Canadian Consulting Engineer

Engineers should be testing themselves

April 1, 2005
By Bronwen Parsons

The Ontario government's decision to force engineers to take government examinations to show their knowledge of the building code shows a lack of confidence in the professional licensing system. Evide...

The Ontario government’s decision to force engineers to take government examinations to show their knowledge of the building code shows a lack of confidence in the professional licensing system. Evidently the government was not satisfied with the quality of construction drawings and chose to take matters into its own hands. It has invited Professional Engineers Ontario to run a parallel system of examinations, but PEO has so far declined. Faced with the same situation, the Ontario Architects Association decided differently and chose to administer the examinations for its members.

What bothers John Gamble, P.Eng., president of Consulting Engineers of Ontario, most is that contractors have managed to be exempted from the insurance requirements of Bill 124 (see page 41). Gamble also has problems with the code testing, arguing that it is adding more red tape to the construction process.

But the big question we should be asking is, why did the government feel it necessary to impose this additional qualification to prove the building designer’s expertise? Is the standard of building plans and drawings really that bad?

Certainly there have been problems. As reported in this magazine in 2003 (January-February, page 24), the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, which is responsible for Bill 124, commissioned Trow Consulting to survey 21 municipalities. It found that 30%-70% of building plan applications submitted by professionals had to be redrawn by officials.

Just as problematic is the trend for engineers and architects to hand down more of the design detailing in their projects to subcontractors. Evidently the competitive pressure to lower fees is encouraging engineers to limit the scope of their involvement in design. What the no-frills approach leads to, however, is miscommunication and the serious possibility of error.

A recent article by Charles Herriot in the Ottawa Construction News was an eye-opener, indicating how deeply the problem can cut. He writes from the subcontractors’ point of view and describes a litany of omissions he has personally encountered. Here’s just an extract: “One of the interesting requirements of sub-contractors is that they are required to be psychic…. I have reviewed plans where the location of mechanical rooms has been located in three different places by the architect, the mechanical engineer and the electrical engineer. It appeared that all three professionals were working from a different version of the design drawings. I have seen plans where what should have been vertically aligned ducting wandered in location from floor to floor, and sometimes disappeared entirely from some of the intervening floors.”

I don’t believe that established consulting engineering firms are guilty of such slapdash work, but it seems there are companies out there who are working in a makeshift fashion and dragging the profession’s reputation down.

So I veer in a different direction from John Gamble on this issue. Testing professionals’ knowledge of the building code is not the best way to guarantee the quality of designers’ work, but it’s better than the status quo. The pity is that the program being imposed is an initiative of the provincial government, when as a self-governing profession, engineers could be testing themselves. Presently, the licensing body in Ontario controls poor design quality in reactive mode — after it receives a complaint. Perhaps that should change.


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