Conducting site visits isn’t always part of the process for design consultants – some firms prefer to be almost entirely office-based. At Whitfield Consulting Services (WCS), the opposite is true. We believe there are significant advantages associated with our designers attending site when involved in a project, wherever possible and as early as possible.
Munraj Singh Sembhi, Senior Engineer at WCS, comes from a construction background and has seen the benefits of on-site attendance first-hand, from both sides of the fence – previously as contractor and now as a designer. He believes that by attending site, the design process can be streamlined, providing a better understanding of the brief so he can deliver a better service to our clients. It’s the extra 20% that really makes the difference, and it’s this crucial percentage which comes from site visits.
Here, Munraj shares his thoughts on the positive impact site visits can have not only on design, but throughout the whole construction process.
Providing context, identifying constraints
For me, it’s second nature being on site. Given my background, I assumed when I started my role at WCS that this was the norm for all design consultants but, we’ve heard from clients that this isn’t the case. I’m surprised by this, as it’s such a valuable exercise for me – I always find that visiting sites contributes hugely to the successful design outcomes on our projects. Luckily, it’s something that is encouraged company-wide at WCS.
Yes, the design process can often be carried out from only a brief, surveys, and some site images, with a solution based on first principles. Pictures paint a thousand words but, being present on site from the early stages of a project embeds the realistic constraints of a project into our design process. It allows us to see the project from the eyes of the client and experience what they can see and the factors they need to consider to make design into reality.
It could simply be that there are obstructions or features on the site which haven’t been detailed in the brief. Earthworks alongside a rail track, for example. Or we might notice a strip of new tarmac in amongst old, which perhaps indicates some recent underground utilities works. This is really useful insight which we might not get from a brief, and often requires further investigation. Looking at the physical landscape gives us the understanding of what we’re trying to achieve for the client. You can place yourself there, and it provides constructive context.
Most of the projects I work on involve designing electrification cable routes. If I did this solely from the comfort of my desk, it would be easy to just see the cable route as a line on a drawing. But they aren’t just lines on a drawing. Someone is going to have to dig a wide trench in order to install the cable, so it’s important to understand the terrain and also how it interfaces with other assets. I ask myself, how can I design out complications and make the construction process better. I believe this is what we are here to do, and take great pride too.
The benefits of attending site
It’s not always the case, but sometimes being on the ground highlights a completely different approach to the design. For example, recently we provided the civil engineering design for two of the HV circuits that will transmit power to HS2 at Old Oak Common.
To power this part of HS2, UK Power Networks is supplying 45 MVA of electrical power. New systems were required to transmit this power from the National Grid substation site at Willesden to the newly-built HS2 Atlas Road Substation.
The route of the cabling means passing through and under Network Rail infrastructure, and also across the Grand Union Canal via a bridge. When we were conducting site visits, we identified an area where we could enter the ground from the bridge, which we wouldn’t otherwise have located. This discovery changed our initial thinking around the most appropriate solution.
Even when site visits don’t radically alter what we thought the solution would be, based on the brief, there are many other benefits.
It certainly helps to de-risk projects by minimising assumptions. Any data we’re provided is only as good as the person who recorded it. Being on site allows us to verify measurements and also pick up on things which may not have been within the scope of the surveys, so we know our designs are accurate. We’re almost another pair of eyes and ears for our clients.
As engineers and designers, this is our obligation. Our role is to think about what the client may not have considered or have knowledge of, and to plug that potential gap.
It’s not necessarily just about making sure our calculations and drawings are fit for purpose either. Another important reason for attending site is to build relationships with our clients, and gaining understanding around how specific site teams operate and being empathetic to the challenges they face certainly helps with this. We’re not just a design consultancy, for us it’s about understanding the complete needs of our clients and the projects they’re responsible for delivering.
Building strong relationships also makes for a more collaborative project. We obviously don’t lean on clients during the design process – that’s our job – but if we have a relationship, we know we can have frank conversations and ask questions, which ultimately leads to a better end result.
Reporting follows reconnaissance
As well as being one of the few consultancies which so highly values the conducting of site visits, clients have also told us that our post-site visit reports are quite unique and are very much appreciated.
Capturing our learnings and providing a detailed report helps to build a picture of the situation for the client, and it also helps to gain their trust in us as a partner. If we can provide them with information which demonstrates that we have fully understood their requirements and brief, it builds confidence in our ability to deliver and helps to refine elements of the brief at this early stage, rather than later in the process which could impact cost and programme.
Giving clients a report at the end of the site work also means they have a record of when and why decisions have been made.
As an engineer and a designer, understanding the constraints of each project is where it gets interesting. I like to problem solve, and I take great pride in providing practical solutions for clients. I feel I do this best if I know their project and site inside out.
I think it’s important for designers to recognise that the design office isn’t separate to the site. It’s all part of one big process. This realisation changes the way you think about a design brief, and I believe it’s this ethos that really adds value for WCS clients.