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I think there is an interesting overlap between Paul's inquiry/complaint
about low quality in soils reports and the back and forth between Dennis,
Greg and others about structural fees.  My response to Paul would be that he
may be working with short sighted clients unwilling to pay for good soils
engineering.  I have practiced structural engineering in Southern California
for twenty years, and it is my opinion that soils reports like the ones Paul
describes are the product of fee based selection.

With no fee to spend on adequate site investigation, lab work, analysis and
report writing, the soils/geotechnical engineering firm is forced to produce
a reports which limits the owner's risk through conservatism.  When they can
command a higher fee, they do more site investigation, more lab work, more
analysis and more writing -- producing a report that may cost the owner two
or three times as much but which IN THE RIGHT CIRCUMSTANCES may more than
pay for itself by permitting more efficient structural design and reducing
construction cost.

Let's not come down on the soils engineers.  They are under the same
pressures we are.  The reality is that every project requires its owner to
decide whether he or she can afford higher quality design (more up front
cost) in the hopes of improving final product quality and/or reducing
construction cost.  Many will choose the bird in the hand and we as design
consultants must acknowlege that this is NOT always a bad decision.  To
return to Paul's issue (geotech), it is not obvious that potential cost
savings in a typical residence justify the cost of a comprehensive soils
investigation.  Thus the guy who cranks out the $1,500.00 code minimum
report may be providing a project appropriate service (i.e., good
engineering) and his competitor who offers a $10,000.00 full on geotechnical
report may not.

In my practice I am often involved with my client (owner or architect) in
pre-schematic design before a soils investigation is done, and thus commonly
have the luxury of participating in the process of selecting an appropriate
soils engineer.  Fees really do vary by factors of two or three, and while
the expensive guy may be the right choice for the big project where you
anticipate complex foundation problems and significant foundation costs, he
may be absolutely the wrong choice for the house a half a mile away.

In real life, essentially the same selection process applies to structural
engineers.  I guess this brings us back to Greg's comments, and the
importance of educating our clients, taking a team approach to delivering
project appropriate service.  It's not easy, but it's the only practical
approach to what we all do.

Drew Norman, S.E.
Drew A. Norman and Associates