Construction equiv. to a financial audit?
July 12, 2006 5:29 AM   Subscribe

I've lost faith in the big dig, and I know I'm not alone. Is there a construction/engineering equivalent to a financial audit?

There is a long history here of cost overruns, bad concrete, leaky tunnels, and now falling 3 ton ceiling tiles. Yesterday was the last straw for a lot of folks and this is just about the only thing that would set things straight in my mind. I need to know we can trust what is there and that we will fix what we can't trust, from the traffic flow down to every bolt holding it together. I need to know someone, an unbiased observer, will look at it from that perspective rather than us just hoping what is there is okay. That it isn't seems clear.

Please, for the sake of everyone, let's keep the talk beyond the question at hand to a minimum. I'm hoping for a clear answer.
posted by jwells to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total)
Speculation here: I'm sure it could be done, but you'd need people from multiple specialties to focus on different aspects. An accountant for the budgeting, an engineer for the construction, a traffic expert for the projected flow, and so on.
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:37 AM on July 12, 2006

The primary construction contractor has already been cited for their assorted failures on this project, there's really nothing new to be learned -- the project was mismanaged and poorly executed. Unfortunately, that company appears to be on the verge of bankruptcy already and probably cannot do anything to recitfy the situation, even if the inevitable lawsuits find against them.

I rarely agree with Governor Blow-Dry, but he's right that a third party needs to determine the extent of the constructions faults and develop a repair plan. But I think the public will end up paying for that work on top of everything else.

I'm sure that does nothing to restore your faith, but my own opinion is that there's little reason to have it restored.
posted by briank at 5:42 AM on July 12, 2006

Best answer: A few months ago the spiral exit ramp on a local parking garage collapsed (Friday night, rush hour, no one was injured - tells you what the local economy is like). A different section of the ramp was undergoing reconstruction at the time, and the mayor issued a stop work order on the reconstruction and an independent structural analysis on the state of the ramp and the rest of the garage. The city retained an engineering firm to do the inspection, and it was determined that hidden stress and deterioration in the ramp was the cause. (You can read about the whole incident here).

So it can happen. I hope it does for you in Boston.
posted by Lucinda at 5:56 AM on July 12, 2006

IANACE, but whose brilliant idea was it to hold up tons of concrete ceiling slabs (essentially a suspended ceiling) with epoxy? Did they seriously think that it would hold? Why did they need 1 ton slabs of concrete as ceiling panels? There's nothing but air above them...
posted by Gungho at 6:09 AM on July 12, 2006

There's nothing but air above them...

The tunnels are underground, Gungho. That's why they're tunnels and not roads.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 6:28 AM on July 12, 2006

To be fair to Rochester's economy, it was the parking garage mostly used for the public library.
posted by joegester at 6:40 AM on July 12, 2006

The tunnels are underground, Gungho.

But the panels that fell down are a suspended ceiling NotMyselfRightNow - there is an air gap above them for services etc, and then the tunnel slab/roof above that.

I would imagine the state can set up any type of investigative tribunal they want. Don't know if they'd be biased though.
posted by jamesonandwater at 6:42 AM on July 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

either for natural causes (New Orleans) or human incompetence and greed (Boston), two major American cities are badly in need of a massive, well, no, monster amount of public works.

one word: WPA

expensive? yes. but it's not that the occupation in Iraq (or, for that matter, the West Bank) is cheap -- US taxpayers are already funding those very expensive (foreign) projects

a slight shift in priorities could do a lot of good
posted by matteo at 7:10 AM on July 12, 2006

I did hear that negligent homicide charges are being considered, presumably that would be against the ranking executives at the general contractor and the ranking engineers (if it turns out to be a design problem).

To *decide* that will indeed require something like an audit, but I suspect it will happen in court, under oath.

That is, the people will be paying for it.

I grew up in Mass. This pisses me off.

(Though, I suppose, not nearly as much as it would if I had to drive around in it...)
posted by baylink at 7:55 AM on July 12, 2006

You would need to hire an engineering company, preferably one with experience in this kind of analysis/auditing. Which is a bit of a problem because of the massive scale of the project. And I'd think you'd need a united front in order to force the city/state to allow access. Obviously you couldn't just have people wandering so permission would be required.

Gungho writes "but whose brilliant idea was it to hold up tons of concrete ceiling slabs (essentially a suspended ceiling) with epoxy? Did they seriously think that it would hold? Why did they need 1 ton slabs of concrete as ceiling panels? There's nothing but air above them..."

Epoxy is fine for cementing steel into concrete, it is routine and done _all_ the time. As for why have them in the first place the first possibility to come to mind is fire protection. And from the article : "The so-called drop ceiling design created a passageway above the road for air and exhaust to circulate." Air flow is always a problem in underground construction, sounds like the panels are being used as part of the design to ensure pollution levels in the tunnels don't become dangerous.
posted by Mitheral at 7:57 AM on July 12, 2006

Yeah, don't underestimate epoxy, they're not using the stuff you can buy at the hardware store. Epoxy is being used now (instead of, say, welding) in a lot of construction because it's easier, cheaper, stronger, and less dangerous to install.
posted by kindall at 8:11 AM on July 12, 2006

as Mitheral says, these tiles form a suspended ceiling used as an exhaust plenum - you can see a pic of their installation here, it's the last pic in the article. here's another pic. fresh air comes in at the road level, in the slits you see, and is exhausted through the ceiling. the panel design is an essential part of the fire management system of the tunnels as well. if these panels are consumed in the course of a fire the integrity of the fire management system is compromised, which is likely why they are made of tons of concrete.
posted by the painkiller at 8:29 AM on July 12, 2006

Best answer: I'm not sure about after the fact, but my wife is a recruiting manager for an international company which provides essentially this service - overall cost and feasibility analysis for major construction projects (factory/public transportation/oil drilling platform scale projects). Among their consultants the most common credential/expertise is in a field called quantity surveying. So I'd say, yes, such a thing does exist and there are professionals who specialize in just this sort of oversight. If it was decided to engage in some sort of major construction audit I'm sure that qualified people to carry out the work could be found.

But as I say, in the case of my wife's business I've only seen this as a role they are involved in throughout the project... and I'd think (though I guess when dealing with the gubmint, you never know...) there would have to be someone who has supposedly been carrying out this role in the case of a project as big as the Dig... somebody with a LOT to answer to from all I've been hearing.
posted by nanojath at 8:33 AM on July 12, 2006

By the way at somewhere between 100-150 lb/cu ft a ton of concrete ain't all that much volume. A slab one road lane wide (12') and 4" thick weighs 600lbs per lane foot(plus the mass of the steel).
posted by Mitheral at 8:40 AM on July 12, 2006

Best answer: Is there a construction/engineering equivalent to a financial audit?

I used to work with some a few guys who were independent engineers (or 'consulting engineers') for a number of government-owned projects. Every year they basically audited the condition and performance of the site and made recommendations about fixes or upgrades.
posted by milkrate at 8:42 AM on July 12, 2006

Best answer: You might look into the audit that stopped construction on the San Francisco Bay Bridge last year. It was focused on bad welds rather than cost overruns, but it could give you some idea who initiated it and who did the actual auditing. I heard the FBI or CIA (??) was part of it, as well as more mundane state agencies.
posted by salvia at 9:16 AM on July 12, 2006

Matteo: WPA? Why Not?
posted by SpecialK at 9:23 AM on July 12, 2006

"Quantity Surveying"!
posted by baylink at 9:34 AM on July 12, 2006

Best answer: Oops, read the link, you are concerned about bad construction. Here's one article about the Bay Bridge audit.
posted by salvia at 9:39 AM on July 12, 2006

I'm actually a quantity surveyor. Well known profession at home, but the explanations I have to go into to describe it over here . . . . .
posted by jamesonandwater at 11:05 AM on July 12, 2006

All sorts of audits are definitely in order. In today's news: More than 60 trouble spots found in Big Dig.
posted by ericb at 11:55 AM on July 12, 2006

"but whose brilliant idea was it to hold up tons of concrete ceiling slabs (essentially a suspended ceiling) with epoxy?

My understanding is that it was a tie-back steel rodthat gave way, causing the collapse of the panel to which it was attached.
posted by ericb at 11:58 AM on July 12, 2006

Ah -- according to this Boston Globe graphic : "Plates [were] attached to the ceiling with bolts anchored in epoxy" to which the "Steel hangers - tie-back rods" are attached. The investigation is focusing on the anchor bolts and the epoxy used to secure them in the concrete.
posted by ericb at 12:59 PM on July 12, 2006

Massachussetts' State Auditor, Joe DeNucci, has apparently been vigorously auditing the Big Dig for years.

I don't know if the State Auditor's office really is unbiased, but they're sure supposed to be.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:10 PM on July 12, 2006

Response by poster: Salvia's pointer to federal involvement for the Bay Bridge is exactly the sort of thing I was hoping to find out about. DOT somehow got involved and hired three independent people/firms to go in and have a look at things: Prof. John Fisher, Roy Teal Inc. (Metals Consultant), and Mayes Testing Engineers. I've sent some emails inquiring about how all of that happened, and I'll update this thread if I find out more. Those three sound like the sort of folks milkrate and nanojath mentioned. Lucinda too, led me to an article which said:

Mayor Robert J. Duffy today announced the City has retained the services of WJE (Wiss, Janey, Elstner) Engineers & Architects [link added by jwells], PC, a nationally recognized interdisciplinary firm specializing in structural and architectural investigations, material studies, repair design and testing of buildings to address the structural failure of the South Avenue Garage.

It'd be interesting to see if WJE has any competitors. Mass. could hire them, at an enormous cost of course, to have a look at things.

Learning of quantity surveyors was also helpful, but I'm unsure of how exactly they would fit into things after the construction, such as with the Big Dig. I think they would be on the PQS side but does the sponsoring client have to be the turnpike authority, or could it be a third party such as the government or a group of concerned citizens?

The base of the problem isn't the known problems it's the unknown ones. The project is so hugely complex and the oversight so hugely poor that there are likely to be more problems, and that is at the base of people's anxiety. Criminal charges and election year grandstanding aren't going to do much about the unknown problems without a thorough look at the materials and science as I described above. I don't think accounting books will necessarily reveal those things either, although they could certainly establish some directions to look in and recover some of the costs associated with the problems.

Thanks for your help everyone.
posted by jwells at 5:25 AM on July 13, 2006

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