The work we do as geotechnical designers can all come apart if the design intent isn’t followed successfully during the construction phase of the work. This is where construction oversight plays a very important role. During construction, the engineer and the engineer’s team may include a resident engineer, soil technicians, geosynthetics technicians, laboratory technicians and construction observers. This work can come under a number of headings, such as construction quality assurance (CQA), quality control (QC), quality assurance (QA) and sometimes QA/QC. Sometimes the contractor is responsible for QC while the engineer is responsible for QA; geomembrane installers are almost always responsible for QC of their own work. In this article, I’ll stick with the term CQA as a catchall to describe the engineer’s activities.

During the construction process, the primary role of the engineer’s team is to assess whether the work is meeting the requirements of the design and specifications. Please note that I did NOT say that we are there to ENSURE the contractor’s compliance. We CANNOT even ENSURE that the contractor will get out of the bed in the morning. We assess whether the work is in compliance, and if it is not, we look for ways to remedy the situation.

During construction, tempers can run hot. Not by the engineer. We are always calm and collected (right?). Our role is still to see that the job is done well regardless of the adversities that we, the owner or the contractor may face. The construction team can coordinate with the design team to see if alternatives may be acceptable, but if they are not, we have to put our foot down.

When I am training first timers, I relay to them some wisdom that can be found in the movie, “Cool Hand Luke”. That film had several memorable scenes, but the one I am referring to is when a guard confronts a prisoner. The guard was wearing mirrored sunglasses. The prisoner is immediately intimidated.

In 1971, male undergraduates at Stanford University subjected one another to psychological abuse, sleep deprivation and sexual degradation in the basement of Jordan Hall. This wasn’t some sick fraternity hazing ritual, but a university-approved psychological study about prison behavior. As part of the study, the “guards” wore darkly tinted sunglasses. The “prisoners” could not see the eyes of the “guards” and thus could not read their emotions. Just like in Cool Hand Luke.

I use that as something more than just a metaphor when I tell first-time CQA staff that sometimes they have to put on their sunglasses and deliver the news to the contractor.

Thanks Paul Newman. This may not have been your biggest role, but without Cool Hand Luke, this story would have had much less impact.

The last remaining question is why does the title of this article allude to something in Star Wars, but that movie doesn’t even come into play here?

Maybe the sunglasses are to the guard as the light sabre is to a Jedi. I don’t know.

I’ve already stopped worrying about it.

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