We’re so besotted with process that we’ve lost sight of the end product. We should learn from Formula One
The construction industry is completely infatuated by process. We focus on procurement and project management and we have flow charts for everything from design management to procurement. I’m not saying these are not required but sometimes we miss the point of what we are actually doing. What we overlook is the product. On time and on budget is our proud mantra and the fact that this does not give the client what they want often seems to be irrelevant. All the individual parts of the process protect their own risk, be it design or construction, but who takes responsibility for the product?
The designers will blame the contractor and revert to the contract if anything goes wrong. If there are issues with the building on completion, the contractor will blame the consultants. This leaves the client disgruntled with the process and the product.
_space group is developing a range of building products via our Volula brand in which we put our energy into the product off-site rather than into process so that we can maximise value for the client. We are confident we can deliver a three-bedroom house which has no energy bills for around £80,000.
In architecture we are producing hundreds of aspirational Formula One engineers every year who are ill-prepared for the world of construction
This brings me on to how we define value. Our industry is fascinated by two key performance indicators: cost and time. But what about lifecycle, energy and cost in carbon use or user satisfaction? All of these metrics are important and together will generate a true picture of value. As an industry we need to be able to demonstrate the interrelationship between them.
I spent seven years learning to be an architect and I was encouraged to believe that every building should be an award winner; in short, I would be judged on my creativity. At university we never discussed business or client needs. I am not saying we should lose the creative side of architectural education but we must be realistic about the world in which we operate and we need to be better prepared for what we face in the construction industry.
My favourite analogy to illustrate this is Formula One. Not everyone in the car industry ends up being a Formula One engineer - the vast majority will join Nissan or Ford. In architecture we are producing hundreds of aspirational Formula One engineers every year who are ill-prepared for the world of construction. A small number of UK architects have the opportunity to design Formula One cars on a daily basis, but the rest of us mere mortals have clients who want a reliable Audi A4. There is no shame in this and Audis are a fantastic lesson in engineering, value and reliability.
The automotive industry also really understands the benefits of a true supply chain. We claim to understand and manage supply chains in our industry but they are more just a list of people we work with regularly. Main contractors have moved to subcontract as much work as possible to move risk downstream. It makes a project even more contractual and removes the commitment to the end product, placing the focus on process.
In the car industry they have truly joined-up supply chains. For example, surrounding the Nissan site in Sunderland there are dozens of suppliers to the main factory that have signed long-term agreements based on mutual investment and reward. Nissan does not change its engine supplier every six months because someone else can provide one £50 cheaper - they understand value and not just cost.
By understanding value they have been able continually to improve their product while also reducing cost. For the same money their customers were paying 20 years ago they now benefit from features such as power assisted steering, air conditioning and electric windows. In construction we are still delivering the same product yet asking our clients to pay more.
A move away from process is required with more of a focus on product. We need to innovate and look at standardised approaches that are constantly improving. We do not need to design everything from scratch.
Rob Charlton is chief executive of BIM.Technologies and _space architecture