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How to Conduct a Geotechnical Peer Review: Guidelines for Professional Engineers

Have you been asked by your client to review your competitor’s report? It is an honor to conduct a geotechnical peer review and can be a critical step forward, or backward, in becoming the consultant of choice for your clients. This is a critical client touch moment, and as such it’s important to approach a peer review with the right mindset before proceeding.

So You’ve Been Asked to Conduct a Geotechnical Peer Review

Imagine that today you enter the office and your favorite client calls you to discuss a geotechnical report prepared by your competitor. They have some questions and would like a second opinion. The cost of a geotechnical study can be a small fraction of the design cost, but can have a profound effect on the project budget. Helping out a prospective client with a peer review can be a vital first step toward increasing trust and strengthening a relationship with a good client. To create competency you must display integrity and demonstrate that your intent is to truly assist your client, not just “to look good”. Performing a peer review may or may not result in an immediate payoff, but can ultimately provide a pathway to future work.

“Performing a peer review may or may not result in an immediate payoff, but can ultimately provide a pathway to future work.”

Before proceeding, you may want to ask yourself some initial questions:

  1. Do I wish to get involved in this project?
  2. Is this project/geology within my realm of experience?
  3. Additionally, is there a conflict of interest? Do you have an existing relationship with the owner or others on the design team for this project that may create a negative impact?
  4. Are there legal issues or litigation currently involved with the project? These are crucial questions that you must answer prior to moving forward.

 

Throw Away Your Preconceived Notions

So your client tells you they suspect a competitor’s report is poorly written, overly conservative and that the geotechnical engineer of record does not understand the conditions or the market. Maybe you have had similar encounters. Clients may sometimes suggest hiring you to provide a new study, and the individual you speak with may even try to leverage you into providing “value engineering”.

Your honesty, self-worth, and professionalism are all tied to how you conduct a peer review, which is why it’s so important to take a step back and clear your mind. Rush decisions based on preconceived ideas can cloud your better judgment. Remember that your intent is to assist your client in finding a solution that matches their project. Your intent should never be to simply look good or to throw stones at a competitor. Would you wish others rush to a conclusion about you and your firm? Conducting yourself in a professional way will create an atmosphere of respect between yourself, your peers and your client.

“Your honesty, self-worth, and professionalism are all tied to how you conduct a peer review…”

It is highly likely that the format of a competitor firm’s report will differ from the format your firm uses. Be open to the report presentation. Your competitors’ report may provide new ideas. If you keep an open mind as you perform an initial review, you may learn something new, whether it be additional design options or, better yet, an improved way of presenting recommendations. Many times “poor recommendations” can be the result of the information gathering process or lack thereof. It is crucial that all pertinent information be obtained prior to and during a study. An engineer may not request this information or the information may simply not be provided or available. In addition, there may be changes to the project that are not made known to the geotechnical engineer of record.

“If you keep an open mind as you perform an initial review, you may learn something new, whether it be additional design options or, better yet, an improved way of presenting recommendations.”

Provide yourself with a reasonable schedule and avoid unattainable deadlines. Given that the engineering has been done and the design is now about ready to go to construction, it is likely the owner is in a rush. Make sure to give a geotechnical peer review the time it deserves. Don’t agree to a timeframe that doesn’t allow you to give the review the sufficient focus and attention it deserves. A large amount of money and the success or failure of a project could be at stake. Avoid making promises to try and create an immediate return for your opinions nor ask for such. Stick to the facts – it will be to your advantage in the long run.

Should I Inform My Peer that I am Performing a Review of Their Study?

I have several clients in San Antonio and throughout the state of Texas that routinely call with questions or to simply discuss another firm’s study or approach. When is it my duty to inform my counterpart at this other firm? Routine reviews to help your client interpret a report may not require you to notify the engineer of record. Once again, it is a matter of being respectful to your peers. If you are contracted to provide a formal review with a detailed commentary and to verify design calculations provided by another firm, you may be obligated by law to notify the engineer of record. Most licensing agencies have guidelines and rules on when it is appropriate to notify the other party.

How Do I Conduct a Geotechnical Peer Review in a Respectable, Professional Way?

There are a few basic, but important steps to remember as you conduct a geotechnical peer review.

  1. Look at the report outline, if provided (similar to performing an internal report review).
  2. Evaluate whether the report is locally applicable. Is the report:
    • developed by a licensed engineer in the state;
    • consistent with local geologic conditions;
    • using locally accepted design methods and practices, and lastly;
    • are the recommendations developed using local techniques?
  3. Investigate whether cost-effective design options are provided.
  4. Confirm the design options are consistent with the soil conditions.
  5. Determine whether the recommendations are clear and precise, and if multiple options are presented, are the cost/performance benefits of each option well defined?

Your approach to conducting a geotechnical peer review can show your client your character and competence, the key elements of building trust. Your performance can make you a recognized authority in your area and help differentiate you from your peers. Always implement your peer review with integrity, dignity, and the utmost respect for your fellow professionals in the field.

John Styron, PE, LEED AP Associate Principal / Business Unit Manager

P: 210.857.9377