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The Superintendence of Contracts

By Mr. J. Monash C.E.
Read before the Engineering Students' Society, University of Melbourne, 22nd August, 1890.

Monash was 25 years old when he delivered this paper. Since April 1898 he had been senior site engineer for the contractors Graham & Wadick, building the Outer Circle Line in Melbourne's eastern suburbs.In 1911, Monash recalled the paper in a conversation with Professor Payne of the University of Melbourne, and next day lent the Professor his only copy. "In perusing it, I beg your utmost indulgence, on the ground that this paper was written over 20 years ago, just when I was at the beginning of my professional career, in fact, before I had finally completed my University course."

To be placed for the first time in a serious atmosphere of responsibility, under a set of entirely new conditions, is an anxious experience for a beginner. The painful sense of his own deficiencies, the lack of experience, the ignorance of petty though important details which confront a young engineer, placed for the first time in actual charge of works, the oppressive consciousness that a mistake or a mere error of judgement will certainly result in loss to those whose interests he is paid to protect, and which, to a sensitive man, is the source of much mental uneasiness, and, still further, the realisation that the hard, unphilosophical, unromantic business world is perhaps not quite what he imagined it to be - all these things tend to make the existence of a beginner anything but an easy one, until the time arrives when he begins to feel the ground firm under his feet, and he has shaken himself comfortably into the harness which he has taken to wear. I apprehend, therefore, that any hint and any suggestions which I can put forward which would tend to ameliorate the unhappy position in which some of my audience might some day be placed may prove of a little interest to you.

It must not be imagined that I am to any extent overdrawing the nature of the difficulties which beset a beginner. They are a common experience, and vary only in intensity in each individual case. A man filled to the brim with moments of inertia, safe-working stresses, and rules of perspective will find more difficulty than he anticipates when he sits down to write his first official letter on an important subject. He may be ever so well versed in the details of mechanical processes, yet he would hesitate when it becomes his duty to decide between alternative methods for special cases. It is well, therefore, to be impressed at the outset with the reflection that a university training is not intended to, and never can, supply such deficiencies, and that in the end only years of experience can enable a superintending engineer to approach infallibility.

You will notice from one or two of the preceding phrases that I am referring more particularly to the scope of functions of a contractor's engineer. I have chosen this special phase of professional service because it happens to come more within my own experience, and because, also, those qualities which make an 'engineer in charge of works' valuable from a contractor's standpoint, are those very ones which fit a man to be an expert in this branch of the profession in the interests of whomsoever he is acting. At the outset I should like to say a few words as to what is the proper scope and what are the proper functions of a contractor's engineer. Let us suppose that one of you is engaged by a successful tenderer for a public contract to 'take charge', as it is broadly called. What, then, are to be your principal duties and functions ? It is as important to settle this before you commence work as it is to proportion a structure to its load. Sometimes you are engaged to perform specific duties only, such as taking out quantities of material, or setting out works or measuring up, and so on, and in these cases the limit is clearly defined; yet, if there is no such limitation the additional burden of work which falls on the shoulders of a superintending engineer is greater and more varied than might be supposed.

Let me lay down at once the principle which I wish to assert, viz., that if a man is engaged in the way I have supposed, to take charge without limitations, if he wishes to make his work a credit to himself he must insist at the outset that, hand-in-hand, with absolute responsibility, he must have absolute administrative control. This is a point seldom readily conceded, especially if it be known that it is his 'first job'. I would warn you against any arrangement which this administration be left wholely or partly to an outdoor manager not directly responsible to you. Of course, in works of even limited dimensions, such an outdoor manager is an indispensable functionary but he must always be and only be regarded as the expert adviser of the engineer-in-charge and in any conflict of opinion, the final authority of the engineer must be fully recognised. The dangers and difficulties of a divided control are sufficiently obvious not to need further emphasis, for the result cannot be otherwise than ruinous. It is safe to assert that the engineer, by reason of his theoretical training, however limited his experience, by his wide range of general education, by his intimate knowledge of and touch with the plans, specifications and office books, and by his more highly trained intelligence is the best individual of the superintending staff to he vested with this supreme authority. If he be wise and judicious he will in the early stages of his career have sufficient tact and diplomacy to allow himself to be guided by expert foremen, without any sacrifice of dignity or loss of prestige. Under no circumstances should he, as to his methods and dealings, be under the direct orders of any other person. However tempting it may be to allow the responsibility to be temporarily borne by others, the engineer must never forget that he is the first person to place foot on the site to be operated on, and he will be the last person to leave it after the final certificate has been signed, and that the disgrace of a mismanaged contract will be carried off by him and by him alone.

The first business to be taken in hand by a contractor, and one in which be will do well to consult his engineer, is to organise an efficient office staff. The principle of a judicious division of labour must be here introduced, the functions of each member of the staff being defined as clearly as circumstances will permit. If a definite chain of responsibility, and precise channels for every business process be fixed at the outset and adhered to throughout, a great saving of time can be effected, and much friction and bitterness avoided. A mistake can be quickly traced, and its recurrence guarded against. It is as great a mistake to overwork any one man as it is to have two men to do the work of one. Generally, however, except in works of great magnitude, or extending over a considerable length, such as a long railway line, several analogous duties might advantageously be performed by one individual. This can be readily understood from a brief enumeration of the chief duties that have to be performed.

The Engineer-in-charge, who performs all the strictly professional work of setting out, preparation of working plans, where such are not supplied, taking out quantities of material to be ordered, designing of temporary structures and stagings, purchase of plant and machinery and its disposal, all dealings with subcontractors, making up periodical certificates of work done, etc., in all of which he is aided by as many assistant-engineers as may be necessary, and who, further, has supreme responsible control, and is the official representative of the contractor upon all occasions.

The Accountant and his staff of clerks, who carry on all correspondence, except such as comes in the special scope of the engineer, keep the office-books and all the accounts, and transact all the non-professional office work.

The Paymaster and Timekeeper, with their staff, whose functions are implied in their title.

The Storekeeper and his staff, who have charge of all plant, tools and working requisites, and of the whole of the materials of the contract, who are responsible for their safe-keeping and, above all, for their proper distribution in such quantities and to such points as the engineer may order.

The Out-door Manager, who is the mouth-piece of the engineer-in-charge, whose duties are to see-that all orders are faithfully carried out, who is responsible for the efficiency of all tradesmen and labourers employed, their engagement and dismissal, who must, in short, act in complete concert with the engineer, and supplement his general directions with detailed instructions to the various foremen and gangers, suggested by the expert knowledge of building operations which he is presumed. to possess. By the same principle already mentioned, the manager's authority over all who are under his orders must at all times be upheld. How much firmness in this direction is necessary can only be appreciated by those who have had only a few years' experience of the disastrous results which ensue from the petty jealousies, personal weaknesses, and self-interestedness of the incongruous molecules of humanity that are found cast together on large public works.

Lastly, we have the various foremen of gangs, the non-commissioned officers of trade and labour, and such addenda as messengers, grooms, and watchmen, whose wages would be rightly charged to the cost of supervision. It will, of course, as I have already pointed out, be at once apparent that, according to circumstances, two or more of the duties enumerated can be performed by one man, and that some can often be entirely dispensed with. An applicant for any post who has had previous experience is, of course, to be preferred to one who must be taught his work, for there seems to he a kind of special knack in the business of contracting not elsewhere found, and a new hand feels himself out of place when he perceives that the slang and parlance of the building fraternalia are to him a foreign dialect. Whatever the number and ability of his staff, the chief must endeavour to infuse into each and all the practice of that routine and system which I shall presently refer to, and which is the lubricant that helps all to work smoothly together. While system is to be commended, anything approaching to red tape must be equally condemned, and the safeguard is to have just as many office-hands that each can do only his own work, and do it well. The cost of supervision is an appreciable item in the dead work of a contract, and must be allowed for both in tendering and in ascertaining the actual cost of any completed portion of the work. It should never exceed 2½ per cent, and, with economy, might fall far below that proportion. In estimating cost of supervision, in addition to salaries of staff, the rent for offices, office furniture and requisites, insurance of plant, etc., would of course he considered also.

It now becomes necessary to consider the superintending engineer's duties more closely. His life is not always a happy one; his shoulders have to be broad indeed to bear the burden of all the blame that is heaped upon him. He is the convenient butt of everybody's displeasure. He has to fight his way to justify every act, and he has to fight doubly hard if he be presumptuous enough to hold up an original idea, or a new fangled implement, or a novel expedient to the scorn of all who have lived and thriven and grown old without them. The inspectors haunt him like a nightmare. It is their especial delight to break in upon him just when he is most worried with some unpleasant emergency, to politely point out that some bridge or culvert five miles away is being built upside down. Never reckon without your inspector. Be ever so straightforward in a proposed course, your friend the inspector will surely see the pockets of the taxpayers threatened, and will denounce your plans if he can. I have not yet discovered the rule by which you can calculate the velocity of a false report, or the rate of acceleration of its increase of volume. I can only say this, that your belief in human veracity and human credulity increase in inverse ratio. The most trifling occurrences are magnified, and the news generally reaches the boss last of all; anxiously hastening to the spot he seldom finds more to annoy him than a wasted journey, for which the occasionally ludicrous dénouement does not console him.

Such experiences must simply be lived down bravely, until one becomes case-hardened. It is impossible to stamp out this sort of thing; yet more serious and annoying are the conflicts which sometimes occur between an engineer and an ignorant employer on a question of policy; but it is a good rule to hold that it is part of one's duty to protect an employer against himself. To do this with success sometimes requires the utmost tact. It being the unhappy experience of the engineer that he is held personally answerable for every trifle that goes wrong, and though it might involve much loss of dignity for him to be continually justifying himself, yet he should always be prepared to do so; and this brings me directly to tender the advice that a careful and well considered system in all his dealings will bring their own reward, both in that a great saving of time can be effected, and in that a correct history of every transaction will be preserved. At the risk of your regarding as trivial the details of such system to which I may refer, I will enumerate briefly a few routine habits which, to my mind, mark the careful man of business. Diary keeping is important enough to be called one of the functions of an engineer. One soon learns what the nature of the entries must be, more particularly the starting or completion of any portion of the works, the recording of any incident which might in any way become involved in a subsequent enquiry, law-suit, or arbitration case, and in general the noting of all circumstances of which no record can be readily found in any of the regular books and papers. Thus, for instance, it is not necessary to note the receipt or issue of important letters or instructions, because those papers, preserved in their proper place, will be satisfactory evidence in themselves. But the effect of important conversations, of which there exists no other record, should be entered at the close of each day, with such fidelity that the diary can be relied on years afterwards to furnish a truthful account of them.

Hand-in-hand with the keeping of a diary is the useful practice of dating every paper that passes through his hands,: whether it be a note of instruction to a subordinate, or a sketch, or a calculation of any kind. It will be found as a work proceeds that questions of date are continually cropping up, and the practice of dating all his papers forms a useful supplement to an engineer's diary. No circumstance should be regarded as too trivial to be noted in its proper place, and a systematic set of evidence will be found to be a most powerful weapon against all with whom he comes into conflict. When a dispute arises, the production of documentary evidence positively admits of no reply, and people will soon gain a respectful fear of a man who can always strengthen and assert his position in this way.

The Letter Copy Press Book is still another expedient in the same direction. It may seem a cumbersome rule to lay down, that of every paper which bears his signature a copy must be kept, but is dangerous to incur the risk of being confronted with one's own letter, the contents of which are only dimly remembered, or, perhaps, its existence entirely forgotten. The slip-shod habit of saving the few seconds that it requires to press a copy of a letter will certainly be regretted before many days have passed. Whenever important instructions are issued, they should be given in writing, and if the exigencies of the moment compel the engineer to issue his instructions verbally, they should always afterwards be repeated in writing. Take any ordinary case to illustrate how one's hands are strengthened by this process. The cut-off level of a pile being given as so many feet above or below an indicated mark - an error in the mark due to the carelessness of the carpenter can be sheeted home to him at once by the possession of a pressed copy of the instructions placed in his hands. The level book in itself does not conclusively exonerate the man who gave the levels, but the production of his written orders, which have been neglected, does so beyond any further doubt. The necessity of this power to exonerate oneself from accusations of error is ever present, as I have already warned you that it is customary to throw the blame of every such occurrence on the shoulders of the engineer. The letter-book should, for ease of reference, be periodically indexed, and if there be several addresses to whom during the continuance of the contract several hundred letters may have to be sent, it will be found useful to keep a separate catalogue of them with a brief précis of the subject dealt with, compressed into as few words as possible, thus: Date, contents; page of letter-book. Such a catalogue of letters outwards will afford a quick and ready means of recovering the lost threads of a half-forgotten correspondence.

Equally important it is to keep a similar catalogue of letters inwards, though here the process of earmarking the papers can be varied according to the nature of the correspondence. Many letters from the same source are advantageously kept together. The affairs of a contract are so interwoven and interdependent that it is not practicable to keep together and apart a set of papers referring to an individual subject (which is the routine of the Government departments), but the principle of classification should be, I think, the source from which the papers reach the office. Take as a maxim never to destroy any paper while there is a remote possibility of its again being referred to, which is equivalent to saying never destroy a paper till the contract is over. It will be found if this rule be neglected that by some inscrutable fatality, occasion will arise to refer to that very paper the very next day. Now, it may be said that all this care and system is all very fine in theory, but is too cumbersome to bring into practice. I can only say that its practice is easy, and that the results will be entirely satisfactory. The care bestowed in keeping one's papers and books up to date is as well repaid as the care bestowed in keeping one's instruments in perfect adjustment. An hour a week set apart for the purpose will be found more than sufficient for a very extensive business correspondence. In docketing and pigeonholing all papers it will conduce to neatness and compactness to fold all papers to a uniform gauge.

Next, I have to say a few words about an additional safeguard as to precision and despatch in an engineer's daily duties. The immense variety of details which he has to attend to, the neglect or delay of any of which would cause a hitch somewhere, compels him to adopt a means by which he may help himself to avoid any such neglect. Opinions may he divided as to the extent to which a man may and should trust his memory: It is a personal equation, but I suppose in each man's case a limit is reached when his memory plays him false. It is not wise to risk an act of forgetfulness which will result in loss; so the expedient is to be recommended of carrying about with him everywhere a small note-book in which he can roughly enter there and then every single matter that is to claim his future attention. This habit soon grows so on one as to become almost automatic, and all the matters noted having at the end of the day received his attention he can be assured that nothing arising out of that day's work has been neglected. I have dwelt long enough on these purely clerical functions, and the remarks I have made apply, of course, equally well to every member of the staff; and the engineer-in-charge should see that a uniform system is adopted by one and all.

Now, to come more closely to his own expert work. One of the first duties that confront him is the taking out of quantities for the purpose of ordering material. The schedule quantities of the different classes of work are never sufficiently reliable for this purpose, and he must begin again from the beginning. In itself this taking out of quantities may be the work of weeks, but it is distributed over the whole period of the contract, so that only those materials which take a long time in delivery, such as rolled iron or steel from England, or those which will be required in the first stages of the work, such as bluestone for foundations, bricks, timber etc., need be first dealt with. In dealing with any class of material, both general and detail plans must be carefully compared; a descriptive word in some obscure corner being overlooked might weeks after cause a consignment of material to be condemned because it lacks the omitted qualification. In preparing lists for the placing of orders, the correct description of the material and the precise dimensions and quality are of far greater importance than the quantity. A mistake leads in the latter case to a partial waste only; in the former, to a total waste. In most materials you need never be afraid, within a reasonable margin, of ordering too much. Bricks, timber, cement etc., are of variable quality; and to order only the net amount would certainly be to order too little. In the case of iron, steel, bolts, masonry, which are more costly and less variable in quality, the margin for waste will be small. In the former cases, a rough approximation to the quantity required to be delivered at any point (and by preference a slight excess) will be sufficiently close, but greater care must be bestowed on the accurate description of the material. If any loophole for doubt be left, the store or factory supplying the article will be sure to send the wrong thing. To further ensure absence of doubt, the engineer must acquaint himself with trade nomenclatures and units. He will order bricks by the thousand, timber by the hundred feet super, masonry by the cube foot, pipes by the piece, cement and lime by the load. He must ascertain and keep before him a number of useful data, such as the number of bricks, bags of lime and casks of cement in a dray load or lorry load, the carrying capacity of railway trucks of the K, I or Q pattern, the quantity of lime, cement or sand required per yard of brickwork, or per yard of concrete, and innumerable similar constants, some of which will find a place in every calculation made to estimate the cost of carriage of material, and so forth. To descend to more practical details in regard to the preparation of quantity lists would take me beyond the limits. The lists being kept together in one book, copies being issued to the storekeeper to aid him in distribution, and to the book-keeper for the keeping of accounts, such a book will prove full of valuable information for a future contract.

Much of the work of arranging for a supply of the necessary materials for all the various building operations can be done at the very outset; but the engineer will very soon be confronted with the necessity of committing himself to a definite policy, both in regard to the order of operations, and the processes to be employed. In neither will he find that he has altogether a free hand. The Government Department, under which the contract is being carried out, generally regard [sic] with suspicion any proposed order which suggests that the cheapest and best paying portions of the work are to be done first. They are likely to insist, as they have power to do, that works of different kinds should proceed simultaneously, and this may often seriously hamper a scheme. On the other hand, a contractor is not always willing to commit himself to a, large initial outlay for plant of the good purpose of which it may be hard to convince him. At the outset, careful calculations must be made with plenty of margin on the safe side for unconsidered risks, to ascertain the extent and elaborateness of staging or plant that will pay for itself, no term that will affect the result being omitted. Thus, the desirability of the adoption of locomotives and waggons, in lieu of horses and drays, for an excavation is easily calculable.

The influence of the weather at the particular season of the year in which work is to be performed is an important factor, and it is useful to know the times when a river or creek that is to he bridged runs at flood level. The manner in which nature revenges itself for any interference in the natural contour of the situ of any works is patent to all of you, and the guarding against the destruction of unfinished works by inclement weather is one of the most annoying difficulties of an engineer. In such weather the wages of a few men stationed at dangerous points to turn off accumulated water from excavations, or to keep river staging free from snags, will be well earned. In a lesser degree, timber which has to lie for any time should be stacked level on good bottom to prevent distortion, and be covered with sods of earth to protect it from the cracking effects of a summer sun. Cement and lime soon become useless if left uncovered. To proportion the various gangs so that they can keep ahead of each other is a task of great complexity, in which the advice of an experienced general foreman is invaluable-but the proportioning of the individual gangs may be safely left to the discretion of their respective gangers. I may here mention a. valuable check which can be introduced to test the efficiency of such proportioning of a gang - such as, for instance, the proportion of picks to shovels and both to drays. Under normal conditions the cost of a particular class of work should vary very slightly, and, with the help of the time-keepers' returns, that cost can for any particular week or month be accurately ascertained. A variation of so little as a half-penny per yard in earth work or threepence per foot in masonry would at once indicate that something was wrong. The time occupied in a complete analysis of every weekly or fortnightly pay is well spent in creating an infallible standard of the comparative efficiency of the various gangs.

The works of setting out will next occupy the engineer's attention. In this his University training is brought to bear very directly. Without dealing in any way with the actual processes in the field, a few general hints may be acceptable. Do as much work as possible in the office. Prepare a small sketch and determine beforehand the various setting up points and the order in which the lines can be most quickly given. Always adopt the most reliable method, for an engineer has generally little time to check his work. A little experience will soon teach what pegs are necessary and what are superfluous. Different tradesmen set out their working lines in different ways, and it is merely wasting time to give them subsidiary pegs, which they will disregard because they themselves can find those points more reliably as the work proceeds. In setting out excavations it is better to commit yourself to a trifling increase in the size of the hole all round than to be compelled later on to chip away a one inch strip along a face to make room for the wall to be built. A good foreman will generally prefer to offset all secondary points himself from the main lines which you give him; if he requires your assistance in this you can safely conclude, that he is not sure of what he is doing. To assist him in this work he should be supplied with a sketch of greater or less complexity, according to the nature of the work to which it refers, but always as simple as possible, with all skew distances calculated out.

While setting out among works in progress, you have to encounter many difficulties which lead to much annoyance. Often work is proceeding in the vicinity, and sometimes before you are all well out of sight several of the pegs you have put in will have been knocked out by a careless horse-driver. Important base pegs must be preserved in some way, an effective way appearing to be to sink a piece of 8"×8" well into the ground and fix a soft wood plug, bearing the nail which marks the point in an auger-hole in that block. The collision of the wheel of a cart will not then shake the point sufficiently to make it unreliable. A uniform system in the matter of pegs is valuable here as elsewhere. Pegs for line all of 3"×2" hardwood, pegs for level of 2"×2" or any other convenient timber; an engineer will then at once be able to recognise his pegs when picking up old work. In issuing instructions to carpenters, bricklayers, masons, or ironworkers, the language of these respective trades should be fully made use of. It is more intelligible to them to speak of quoin than of an angle, and so on. In setting out important structures where many parts have to fit, as in a bridge, especial care must be taken to ensure correctness of those parts to which other parts independently made are to fit, and, with this object in view, the lines which determine the positions of those particular parts should be made the base lines, instead of sticking to the old time rule of working off a centre line. Thus, the centre line of a line of girders of a bridge of several spans, would be a better line to use [as?] a base line from which to offset, than the actual centre line of a bridge.

An engineer can foresee very nearly what setting out will be required at any time within the next few days; and as it is desirable to leave such setting out as late as possible, he will do well to prepare all the necessary calculations and sketches, and have them ready to his hand, so as to be able to get a new job ready at a few minutes' notice. But under whatever circumstances the work of setting out is to be performed, one cannot do better than attack the problem from first principles; adopt no hard and fast rule, but let the circumstances of each particular case guide him in his efforts to secure a faithful interpretation of his plans. One process which is closely allied to setting [out], and of which I have had some experience, is the preparation of detail plans for the dressing and setting of masonry. This work cannot be done too carefully or elaborately. Unlike bricks, which are of constant shape, each dressed stone has its own peculiar dimensions, and should not vary from them in any direction by quarter of an inch. If a number of stones fail in this accuracy, the result will be endless expense in redressing and rejointing, and the frequent loss of a stone worth two or three pounds. To ensure perfect fit, a plan of every course should be prepared to a scale of quarter inch to the foot, with every stone clearly marked and every dimension entered, and, in addition, full instructions to the foreman mason as to the nature of the work to be performed on each of the six or more faces of the stone.

Any stone, any of whose angles are not right-angles, or which carries on its face, chamfers, mouldings, leads or fillets must be drawn out full size on a drawing floor, and a mould or template of zinc must be cut of the exact shape, with all allowance for joints and beds. To watch a skilful mason working out a skew moulded quoin from a rough block with the use of these templates is most interesting. For all drawings and sketches of the kind I have referred to it will be found convenient to use tracing cloth, as being more durable, and also as enabling the draughtsman to make a neat clean drawing. Tracing cloth has its peculiarities and one must grow accustomed to its use before it can be appreciated.

Last of all, we come to the important duty of making measurements and preparing certificates of completed work. This is generally performed in conjunction with some official representing opposing interests. In this work the personal acumen, business ability and general smartness of the engineer come into full play. The object of getting as much money as possible for work done is no less important to the contractor than the getting of the work done as cheaply as possible. To start with, you must read up your specifications and conditions thoroughly, know all your rates by heart, so as to see at a glance under which item in the schedule you can and should try for payment of any particular work, to recognise what acts of obstruction or limitation on the part of the other side constitute a valid claim for increased rates or increased measurements, and to see quickly the best way out of a difficulty when such arises. The value of an engineer to an employer is best gauged by his ability to do all this perfectly and without friction with the other side - and nothing but long experience on many different contracts can bring about such perfection.

In conclusion, I have only to say that there appears no reason why a man fresh from his school should hesitate to assume the fullest responsibility. All difficulties, if resolutely attacked, will disappear one by one; and in the assistance which it affords him to do this, he will, if he does not already do so, learn to respect the value of the special and general academic training which he has received.