Design Stage: An integral part in the damage prevention process

William E. Balin
General Manager
The Pipeline Group
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

A successful and safe construction project that requires excavation begins in the design phase. The importance of the design phase can be realized by reviewing the many documents both on a national level as well as on the state level. These documents include but are not limited to the Common Ground Best Practices and Pennsylvania Act 287 of 1974 as amended. In addition, the process includes subsurface utility engineering, making the design stage one-call notification, a positive response to the one-call from the involved underground facility owners, and a transition from the design phase of the project to the construction phase of the work at hand.

In 1999, the U.S. Department of Transportation sponsored the "Common Ground Study of One-Call Systems and Damage Prevention Best Practices."[1] The purpose of the study was to identify and evaluate the industry "Best Practices" to determine the best way to promote safety and damage prevention by enacting the recommended practices. In order for a statement to become a "Best Practice," the statement and practice must be brought before the Common Ground Alliance Best Practices Committee and all of the committee members (which are made up of representatives from all of the involved stakeholders of the industry from utility companies to designers to one-call centers to railroads). The committee then reviews and debates the statement, and a 100% consensus must be reached by all committee members voting in favor of the recommended Best Practice. If even one member of the committee dissents the statement does not become a Best Practice. The planning and design stage of a construction project was deemed so important to the safe and successful completion of the job that this stage of the project has been given an entire section in the "Best Practices" manual which has twelve practice statements. Please refer to the Common Ground Alliance Best Practices Version 2.0.

In addition to the Best Practices Version 2.0 containing a complete section on planning and design, many state laws make reference to design stage one-call notifications. Pennsylvania is one of many states that require one-call notification in the design phase of a construction project in Pennsylvania Act 287 of 1974 as amended by Act 199 of 2004.

Subsurface Utility Engineering (SUE) is a task that all project owners should consider when they are preparing to do a construction project. In addition, ASCE standard 38-02 closely follows the concepts already in place in the subsurface utility engineering profession. A DOT-funded Purdue University study on subsurface utility engineering realized numerous benefits to having SUE completed as a part of the project. First, the findings indicated a $4.62 savings on the project for every $1.00 spent on SUE. This savings is realized through a reduced number of change orders and downtime among other things due to the accurate depiction of existing underground facilities on the project plans that were gained through SUE. In addition, the following listed benefits are shared in the study that can be found on the Federal Highway Administration's website under Subsurface Utility Engineering:

  • Reduction in unforeseen utility conflicts and relocations
  • Reduction in project delays due to utility relocates
  • Reduction in claims and change orders
  • Reduction in delays due to utility cuts
  • Reduction in project contingency fees
  • Lower project bids
  • Reduction in costs caused by conflict redesign
  • Reduction in the cost of project design
  • Reduction in travel delays during construction to the motoring public
  • Improvement in contractor productivity and quality
  • Reduction in utility companies' cost to repair damaged facilities
  • Minimization of utility customers' loss of service
  • Minimization of damage to existing pavements
  • Minimization of traffic disruption, increasing DOT public credibility
  • Improvement in working relationships between DOT and utilities
  • Increased efficiency of surveying activities by elimination of duplicate surveys
  • Facilitation of electronic mapping accuracy
  • Minimization of the chance of environmental damage
  • Inducement of savings in risk management and insurance
  • Introduction of the concept of a comprehensive SUE process
  • Reduction in Right-of-Way acquisition costs.[2]

For the complete text of the study, please view the following Internet link to the FHWA website:

Pennsylvania is one of many states that include the design stage of the project in the one-call state law. According to Pennsylvania Act 287 of 1974 as amended, a "designer" means any architect, engineer or other person who or which prepares a drawing for a construction or other project which requires excavation or demolition work[3] as defined by the act. The designer must request information concerning the location of existing underground facilities and not only show on his/her plans the facilities, but also must show on the plans the one-call serial number and one-call phone number. The designer must make a reasonable effort to prepare the drawings to avoid interference with an existing line. If after obtaining the information about existing facilities the designer decides to change the location of the construction, a new one-call must be made and the process starts all over again. In addition to showing the above information on the plans, I recommend that the contact information of the involved facilities be listed on the drawings as well. This information will prove to be invaluable to the excavator that wins the project bid for use during the construction stage of the project. In addition, the project owner and all involved in the construction process will be better able to prepare for the project with proper resources and scheduling based on the information provided by the designer.

In order to better facilitate the caller, a positive response from all notified facility owners should be mandatory. In Pennsylvania, there are three ways that a facility owner can respond to the design stage one-call. First, the facility owner can request that the designer forward a copy of the current plans in progress to the facility owner and, upon receipt, the facility owner will mark on the plans the location of their involved underground plant. Second, the facility owner may choose to send a copy of their plans to the designer and then the designer can transfer the existing line locations directly onto their current project design (this is less likely due to the concern of terrorism). Finally, the facility owner may choose to do an actual field locate (this is also less likely as the line locators are often overwhelmed with the construction phase one-calls that they receive) in response to the design stage notification. The facility owner is the entity that decides the method of response and in most instances this is accomplished based on company policy. If the designer would like to obtain field locates for a design one-call, he/she can certainly request this to take place in the remarks section of the one-call notification. However, it is again the facility owner's option as to how to respond to the notification.

The information that is placed on the project plans is to be passed along to the project excavator. This information should be utilized to plan the type of equipment that will be necessary to complete the project in addition to much more planning. The construction phase one-call will then verify the line locations that are shown on the plans.

In conclusion, the design stage notification is a vital step in the completion of a construction project. This is evident by the attention that this step receives in the "Best Practices" as well as numerous state laws. In addition, proper planning and design can save time, effort, money, and most importantly, lives.

William Balin is the General Manager of The Pipeline Group's Pittsburgh office. He has been with the Pennsylvania One-Call System, Inc. since 1998. He also serves as Chairman of the Education Committee for One-Call Systems International, and as a One-Call Representative to the Educational Programs Committee for the Common Ground Alliance. He can be reached at (877) 933-7370 or

[1] Best Practices Version 2.0, page 1

[2] Purdue University Study "Benefits" section

[3] Pa. Act 287 of 1974 as amended by Act 199 of 2004