Contractors can’t build well without clients that lead

Did anyone see the recent news story on the Edinburgh PFI schools with structural failures? In 2016 we shouldn’t be constructing buildings with feeble brickwork. We have Victorian and Edwardian schools that have been standing for over 100 years without these problems. More ironically we have 1960s CLASP schools – built on a budget with the flimsiest of constructions – still standing and performing their role well after their sell-by date. OK, they’re usually freezing in winter and boiling in summer, with asbestos in places a power drill shouldn’t reach, but at least they’re still standing.

The reasons for these high profile failures are easy to park at the door of the PFI process. One can blame cost-cutting, absence of site inspections, and lack of quality control. Some even say that the ceding of Building Control checks to the design and build contractor is a root cause: site labour can’t be trusted to mark their own exam paper when their primary interest is to finish on time and under budget.

Some commentators blame the design process, and bemoan the loss of days of the Building Schools for the Future programme when design quality was overseen by the Commission for Architecture in the Built Environment (CABE). The erstwhile CABE may have tried to be a force for good, but project lead times become ridiculously long and expensive. And would it have prevented structural failures? Hardly likely.

The one cause of these failures that doesn’t get enough press coverage is the important client leadership and quality championing. It can be argued that clients get what clients are willing to pay for, and there’s no industry like the construction industry for delivering something on the cheap. The cost-cutting, the emphasis on time and cost at the expense of quality control – all this can be pinned on a client base that does not lead, demand, oversee, and articulate what it wants well enough to prevent the desired product being delivered at the wrong level of quality at the wrong price.

Which means that clients have to a) get wiser on what can go wrong, b) get smarter with their project management, and c) articulate what they want in terms of performance outcomes. Truly professional designers recognise this, and are prepared to guide their clients through the shark-infested waters of writing their employers requirements. But once that is done the client’s job is not over. They can’t simply hand the job over to the main contractor and turn their back until the job is complete. They need to be closely involved every step of the way – and keep key parties involved beyond practical completion and into the all-importance aftercare phase.

Soft Landings provides a chassis on which focus on performance outcomes can be built. The chassis provides the client with a driving seat to ensure that standards are maintained, along with a shared construction team responsibility to make sure the building is fit for purpose.  The forthcoming BSRIA conference Soft Landings in London on 23 June is a good opportunity to learn how this can be done. It will focus on workshops where problems can be aired and solutions worked through. It will be led by experts in the field who can suggest practical solutions for real-world projects. Why not book a place for you and a client? For more information visit the BSRIA website. 

2 Responses to Contractors can’t build well without clients that lead

  1. Brian O'Connor says:

    Absolutely agree that clients are only too happy to give the responsibility to the contractor. This is a cultural matter in the civil service in general, although there are a few notable exceptions. This problem extends right down to senior local council officers who are often woefully equipped to understand a drawing let alone have any meaningful input to the design. Local governments are also congenitally blind to the need for supervision during the building stage and totally bury their heads in the sand if one talks about the need for maintenance.

  2. So, after many years away from the industry I decided to see what had changed since I left. My first thought – very little technically. What we learn from monitoring new buildings seem to be what we learnt from monitoring all previous buildings, sadly. But I do congratulate all involved in the strides made in developing process, or at least potential process improvements. Although I do see confusion over the plethora of tools, techniques and industry bodies as challenging. My second thought, how does this link with building occupants themselves? If you were to take typical occupants of a typical building and ask about drains on their personal productivity, would they not comment on the tiring journey to work, the queue for the photocopier, the need to go down 10 floors in a lift to get a cup of coffee, never being able to book a meeting room etc. We need to see buildings as serving a purpose – that is what the client and occupants need. Everything else we cannot expect them to care about, we must care for them. If they do care it’s a bonus. With the current political clime and personal struggles people face the construction industry should simply be focused on doing their job well throughout the chain and the facilities management communities on recognising the link between their work and the bottom line of a business. Trying hard not to be cynical and recognising the lifetime of effort a few amazing people have put in to getting us this far.

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