The typical consultant arrangement in the design and documentation of a project is usually done by a primary consultant engaging separate-entity secondary consultancy practice firms to do various specialist work.

This arrangement is usually convenient and effective. The alternative is to have a large multi-disciplinary practice do all the various secondary consultancy work in-house, but the typical separate entity arrangement is the common practice.

On building projects, secondary consultants generally include civil, structural, electrical, mechanical and hydraulic engineers, landscape architects, and even the building design architect can be engaged as a secondary consultant when the primary consultant is a project manager or builder. The majority of secondary consultants are competent and do great work, but like in any industry, there are some that do not.

These slack secondary consultants can slow the project down and cause many problems. In a worst case scenario, their engagement can be terminated, and the procedure for termination should be spelled out clearly in the consultancy agreement.

A consultant’s engagement termination usually would be preceded by a series of compliance failures made over time and reciprocated by primary consultant complaints. To give weight to these complaints, written into the consultancy agreement should be procedures for primary consultant reimbursement for the cost of time spent fixing the divergent consultants’ mistakes as deductions from fees owing to the secondary consultant. This is a fair thing, and of course when this happens there will be resentment from the secondary consultant and a breakdown somewhat of the business relationship. If the slack performance continues, termination of their engagement is a real option.

The pain of termination and the recouping of fees for time lost by the primary consultant is the easy part. The hard part is terminating the secondary consultant’s service and not delaying the project and lessening the quality of design and documentation. How then is it possible to avoid disaster when a secondary consultant is sacked?

Here’s a solution to how to sack a consultant and not lose time or fees:

When the primary consultant puts out offers for secondary consultant fee proposals, they ask for two proposals. The first proposal is for the full service, which the secondary consultant would submit anyway. The second proposal is for the secondary consultant to act in a checking and advisory role with another secondary consultant selected for the full service. When the fee proposals come in, each secondary consultant submits two separate proposals for the two different roles.

The primary consultant selects a secondary consultant for the normal service, then selects another consultant in the same discipline for the checking and advisory role service, like a tertiary consultant. This tertiary consultant will be kept up to speed on project progress by doing their checking and advisory service. They have the same capability as the secondary consultant because they submitted a fee for that role.

When the secondary consultant has to be terminated, the tertiary consultant can take over immediately as the new secondary consultant, their fees quickly agreed upon as they have already originally submitted a fee for this work. This arrangement will have several benefits.

It should result in the original secondary consultant being more diligent from the outset because they know that there is a mechanism in place to sack them quickly and easily if they misbehave. Additionally, an audit process happens via the tertiary consultant’s input, which should lead to a better design and documentation outcome, perhaps even resulting in lower building tender prices and on-site efficiencies which could offset the additional fees for this double consultancy situation.

Of course there will be more work in organizing and administering this solution, and it will result in higher consultancy fees. Given that consultancy fees make up a tiny percentage of the total project fees, and there is potential for these fees to be offset by lower tender prices and perhaps other building contract administration efficiencies, this apparent drawback can be revealed as a fairly minor issue.

This solution is radical, but given a dearth of alternatives, it may be the only solution presented publicly to the seemingly age-old complaint of consultant slackness. All the best with implementing this solution.

  • This sounds like a commonsense approach. Though firing a consultant is never fun, this seems like a way in which to do it without the project being unduly disruptive.

  • Greg, an interesting approach although starting a project team relationship with a big stick approach may not be condusive to a trust based business relationship between the project partners. You will also find that having to pay for an independent checking consultant will probably price you out of the market. Also do not assume that a checking role engineer wlll take on PI for a partially completed design created by another engineering company without pricing in significant risk.
    My recommendation is to work with firms you have built relationships and trust. One of the frustrating things engineering firms face as secondary consultants is the the primary consultants will often overlook a good quality firm for a cheaper quote because it gives them an edge in their bid against their primary consultant competitors. We are sometimes asked to slash 1/3 of our submitted fee to get the gig as secodary consultant, which we are not prepared to do as this leads to excalty the situation you are desribing, which is poor performance and lack of resourcing.
    My thoughts anyway. Thanks for raising the topic.

    • Hi Ivano. Thanks for your comment. I think you raise some good points. I think it is not overly a big stick approach as any business relationship will draw out a bit stick when under-performance happens. My article certainly does not present an end all solution and is intended to get people thinking. Your comments lead to what I think is a giant problem in the industry and that is that the lowest fees have become the main driver of selection of consultants and also for winning jobs by the primary consultant. Maybe that is something the industry needs to really tackle but of course it can't be resolved in our commentary. Thanks.