves and cracking, pavement failures, or retaining wall bulges and collapses. Consequently, all project participants—the owner, the prime design professional, other members of the design team, the contractor, and a number of subcontractors—have a vested interest in minimizing subsurface problems. Nevertheless, the following are some of the odd techniques used to demonstrate that vested interest:

  • Recommend opening the geoprofessional "competition" to all firms and individuals listed in the Yellow Pages.
  • Suggest that it’s a waste to pay those rates, because any firm can do a good job when someone suggests selecting a well-known geoprofessional firm based on competence and experience.
  • Take every available shortcut when the project is small or lacks complexity, even though countless case histories demonstrate that project risk is inversely proportional to project size and complexity.
  • Recognize that in every stage of the project’s geoprofessional aspects a dollar saved early on (by diluting quality) could easily grow to $1.10 in two or three years (i.e., only sissies go for the often huge, long-term cost savings derived by enhancing quality).
  • Base selection of the geoprofessional on the fee to be charged, knowing that this encourages all participants to propose the cheapest service they can live with. This eliminates from competition firms that know they cannot outbid firms that have no assets (and usually no worthwhile insurance) and so don’t worry about getting sued.
  • Limit the bidding only to firms that have insurance, not realizing that the policies they have in place at the time they submit their bids will not be the policies (if any) that will be in place when a problem occurs.
  • Do not engage in mutual service-scope development (it takes so long anyway). Instead, have each firm dream up its own scope to bid on, or have people who are not geoprofessionals (but who arrogantly believe they somehow know so much more than geoprofessionals) create a scope that "levels the playing field."
  • Cheapen the scope before implementing it to save a few bucks, or do not spend anything extra when conditions suggest that more exploration, testing, or analysis is needed.
  • Always ask geoprofessionals for a "value engineered" approach to avoid paying the higher cost of implementing better recommendations. (Remember to whine, "This is just way more than we thought it would be.")
  • Do not retain geoprofessionals to review others’ interpretation of the geoprofessional findings and recommendations because the others can get it right (their lack of geoprofessional competence and insurance company data notwithstanding). Besides, it’s just anther ploy that geoprofessionals use to charge more.
  • Do not retain the geoprofessional of record to be on site during excavation because, even though the geoprofessional knows more about the project’s subsurface conditions than anyone else, some other firm can do it cheaper (in part because their field representatives won’t waste time calling the geoprofessional of record when they are confused by what they see because the geoprofessional of record is a competitor).
  • Retain the cheapest firm available to do the construction materials engineering and testing (CoMET) because all firms claim to meet the same standards and to have the same quality of employees and equipment.
  • Don’t bother having the CoMET personnel on site full time. The contractors can be trusted to meet all the specs.
  • Don’t ask the geoprofessional to pre-qualify contractors. Bidding works great (even though in the recorded history of mankind the price bid has almost never been the price actually paid).
  • And no matter what, treat geoprofessionals like second-rate members of the design team. Better yet, don’t include them on the team at all because, after all, what do they know?


You’re in a position to use those odd techniques yourself—or to say nothing when you see others using them. But if you take that approach, be prepared to pay the piper. The Dance of the Goony Birds requires a really hefty cover charge.


John P. Bachner
is the executive vice president of ASFE, a not-for-profit association that provides programs, services, and materials to help geoprofessional, environmental, and civil engineering firms prosper through professionalism. Visit ASFE’s website at www.asfe.org.


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