In the construction industry, there are many roles and responsibilities for firms and individuals to perform. These range from structural and architectural design of the project, geotechnical investigations of subsurface conditions, to actual construction of projects. One of the roles rarely considered in construction is that of materials testing and special inspections during construction.
This role is often pushed down to the lowest bidder and not to those with the right skillset and qualifications. Why is this of any real consequence during construction? Isn’t it just one more person who spends his or her day and other people’s money watching people work? This could not be farther from the truth. The inspector’s role is to verify that what is being constructed is, in fact, what the architect, structural engineer, geotechnical engineer, and the owner requested in their plans and specifications.
Is it really a big deal? One person checks a box and says, “Yep, that wall is there.” If that were really the case, they would have gone extinct long ago, like draftsmen and field engineers. Their real job is to sample or review the concrete, steel, soils, and rock and make sure it meets the guidelines. Many will argue that there are standards and procedures to perform these tests and that, given the right equipment, virtually anyone can do it.
Consequently, factors always left out of commodity-driven materials testing are experience and qualifications. What difference does it make? I would argue that if a weld on a column fails due to inadequate inspections and people are injured or killed, what difference is the hourly rate of the best people you can hire compared with the loss of life and limb, not to mention the loss of revenue, lawsuits, and bad press?
Typically, testing and inspection account for less than 1.0 percent of the total construction cost. Ironically, virtually everything else on a construction site is more costly, and more valued, than the testing and inspection services. More money is often spent on portable toilets, dumpsters, and debris haul-off than is spent on inspection services.
What is a professional inspector? More importantly, why should an engineer, architect, or owner want one on site during all construction activities? The short answer is that the professional inspector is there to represent the firm that hires them and what is in that firm’s best interest. They are there to watch the construction activities and to observe the contractor’s actions. Their sole purpose onsite is to document what is happening and to alert their client if, or when, things deviate from the approved design or specifications. They are their client’s eyes and ears onsite.
So, who are professional inspectors working for on a project? If the owner delegates this critical responsibility to the contractor or to a construction management firm, the inspectors represent them, not the owner. They are contractually obligated to perform the scope of work set by the firm that hired them. They are often restricted to that scope. In others words, they only show up when their client tells them to show up.
If professionals are vital to the overall construction effort, what is a professional inspector? A professional inspector is often hard to define. Everyone thinks about professionalism a little differently. Like most other true professionals, you know one when you see one. While practicing lawyers, doctors, dentists, and engineers may have professional licenses, they are not necessarily “true professionals.”
It has been said many times that the doctor or lawyer who was last in his class has a waiting room filled with clients. Where do you place your faith – in licenses or performance? Professionalism does not come from a document. It comes from a balance of experience, education, and integrity.
So, what should you look for in a professional inspector? After decades of working with lots of inspectors, there are many things that stand out about the true professional inspector. The following characteristics are key in identifying them:
- personal presentation,
- aptitude and attitude,
- equipped to work,
- excellent communication,
- excellent writing, and
- stealth leadership.
A professional always arrives onsite, or to the office, looking organized and prepared for their duties. They arrive in the proper attire (hard hat, safety boots, gloves, safety glasses, safety vests, etc.) to execute the assignment. Most of all, they conduct themselves with an attitude of quiet confidence and reliability. Clients and contractors can tell when an inspector appears to be out of his or her league or worse, knows everything.
A professional checks his or her knowledge and attitude on a continuing basis. They should always think to themselves, “Am I fully qualified for this inspection?” and, “Am I in the right frame of mind to execute this effort safely and efficiently?” The true professional always checks their attitude before proceeding forward. A lack of attention and focus can kill an inspector just as easily as anger or rage. Additionally, a professional is never afraid or embarrassed to ask questions. You cannot gain knowledge if you are not willing to admit you do not know something.
A professional always arrives on time and ready to perform the duties they were assigned. They have the right field equipment, supplies, tools, and the appropriate testing standards (ASTM, ACI, AASHTO, etc.). They coordinate with the contractor or client representative to make the most effective plan for testing and observation of that day’s effort.
A “premiere professional inspector” has the innate quality of leading by example. They go through their day in an effective and productive way. A professional is always eager to train younger inspectors. They feel it is their responsibility to educate junior staff. Coincidentally, junior staff will have a tendency to gravitate toward these professionals. They are eager to learn and often feel more comfortable asking a peer questions instead of their manager. These senior people are “stealth leaders” who most likely do not even see themselves as leaders, but you should.
We all have different ideas of what a true professional inspector might be. The easiest way to identify true professionals is to ask one pivotal question: Which inspectors or technicians would you want to show up on the very first day of your most important project with a brand new client that you have been working years to team with? Those people are your true professionals!
Jaye Richardson is a senior project manager with Ninyo & Moore (ninyoandmoore.com) in Phoenix. He has more than 20 years of experience in construction materials testing and inspection. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.