Canadian Consulting Engineer

Engineering Canada’s Future

October 1, 2005
By Claude Paul Boivin, ACEC President

Every fall, ACEC's Chairman and President present a brief to the House of Commons Finance Committee. This year, Qualifications-Based Selection is one of the three recommendations they will make to the...

Every fall, ACEC’s Chairman and President present a brief to the House of Commons Finance Committee. This year, Qualifications-Based Selection is one of the three recommendations they will make to the committee that helps set the federal budget and fiscal policy. The following is an in-depth feature on QBS.

To ensure the quality, reliability and safety of Canada’s infrastructure, consulting engineers, who are involved in virtually all of its design, need to be chosen based on qualifications and not on low price bidding. While the more knowledgeable owners of buildings and infrastructure facilities understand the merits of Qualifications-Based Selection (QBS), there are others, most notably in the public sector, who believe that price should be the governing factor in selecting professional designers such as engineers. The fact that design costs represent only a small fraction of the cost of construction and operations, and that quality engineering will invariably result in a better end product, possibly at lower cost, seems of secondary importance to them. These owners are encouraging firms to marginalize their designs, sacrificing quality for what the owners believe is the benefit of their bottom lines. This misconceived notion of value can have many negative results for us all, including higher life cycle costs, unnecessary litigation, and projects that are simply lacking in imagination, aesthetics, performance, and ultimately unacceptable to the owners and the public.

You would not choose your surgeon this way

Just as you would choose your eye surgeon based on qualifications, expertise and professionalism, engineers, whose services have a direct impact on the health and safety of Canadians, should also be selected based on their knowledge, experience and proven performance rather than on price. Canada’s consulting engineers design highways and airports, potable water and wastewater treatment plants, energy systems, communications networks and secure buildings. Engineers’ responsibilities go beyond sound reliable design. Engineers routinely develop solutions that address the fundamental principles of sustainability and deliver environmentally friendly strategies, solutions that will survive the tests of time and meet Canada’s intermediate and long-term social and economic goals.

So to assure the most responsible delivery of our infrastructure to the public, the professional intellectual services and expertise engineers provide should not, and must not, be sought under a price based policy of procurement as one would procure everyday commodities like pencils and paper. Time has demonstrated that low price does not reflect high quality and sustainability, or in most instances even mediocre quality. Time has demonstrated that Qualifications-Based Selection (QBS), an approach used by the United States government as well as by astute private sector builders, will consistently deliver project quality and scope that will meet the owners’ objectives at mutually acceptable costs reflective of the long-term value expectations of the public.

QBS: designing for life

In building anything, it is vital to make the right decisions at the design stage. That is why it is essential for public as well as private sector owners to adopt a QBS system that works in ensuring that the right design team is chosen and that the appropriate technology is employed. Essentially, QBS places the emphasis on achieving the desired quality, sustainability and environmental integrity, which means getting the right design team, fostering innovation and generating long-term savings at the construction and life-cycle operations and maintenance stages. Under QBS, consulting services are procured based on a firm or engineering team’s successful prior performance, technical excellence, proposed approach to the project, personnel and resources committed to the project, applicable knowledge and expertise, and understanding of the client’s needs and long-term objectives. Clients and consultants work together to define clearly the project scope prior to beginning the building process. This partnering process ensures that the consultants have a clear idea of the client’s expectations so that their project approach reflects the client’s needs and available resources. Further, the project chartering inherent in the QBS process leads to fewer change orders, eliminating costly delays and ensuring that a client clearly understands the potential long-term operating and maintenance costs. Through this understanding, decisions can be made in the conceptual stages that will achieve long term net returns to the owner.

QBS means quality

While some advocates of price-based selection argue that all engineers are licensed and therefore by default equally qualified, what they do not recognize is that engineers have different specializations, skills and experience. Just as you would not choose a podiatrist to perform brain surgery, you would not ask a mining engineer to lead a team to develop the Canada Space Arm. Prudent decisions in the selection process will result in success or failure at the project completion. Further, introducing even a small price component to the selection process can affect a firm’s design and ability to provide competitively what may ultimately be the best long-term value to the project. No one wants to be disqualified from consideration because their firm proposes the most expensive design, even if it is the best design for the project and will result in long-term cost savings. By giving preferential consideration to lower-priced proposals, the client is effectively telling the engineering firm(s) that they are only willing to pay for the least-cost effort that will achieve their project objectives. Unfortunately, at the time of procurement the project objectives are conceptual at best, and the least-cost approach will compromise the innovative approaches that may ultimately yield the owner the best overall value. Any kind of price component encourages consultants to create a less costly design, and the client could lose out on the opportunity for innovative, cost-saving solutions for their projects. Price-based selection inherently drives low value selection.

QBS avoids false economies

Price-based selection may look like the best option for clients, and for governments in particular, who are trying to find the best value. However, that is merely a surface appearance — a false economy. Price-based selection is in fact a fallacy that can succeed only if the project does not pass beyond the design phase. Once the project proceeds to construction and commissioning, the longer term impacts of fundamental choices made during pre-design and design begin to bear down on the ultimate total value of the selection of the engineer. In fact, engineering fees are generally only 1-2% of the total life-cycle cost of a structure, yet this 1-2% spent on design will save a client on both the construction and maintenance costs that make up the remaining 98-99% of the life-cycle cost. What’s more, any savings incurred by selecting a lower cost engineering team is only a fraction of that percentage. For example, spending as little as possible on design could result in a basic, competent design that produces a bridge that lasts 25 years. Selecting the top engineering team **based on qualifications ** could result in a more sustainable design made with alternative materials that are more economical, and a bridge that will last well beyond the projected 25-year life span. QBS could save clients not only on construction and maintenance costs but also by extending the life of a structure. This makes QBS the best value for government, bringing quality and accountability.

Recommended and endorsed by experts worldwide

QBS is recommended by the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada (ACEC), the industry trade association, and the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers (CCPE), the national licensing bod
y, whose mandate is to protect the public interest. QBS is also supported by the International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC), the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC), the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the American Public Works Association, and the United States government, where the federal government has enshrined the principles of QBS in the Brooks Act and 44 state legislatures have adopted the principles.

As an association, ACEC was particularly delighted to learn that even Canada’s Public Works and Government Services Minister, the Honourable Scott Brison, has stressed the importance of getting the right design. At the launch of Environment Week 2005, the Minister spoke of the need to ensure that government buildings and facilities are designed to support green policies. The Minister said: “We have also begun to develop a life-cycle assessment system for major building projects. That will allow us to design innovative and energy efficient buildings even when it costs more up front.” Coming from such a senior key policy maker, those are indeed encouraging words.

Overall, it’s clear that QBS — selecting an engineering team based on qualifications — is the responsible choice and the best value.

ACEC member-organizations: Association des ingnieurs-conseils du Qubec, Consulting Engineers of Ontario, Nova Scotia Consulting Engineers Association, Consulting Engineers of British Columbia, Association of Consulting Engineers of Saskatchewan, Consulting Engineers of Alberta, Association of Consulting Engineers of Manitoba, Consulting Engineers of New Brunswick, Consulting Engineers of Yukon, Consulting Engineers of the Northwest Territories, Consulting Engineers of Newfoundland.


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