To fix the industry’s problems on inefficiency and building quality, we need better collaboration between builders, engineers and architects early in the process
In my various roles within the construction industry, I talk a lot about the need for collaboration. The concept has many different aspects, including for example the collaboration being led by the CITB to ensure the continuation of Carillion apprenticeships.
But taking a break from talking about Carillion, what I want to address in this column is collaboration between the professions. In December, I spoke at the graduation ceremony of the University College for Estate Management, where I called on the new graduates – whose degrees will boost their careers in a wide range of specialisms – to keep in mind that we are all on the same team. Whether they work for clients, consultants, specialists or contractors, their goal must be to deliver a product that will leave a strong and lasting legacy.
Collaboration early in the value chain is crucial to enable greater use of off-site manufacturing techniques, which are essential for helping the industry improve its productivity
Many of the inefficiencies and quality failures in our industry can be attributed to the lack of collaboration between builders, engineers and architects early in the process. People from the manufacturing sector look at construction and think it’s insane that the design of a building is not 100% complete before construction starts. We know things aren’t so simple in our sector, and some degree of parallel procurement, design and construction activities is with us to stay. But working to improve collaboration early in the process – when it can have real efficiency gains – has to be a priority.
This has been a historic problem, entrenched for the past century, so it’s not going to be fixed easily. I am realistic, and I recognise that there are plenty of reasons why collaboration hasn’t happened. Given technology and the depth of specialist knowledge, it’s simply not possible right now to be an expert in everything and play the role of the master builder.
And then of course there are contractual walls dividing us, designed to ensure each party is protected against risk. It’s easy for me to say “We’re all on the same team”, but as chairman of a major contractor I recognise as well that businesses have to protect their own interests.
Fortunately, there are some legal vehicles facilitating collaboration. I’ve written in the past about the new toolkit produced by former Chartered Institute of Building president Colin Harding, who has developed the Integrated Design and Construction – Single Responsibility concept (which I wrote about in my 15 July 2016 column, Why Can’t We Be Friends?).
To be fair, some aspects of collaboration do entail a cost, such as the investment contractors must make to bring in house the design expertise necessary for meaningful engagement with architects. To collaborate productively at an early stage, contractors need to invest in hiring or developing people with a strong understanding of the design process, who can devote significant time and energy to working with architects and engineers to get the design right.
And where is the evidence that such investment in collaboration really makes business sense?
It’s easy for me to say “We’re all on the same team”, but as chairman of a major contractor I recognise as well that businesses have to protect their own interests
In December, at the annual conference of BRE Constructing Excellence, it was widely recognised that collaboration early in the value chain is crucial to enable greater use of off-site manufacturing techniques, which are essential for helping the industry to improve its productivity.
But it was also noted at the conference that although it is clear collaboration is “the right thing to do”, we will only see it being done at scale when the business benefit is established.
At Wates Group, we’ve taken some bold steps towards quantifying the business benefit of early engagement in the design process.
We’ve made a significant investment in a rigorous programme to deliver consistently high standards in building design. We call this programme Designing the Promise, and it is essentially a route map that leads us through bid, preconstruction and delivery, helping to ensure open and honest conversations at all stages.
In Designing the Promise, there are four key gateways at which we review the design status, and for each of these gateways we’ve developed a range of tools, checklists, and advisory documents. They help to ensure we understand the design and test it with our supply chain. They allow us to answer the question: Can this design actually work?
Our investment has yielded excellent results, confirming there is a huge benefit in eliminating some of the unpleasant surprises that can emerge when unfeasible designs reach the construction stage, and also in identifying and incorporating some design improvements.
While I recognise that tight profit margins might dissuade some contractors from investing in such pre-construction design work, what we are seeing at Wates Group is that there are clear benefits, with better value for clients and fewer quality issues arising.
If others follow, I believe that the whole industry will benefit, and crucially we will collectively increase the percentage of work being done off-site. Such developments will be essential if we are to meet the targets set out in the construction sector deal, including a 33% reduction in the cost of construction and whole-life cost of assets.
And in the bigger picture, the very reputation of the construction industry depends on it.
James Wates CBE is chairman of Wates Group, the CITB and the BRE Trust