Site inspections as well as meetings have gone virtual, and as we adjust to the technology’s demands, its benefits look set to continue
Site inspections are a part of daily life for architects. They enable them to get to the heart of the matter, either to undertake general reviews during construction, to establish existing conditions where refurbishment or alteration is being considered or to establish physical evidence when disputes arise, and the opinion of an expert witness is required. According to HKA’s 2020 CRUX Insight Report into the causes of construction project delays, projects where site access issues arise tend to be significantly larger than average, based on the 194-strong sample of UK projects assessed. In part this is because the design and construction complexity of larger projects requires regular site access by the architect to clarify issues as they arise. Notably, our research indicates that more than 70% of extension of time claims involve ‘access to site’ issues, some 9% ahead of other factors.
Given the criticality of site visits, what happens when everyone is required either to stay at home or to restrict their movements to avoid catching or spreading a potentially life-threatening virus? For example, how would decisions requiring inspection of a part of construction that will quickly be covered up by subsequent works, be made?
Where existing buildings are involved, much design information can be gleaned from the architect’s drawings and much about the construction from a good set of as built drawings. What is drawn, however, is not always what is built. Moreover, if the reality on site is critical to the understanding of issues that are either in dispute or central to correct construction, then an inspection of that reality may be necessary to underpin the credibility of the architect’s report, especially if a follow up inspection is being made of an area previously visited physically.
In addition, inspections often require the input of more than one attendee. Social distancing and travel restrictions which extend the time taken to get to site can make such visits doubly difficult.
Where the issue involves the construction rather than the layout of a building, for example, the fabric will need to be opened up to expose the components installed and the method and quality of the construction. Such areas are often difficult to access; on roofs or high up on external walls. Inspections here will require scaffold towers or access machinery, such as a cherry picker or a mobile elevating work platform (MEWP). These must be installed and operated by skilled operatives who will need to be on site at the same time as, and often at close quarters to, the inspecting architect.
Dismantling of construction will also require skilled operatives who will usually have to work closely with the architect during the process.
Physical site inspections were inevitably prevented when social contact was prohibited and restrictions on social contact continue to present severe difficulties. For example, if scaffolding wall climbers or a MEWP platform of at least 2m wide are not available, physical inspections on site may be impracticable. Given the impact of site inspections, the need to establish alternative means to conduct them is increasingly critical.
When working remotely from home became a necessity, video-calling and conferencing quickly became commonplace. Most people mastered the software and adapted quite easily to the more stilted environment of the virtual meeting room. As social contact rules eased, the question arose of how to use or adapt this by now familiar technology to carry out virtual site inspections.
Some professional film production companies began to develop and market interactive platforms using YouTube alongside other messaging software. While many of these offer good quality visuals, they require preparation and the use of multiple software applications which are not always user friendly.
Additionally, detailed and time-consuming directions may be needed if those operating the interactive platform do not have experience of site investigations.
Alternatively, established applications designed for video conferencing, such as Teams, Zoom, Blue Jean and others, offer acceptable visuals alongside easy and effective real time communications. This ease of communication, using everyday smartphones or tablets, is of real benefit for an inspecting architect to direct the operative in response to what the opening up work reveals.
Virtual site visits using these applications can be very effective in helping the architect to form an opinion. As well as providing a vivid visual and oral record of the whole procedure and exposed result, such software can allow other colleagues to join from multiple separate locations concurrently, reducing the need for other participants on site.
As physical inspections on site become a possibility again, safety with respect to the virus will remain paramount. Key elements to be incorporated into the risk assessments and protocols prepared by the architect or expert include: the age and underlying health conditions of staff; the availability and quality of Personal Protective Equipment; training in the effective use of PPE; and whether the site can be reached without using public transport. And an effective risk assessment and method statement by the contractor, to ensure appropriate conditions on the work site, will be an essential pre-condition for any physical site inspection.
Nevertheless, the virtual site inspection has proved to be a valuable child of necessity. Its practical effectiveness, combined with its cost-effectiveness in eliminating the need to travel to and from far flung sites, is likely to earn this new sibling of the physical site inspection a permanent place in the architect’s family of assessment techniques.
Bart Kavanagh is a technical director at Probyn Miers | HKA, a chartered architect and a barrister (non-practising)