Recommendations from a report into achieving quality on building sites more than three decades old are still relevant today. Is the industry failing to learn from the past?

Just as many of the ‘defects’ in newly completed buildings are caused by poor design as they are by poor workmanship. Most of these defects are the result of lack of care (in both design and execution) rather than lack of skill or knowledge. These are just two of the findings of a report “Achieving Quality on Building Sites”, published by the National Economic Development Council for Building 30 years ago. The report was based on the observations of BRE researchers embedded within a range of building projects in the 1980’s, yet is disturbingly relevant today. 

10 years ago I advised a contractor not to sign a contract for an institutional building because far too many sections had been designated by the contract administrator as ‘contractor designed’. Encouraged by an inexperienced and gullible client the architect had crammed as many fashionable ‘wow factor’ features as possible into the project but wanted to transfer the design responsibility to the contractor and subcontractors. My advice was ignored, the architect refused to attend site to agree any solutions and the result an expensive disaster for everyone involved.

Just as many of the ‘defects’ in newly completed buildings are caused by poor design as they are by poor workmanship.

More recently, since the ‘leadership’ of the industry and its processes has shifted from the old trade federations to the independent project managers and global outsourcers, the obsession with risk management and avoidance has become a cult of risk dumping. 

It is now commonplace for contract administrators to designate within standard contracts (even the JCT Minor Works Form) as ‘contractor designed’ any section of the project design that they feel may be risky for them or the designers. This type of cynical risk dumping is aimed at the smaller contractors and sub contractors at the bottom of the supply chain who are least able to deal with the consequences if they don’t get it quite right.

But the problem goes deeper than that. Another forgotten lesson from the past that has been ‘lost’ in this power switch is one of Sir John Egan’s key recommendations: that the industry should reinstate the traditional ‘respect for people’ throughout the supply chain.

We’ve been aware of the answer for 50 years and I hate to think how many times I’ve said as such in this magazine

Regretfully, this was never properly enacted and I believe that today’s pernicious lack of respect (in some extreme cases contempt) for the real construction industry and its workforce by virtual construction (and even a few clients) is the principle underlying cause of the current rash of quality issues. Forms of contract driven by tricky contract law rather than good process, insecure and erratic payment procedures, delays in agreeing compensation for additional or varied work and months, sometimes years in agreeing and paying final accounts & retentions all add to the impression that the ‘doers’ of real construction are not valued by clients and their agents. So why should they care?

We’ve been aware of the answer for 50 years and I hate to think how many times I’ve said as such in this magazine. We have to change to a totally collaborative approach with truly integrated design and construct teams sharing a culture of mutual trust and respect and working closely with the client on quality management systems to BS:EN 9001 – and following them to the letter. Conversely, just think what would happen if Government imposed a fragmented, adversarial design & management system on the aerospace industry?

The Cabinet Office’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority recommend three collaborative procurement models, two stage open book, cost–led procurement and integrated project insurance. In addition FAC-1 is attracting wide-ranging uses together with the Integrated Design & Construction-Single Responsibility code of practice supported by the CIOB.

Following these codes of practice should help to address an issue that has troubled the industry for decades.