Spotlight Nov/Dec 2007 – What Keeps Me Up at Night?


I am fairly certain most of the Correctional News readers have overheard horror stories about construction defects on a prison or jail project.

At a recent American Correctional Association conference I overheard several horror stories. Some of the problems I heard were serious ones, such as detention locks malfunctioning or failing, sliding cell doors rolling off tracks, improperly installed kitchen equipment causing grease fires, and even a facility with detention walls that were constructed without security bars or grout.

These stories came from people in the know — facility staff and line officers — and they received added validity from world class architects and engineers, experienced construction managers and contractors on whose projects they occurred.

I am certain all of these projects with defective work had expectations of excellence when they started. So what went wrong? Why was the quality poor and what caused such poor quality control?

One of the many lessons I have learned in my 20 years as a justice professional is it’s people, not companies, that make high-quality construction projects possible.

Each time I make that statement I feel like Charlton Heston in the movie “Soylent Green.” It takes quality people to plan, design and build quality buildings. Planning is essential to cause quality to happen and prevent defects from occurring.

Like the three “R’s” in education, there are three “P’s” linked to success in any business or operation: people, planning and process.

When it comes to designing and constructing high-quality secure facilities, the planning for successful projects starts early. Before one line is drawn on a piece of paper, successful projects script a project-specific quality assurance and quality control plan.

The development and execution of a quality plan is performed by the people who are given the responsibility for quality assurance and quality control over the design and construction process as well as those people who will inherit the facility. The involvement of the designer, builder, and end user in development of the plan are vital to a project’s success.

Successful projects appoint a manager whose sole responsibility on the project is quality. This design and construction quality control manager’s sole responsibility before a shovel hits the dirt should be design quality control. Field quality control should be the only responsibility after construction begins.

Quality assurance begins in design. The quality plan that the program manager, user and architect develop early in design becomes the foundation for the plan used to ensure quality construction installations.

Planning and controlling standards for quality is fundamental in not only the construction phase of a project, but in the preconstruction phase as well. Quality is not a natural occurrence in all projects. It is the result of good planning, good people and an understanding by all the team members how a quality project is achieved.

Field Quality

Project teams need to plan for quality in the field. Once the design is ready for construction there will be field quality assurance work tasks that need to be accomplished prior to groundbreaking.

The project quality control plan will list these tasks, and it is important to have every individual on the project site read and accept the plan prior to starting work.

Regardless of the amount of training or experience the quality control inspector possesses, each inspector should know the project requirements like a professional football player understands the play book. Below is a sample list of the tasks and activities the quality-minded inspector needs to perform before inspecting a project:

  • Become familiar with project studies, reports, etc., and review the drawings and specifications related to both on-site and off-site utilities and the new building interface.
  • Examine the project logistics plan and look for “pinch points,” such as traffic impacts on deliveries, potential service interruptions and safe access and egress points.
  • Review the contract documents for clarity. Alert the quality manager of potential conflicts between specifications and drawings.
  • Read and understand the construction contract requirements.
  • Examine the construction schedule for coordination and sequence of work
  • Develop tasks specific to quality assurance and quality control procedure
  • Develop a weekly project construction activity matrix to ensure installation scheduling
  • Read and understand the manufacturers’ technical specifications for every installed product
  • Plan for preinstallation meetings with the contractors 30 days before allowing them to start assembly

So what does all this pre-planning and preparation entail? The essence of these tasks is simple: Know the site.

If the site is adjacent to an operating secure perimeter, know the operational procedures of the adjacent institution. Look for site-specific conditions that will require further precautions; determine any other existing obstructions, access and/or potential security breaches or hazards. After review, see that the quality plan is modified, if necessary.

Examine the delivery access for equipment, lay-down areas for materials, lifting plans, temporary structures, environmental safety procedures and site security.

In particular, look at proposed lay-down areas for the contractor at each phase of construction. Include the logistics requirements as part of the progress meeting agendas and see that the contractor is enforcing the specific conditions and work restrictions with sub-contractors.

Pay particular attention to access to work areas. A well-planned and supervised, clean and properly illuminated site will have a better chance at having quality installations than a site with poor access, inadequate lighting and shoddy housekeeping.

To understand the quality requirements, it is a necessity to understand the intent of the contract documents. Prior to starting work, the inspector should carefully examine the plans and specifications. This review is performed in order to make an independent assessment of the documents and verify that the concepts, systems and details are coordinated and that they are capable of being installed per the manufacturer’s recommendations.

What Should the Inspector be Looking at Prior to Starting Work?

The simple answer is the contract documents. The inspector must review the documents for clarity and completeness with special attention to building elements, methods and systems. Each element and system should be evaluated for quality of product, contract compliance, constructability and placement for serviceability. At a minimum, the inspector’s specific attention should be given to the following:

  • Site infrastructure and perimeter security
  • Building a secure envelop and internal security walls 
  • Roofing systems 
  • Detention hardware and detention equipment 
  • Mechanical and plumbing systems 
  • Electrical systems
  • Fire protection systems
  • Electronic security systems
  • Life safety and building management systems
The coordination of the contract documents at this stage — prior to installation — is most important in relation to quality assurance and the prevention of improper installations. The inspector’s continuous dialogue with the design team will enable the inspector to assist the contractor in the prevention of possible re-work once construction is under way. Re-work is the number one killer of project quality, schedule and budget.

As part of the quality-control process, the review of the documents will consider sections and references in the drawings and specifications for coordination. For instance, the inspector should check the path of the mechanical and plumbing systems overlaid against the structural drawings to see if there are potential constraints.

The inspector should examine the coordination between the detention door and hardware schedule with the security walls, as well as determine if the anchoring method for the detention frames and equipment is adequate. The inspector should examine the food service equipment cuts and layouts to make sure they agree with the rough-in locations on plumbing drawings.

Some typical quality control issues that are often overlooked prior to starting work includes:

  • Oversized structural framing for the ductwork openings and roof hatches, which could result in roof leaks.
  • No security grilles where mechanical systems pass through security walls, or they may be shown where not required.
  • The fire/smoke dampers are indicated at the smoke partitions but the method of attachment may be incorrect for operation and serviceability.
  • Where different materials adjoin in prisoner areas. the gap left after the installation of an item is not indicated to be sealed with a security sealant to prohibit prisoner contraband storage.

Maintaining Quality

In the final analysis, the goal of planning for project quality is to create a mindset in the workers to achieve quality installations and end products.

Leadership, owner involvement and providing the management and direction necessary to cause quality to be the foremost consideration must occur from the initial planning of the project through the completion of work. The contract documents are the only yardstick with which to measure the level of quality in the field. There are industry standards we expect and we should accept nothing less.

Quality must be a topic on every construction progress meeting, and any observed deficiencies should be addressed and the quality plan modified to prevent future occurrences. Compliance to the quality requirements is the environment established with project leadership.

Remember, quality people build quality buildings. We can’t always depend on the contractor or worker to deliver quality. In every case the properly trained, supervised and experienced quality control inspector can enhance the contractor’s possibility to build a quality building.

Planning for quality will allow the contractor to build it right the first time, expedite the schedule, and eliminate financial losses due to tearing something out and re-installing. The experienced inspector will also help the contractor look for ways to increase the likelihood of quality installations.

I have had several inspectors on projects that made suggestions for improving the construction phasing and schedules without compromising the contractor’s productivity or assuming the contractors responsibility for means and methods.

On my projects, I work with the client and architectural engineer to develop an end-product expectations plan and the field inspectors do their homework and understand what’s expected as an end result. A good quality control inspector should meet five simple expectations every workday:

  • They pre-planning their workday around the contractors schedule
  • They know what the are going to be inspect
  • They understand what they’re looking for during assembly
  • They know when they need to observe and when they should speak up
  • They report deviations to any contract requirement

When they perform these steps as a daily ritual, I am able to get a good night’s sleep.

Gregory J. Offner is vice president of DMJM H+N – AECOM located in Arlington, Va., and a member of the Correctional News Editorial Advisory Board.

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