What is the best way for a construction observer to train? Learning from a professional on site may be ideal, but other good sources of information include public agencies and the documentation they make available.
Columnist David A. Todd, P.E., CPESC, has 37 years of experience in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry and has performed much construction administration during that time. He will answer questions from our readers or from his own practice and will provide answers based on his understanding of the construction process.
Due to a recent increase in projects under construction, I have hired several construction observers who are very green. I also have limited sitework experience, due to the way my career path went, and so don’t feel confident to train them. What can I do to train these observers? Is there a canned observer/inspector training program I can buy or send them to?
One of several such resources is a certification program held several times a year by the American Public Works Association (APWA). I’ve never taken it, but the APWA website describes it as "advancing the knowledge and practice of construction inspection to benefit the community and public agencies." Some overlap may exist between the inspection of public infrastructure and the inspection you need at your construction sites. Additionally, the American Society of Civil Engineers also has seminars and continuing education courses available that may meet your needs. In addition, many private companies offer training.
Another thing you can do is to look for a more experienced person to supervise these young observers, if you have the budget for such a hire and can find experienced candidates in your area.
Putting all that aside, the way I learned construction observation was just by doing it. Back in 1979, I was thrown onto a job as a part-time construction engineer and had to learn on the fly. The company had produced internal memos regarding employee conduct on site, but these documents fell far short of a full training course. I made some mistakes, and once one of the really experienced workers in the office came out to correct one of them, but overall it worked out pretty well. Of course, to do this one has to be a fairly quick study… but I believe anyone can be if required.
You might wonder what textbook I recommend for self-directed education. I didn’t go out and sink hundreds of dollars into a couple of textbooks or reference books. Instead I used the Engineers Joint Contract Documents Committee (EJCDC) General Conditions of the Construction Contract. I find that this document answered most questions related to construction observation. The EJCDC is not the only game in town. The AIA Contract Documents are just as good, although EJCDC might be better for a unit price contract, as we often have in engineering.
What you can do is go through the General Conditions paragraph by paragraph and study them. Start with the one on limitations on the engineer’s role at the site, including the limitations on the role of the resident construction observer. Go over and over this until you know it well. Then read the paragraph on the contractor's responsibilities. It’s a lot longer than the engineer’s, but it’s well worth the read. Then proceed to just about any place in the document and study it. Having a more experienced person to guide you would be better, of course, but you’ll find that much can be learned simply by studying this document, which defines how the construction project will proceed. It will also help those back in the office learn how to manage the observers and administer the construction contract.
Now, I’m not against textbooks and training classes. If you can find a good one of either, by all means use it. However, many people don’t realize the resources at their fingertips or consider self-directed study. The wisdom that went into the creation and updating of these documents is amazing (the same applies to their AIA equivalents). They function as training documents without having been intended as such.
A senior engineer and corporate trainer of engineering for CEI Engineering Associates, Inc. David has 36 years of experience as a consulting civil engineer. His experience includes water, wastewater, stormwater, roads, and solid waste infrastructure. For much of the last 20 years he has been involved with stormwater issues. Specifications and construction administration have been a specialty of his within civil consulting engineering . He has BS and MS degrees in Civil Engineering, is a registered engineer in four states, and a Certified Professional in Erosion and Sediment Control.