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Structural design is unlike architectural or services designs in that it has a large impact on safety and stability of the structure, whereas the latter mostly impact only the aesthetic and functional performance. It is therefore common practice to engage independent structural design engineers to peer review (also called proof check) structural designs.
Of late, there is a growing tendency, especially by the government departments and PSUs, to engage premier academic institutes to undertake such peer reviews. This is done regardless of the size and complexity of the structures. There are cases where the design of small buildings, box culverts, and minor bridges are peer-reviewed by premier academic institutes. This article takes a hard look at this practice and enquires whether this practice is in the best long-term interest of the industry as well as academia.
In order to analyse the situation, we should begin by identifying the key competencies that are required for the effective review of structural designs. To my mind, the following is a comprehensive list of the competencies and requirements:
Let us examine these competencies and compare practicing design Engineers with faculty in any academic institute.
Understanding structural concepts: Since the primary duty of academic institutes is to equip students with clear understanding of concepts, it is beyond doubt that the faculty members are masters / experts in this. If the institutes have been doing a good job, then we have no reason to doubt the practicing engineers on their competency. On the other hand, if the institutes have not done their job well, is it right for the industry to drag them into peer reviews and away from their prime responsibility?
Codal provisions: The test of any sound and safe design is compliance to all the requirements of the applicable code of practice. All practicing engineers in general, more so the design engineers, need to be aware of latest changes and revisions in the codes. There is no argument to support a point of view that the faculty in institutes are better aware of the changes in the codes than practicing engineers. At the same time, a better use of academic institutes will be to engage them in revisions of codal provisions and help usher in international best practices by making our codes of practices as close to the frontiers of research as possible. In any case, it is the responsibility of the owners (government departments) to provide the terms of reference for the designs; and the terms should include reference to applicable codes and their latest version.
Constructability: This is one area where, through their sheer experience and exposure to construction activities, practicing engineers are better trained. Constructability of designs greatly influences quality and durability of construction and deserves greater emphasis that it gets.
Judgment: Contrary to common belief, design Engineering is not an ‘exact science’ and designs are based on a number of assumptions. What actually happens in the field often belies many assumptions. A safe, robust and practical design needs to take into account such deviations. The design engineer (and the peer reviewer) has to often interpret codal provisions and theoretical constructs in this context. Once again, practicing engineers with greater exposure to field practices and problem solving seem to be better equipped.
Professional responsibility / liability: As stated earlier, structural design has significant influence on stability of structure and safety of users and society at large. It is therefore essential that the designers and peer reviewers are conscious of their professional responsibilities and are legally accountable in case of errors resulting in failures. I am not sure if a professor conducting peer review is legally liable. The institute itself is perhaps immune to the liability. This has ramifications about a key aspect discussed later.
Availability: Most if not all projects, are time bound and designs have to be delivered in time to avoid delays in construction and consequential cost escalation and disputes. The primary responsibility of educational institutes is teaching, which has its own strict ‘timetable’. When the two requirements are in conflict, it is natural for the faculty to give precedence to teaching and academic duties. This may not suit the project objectives.
Integrity: The integrity of any stakeholder, whether a practicing engineer, a contractor or a faculty member of an institute, stems from the overall ecosystem and the society to which they belong. There is thus no case to make in favour or against a set of professionals. However, integrity is, at least in part, influenced by a sense of accountability and legal liability. In case of doubtful liability, one may be more prone to transgress that line.
If the primary reason for engaging academic institutes for peer review is a perceived lack of knowledge/skill/availability/integrity of practicing engineers, we need to pause and re-assess the situation.
I leave it to the readers to form their own opinion whether we are using or misusing academic institutions by drawing them away from their core responsibilities.