If uncertainty is construction’s worst enemy how can architects and engineers help clients manage build costs? The best bet is to keep your options open

Chris Atkins

I doubt the nodding heads in our converted North London office were alone in agreeing with Sarah Richardson’s 29 April leader article where she claimed the worst enemy of the construction industry tends to be uncertainty.

I’m sure too that won’t change. Our industry is at the whim of volatile market forces and dynamic macro-economic factors. Throw in the possibility of Brexit, volatile commodity prices, particularly oil, and changes for steel making at Port Talbot to boot, and predicting labour and materials costs is all a bit tricky.

There is no crystal ball. These issues will eternally be beyond our control and we have to react and adapt as best we can. The problem is, all too often we can be left closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

It can cost developers, architects, building owners, asset managers, project managers dear in both time and money. It risks ruin in relationships too. So how can we better reign in costs and deliver projects on time with a minimum of fuss?

Our world is one of exacting standards. We design and build to measure – to the nearest nanometre at that. We are agents of detail – and we know it’s where we’ll always find the devil. Yet there’s a difference between being precise and prescriptive. Sometimes it pays to be a little more flexible.

We can better regulate costs by exploring all alternative options at the start of any project. That doesn’t always come easily: “We said it would look like this”, “We said we’d make it like that”, “This is how we’ve always done it”. But why?

But there is a golden rule to being flexible – us engineers like that! Solutions must always be site specific

We need a new dogma and there’s no place for dogmatism. In today’s world we need to do away with the status quo and “comfortable” solutions. Sometimes tried-and-tested can quickly become tired and unduly testing. The same goes for anything that is “innovative” for innovativeness sake.

We need to look beyond the same old design methods and materials and techniques. We need to constantly ask ourselves ‘is this the best way to do it?’ And we as engineers must be ready to do ourselves out of fees if it means doing the job right.

That’s all very well and good of course. But there is a golden rule to being flexible – us engineers like that! Solutions must always be site specific. There will never be a one size fits all solution to managing building costs.

At one of our projects in the South of England the obvious solution would have been to design a concrete superstructure, but after assessing the structural frame options it became quite apparent – despite lower fees for our practice – to use cross laminated timber (CLT). By being honest and open we helped to reduce the construction programme which in turn reduced costs and we helped to exceed the client and architects aesthetically brief.

It’s a solution that could become more prevalent. If the uncertainty at Port Talbot causes steel prices in the UK to rise, CLT frames make for a sensible alternative option to consider, but this will only happened if the volume of production is increased to reduce costs. But is this going to happen?  Yet another variable to consider.

But what worked here didn’t work for a scheme in Central London. Here a concrete frame was much more viable, owing to a lack of alignment in the structure, which was purposefully designed to maximise the value of the end sale produce. Other materials may be worth exploring for projects in other locations, for example pre-case concrete construction is big in the West Country while steel work has always represented strong value in the Midlands.

Now more than ever we need to consider a range of build types and materials in order to achieve the solution that is right for each individual project. By taking this approach we will find solutions that are right for everyone. 

Starting by keeping our options open is the best way to help close down the issue of building costs.

Chris Atkins is the managing director of structural engineering consultancy Symmetrys