ThinkCrete Series

Theory vs Practice in Concrete Construction

**The Great Divide** thanks Mr S.M.Vaidya, for contributing this article for benefit of our readers.  Considered an authority on Concrete Theory & Practice, Mr Vaidya has written a Series of thought provoking articles on Concrete. Click Here to access complete list of articles under “ThinkCrete Series” 

As a concrete technologist, a trainer in concrete technology and a Quality management professional deeply interested in concrete construction, I have often come across a statement that implies that many things that are written in books and specifications are good in theory but not doable. Many ‘practical’ engineers take great pride in getting things done any way they like and label it as “result orientation”. I have also had the privilege of being addressed as ‘professor’ partly due to the unfair distribution of hair on my head and face! I choose to take it as a compliment and not a snide remark about my refusal to be ‘practical’!

While it may be true that many ideas and concepts related to almost everything in Engineering cannot always be implemented exactly, the gap between theory and practice is rather large when it comes to Civil engineering or concrete construction. I often wonder if there a reason behind this which is more to do with the nature of the Civil Engineering and less with the nature of Civil Engineers. I’d like to believe that there is, but I am afraid I could be proved wrong!

To identify one possible root cause of this large gap between theory and practice in Civil engineering, let us attempt to apply the Concept of Self Reinforcing Loops (from the System Thinking toolkit) to civil engineering construction. A feedback loop exists when decisions change the state of the system, changing the conditions and information that influence future decisions. Often it works in a self propagating manner something like in figure 1 below:-

Concrete Theory vs Construction: Figure 1

Figure 1: A self reinforcing loop lowering respect for technical specs

While this goes on at many sites on a regular basis, the degree of compromises reaches unacceptable proportions in only an isolated case.  On a different level, the substandard construction deteriorates due to lower durability or receives accidentally higher loading. In either of the cases, a failure of the structure takes place. This results into an analysis of the failure and a growing concern amongst us to tighten the specifications. The reaction leads to stipulating more stringent specifications, sometimes which are difficult to implement. This can be represented by another loop in figure 2.

Concrete Theory vs. Construction: Figure 2

Figure 2:  Problem compounded by correction at the wrong place

One reason for the initiation of the problem of implementation is lack of planning and unworkable rates [L1 syndrome] which maintain constant pressure on contractors to cut corners and compromise. The compromise is accepted because the cause and effect [poor construction & failure] are too far removed in time and space for us to mentally link them.

A factor compounding the situation is the separation of the knowledge from the skills. The knowledge about design requirements, durability etc. resides in the graduate Engineers where as the skill of execution resides in the hands of the workers and foremen. Unless these two elements of knowledge and skills lie in the same person, there is every chance that the ‘as built’ structure would be different from the ‘as required’ structure.

The solution lies in either training the engineers in the practical aspects of construction [enhance the respect for the menial task] or educating the workers in technical aspects of Concrete construction. While the first is a problem of culture and attitude, the second is a problem of resources. I leave you all to think and decide which route to follow.

Perhaps, we all in our own way can make small contributions in whatever position we are and bridge the gap between theory and practice.