Remote site visits – a virtual child of necessity

By Bart Kavanagh

Site inspections are at the heart of many of the issues that architect expert witnesses are called upon to assist with. What happens then, when everyone is required either to stay at home or to restrict their movements in order to avoid catching or spreading a potentially life-threatening virus?

Much information can be gleaned about a design from the architect’s design drawings and much about the construction from a good set of as built drawings. What is drawn, however, is not always what is built and if the reality on site is critical to the understanding of issues that are central to a dispute, then an inspection of that reality may be necessary to underpin the credibility of the expert’s report.

Where the issue involves the construction, rather than the layout, say, of a building the fabric will need to be opened up to expose the components installed and the method and quality of the construction. The areas to be opened up are often difficult to access; on roofs or high up on external walls. Inspections in such areas will need scaffold towers to be installed or access machinery, such as a cherry picker or a mobile elevating work platform (MEWP) to be deployed. These require installation and operation by skilled and experienced operatives who will need to be on site at the same time as, and often at close quarters to, the inspecting architect.

Once access has been arranged, opening up and dismantling of construction can take place. Again this will require skilled and experienced operatives and because the architect will usually need to see the progress of the opening up, rather than just the result, operative and architect will need to work closely to make the inspection effective.

Such site inspections were inevitably prevented when social contact was prohibited and current restrictions on social contact continue to present severe difficulties. For example where scaffolding or wall climbers are not available, and a MEWP platform of at least 2m wide is not available, physical inspections on site may be impracticable.

When working remotely from home became an unavoidable necessity, video calling and conferencing quickly became commonplace. As they proliferated most people mastered the software required, and adapted to the more stilted environment of the virtual meeting room, quite easily. Once prohibition of social contact eased into restriction, therefore, the question naturally arose of how to use or adapt this by now familiar technology to carry out virtual site inspections.

Some professional production companies began to develop and market interactive platforms using You Tube alongside other messaging software. Whilst many of these offer good quality visuals, they require preparation and the use of multiple software applications; this is not always user friendly. Also, if those operating the interactive platform have no experience of site investigations, as is likely, detailed and time-consuming directions may need to be provided.

Alternatively, established applications designed for video conferencing, such as Teams, Zoom, Blue Jean and others, offer acceptable visuals alongside easy and effective real time communications between the parties to a call. This is of real benefit where an inspecting architect needs to direct the work of the operative in response to what the opening up work reveals as it progresses.

Virtual site visits using these applications can be very effective in providing the architect expert with the information needed to form an opinion. They can also provide a vivid record of the whole process of the opening up as well as the final exposed result, thus reducing the need for other participants on site.

As restrictions ease further, and physical inspections on site become a possibility, the consideration of safety with respect to the virus is paramount. Key elements to be incorporated into the risk assessments and protocols prepared by the expert include: the age and underlying health conditions of staff; the availability and quality of Personal Protective Equipment, (PPE); training in the effective use of PPE; and whether the site can be reached without using public transport.

Also, the preparation of an effective risk assessment and method statement (RAMS) by the contractor to ensure appropriate conditions on the work site will be an essential pre-condition for any physical site inspection.

At the moment it seems likely that many experts, especially those of us whose expertise has been gained over a large number of years, will consider that physical site visits present too great a risk to their health and safety. As the threat from the virus diminishes, however, such visits are likely to be undertaken more and more frequently.

Nevertheless, the virtual site inspection has proved to be a valuable child of necessity. Its practical effectiveness, combined with its cost-effectiveness in eliminating the need to travel to and from a far flung site, is likely to earn this new sibling of the physical site inspection a permanent place in the expert’s family of forensic techniques.