Cutting corners is never in anybody’s best interest, says James Wates

James Wates BW 2017

Quality in construction is talked about a lot, but it’s quite another thing to actually deliver it.

Quality features prominently in the “Reinvent” phase of the Construction Leadership Council’s Roadmap to Recovery, which urges us to “Create an innovation culture that delivers efficient products, processes and built assets, to improve productivity, quality and increase output, including through embedding digital and offsite manufacturing technologies.”

I like the fact that the Roadmap ties quality to innovation and technology; we can’t make the progress needed if we keep using the old methods.

I also appreciate that the Roadmap recognises the link between quality and culture. There are many different ways we can improve quality in construction, but we know that fundamentally it’s a matter of culture.

We need to work on our skills in empathy – looking at things from the other person’s perspective, including the end-user of the building

Dame Judith Hackitt has been a powerful voice for this culture change, and we really need to take her words to heart. In an interview about the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, she recently said: “We are all part of complex systems in our lives and in our work, and we must remove the silos of self-interest. Let’s stop making excuses and start making changes. You know you can, I know you can, and you know you should.”

> Grenfell inquiry coverage

One way to kick-start that culture change is to adopt a more collaborative mindset and get away from the confrontational old ways. We need to work on our skills in empathy – looking at things from the other person’s perspective, including the end-user of the building. We can do this in our daily lives: take a minute to stop and think about things from the other person’s perspective. Recognise that what may come across as someone being difficult is actually a reflection that they care about the end result, but just have a different view on how to achieve it.

We also need to work on communicating better – having the maturity to be open with each other when we spot issues, so we can resolve them early in the process, instead of sweeping them under the carpet and hoping they go away. (They won’t). This includes being honest about whether we have the right competencies to do the job.

In every decision we make, from the site to the board room, we need to keep a long-term frame of mind and remember that our buildings serve as our legacies. Cutting corners for short-term fixes is never in anybody’s best interest.

We do need to keep an eye on codes and standards and make sure the regulatory regime is fit for purpose. But let’s not fall into a tick-box mentality. Ideally, we should be fostering an ethos of exceeding minimum standards, not letting those regulations distract us from our big-picture goal: to build great buildings that make people’s lives better.

We can set the right tone by walking away from business where it’s clear a quality product cannot be delivered for the price expected

Admittedly, such an ethos is difficult in a low-margin environment, where too many contracts are being awarded on the basis of lowest cost. Many quality issues start with pricing. We can set the right tone by walking away from business where it’s clear a quality product cannot be delivered for the price expected, and it’s essential that we do not get dragged into excessive (and dangerous) cost engineering.

I was pleased to sit on the CIOB Quality Commission, consisting of former CIOB presidents such as myself, which came together following some very high-profile quality failures in 2017. We consulted with the sector widely and sought to really get under the skin of the quality problem from technical, organisational, and human perspectives.

Out of that work came the CIOB’s Code of Quality Management – published in September 2019 – a comprehensive set of standards and processes to help in the delivery of quality on construction projects.

To follow that up, the CIOB will soon be launching the Best Practice Guide for Construction Quality Management – a practical tool with plenty of visuals that shows very simply how all the elements of quality fit together.

I’m optimistic that this guide is going to make a real difference, adding to the many ways CIOB is already raising the standards of professionalism in our sector. The guide shows how all the members of our complex ecosystem can come together and work collaboratively in pursuit of good quality. The guide is lengthy, but that’s because there’s no magic bullet solution.

That said, culture underlies everything. Yes, we have challenges with confusing codes and the lack of uniform quality standards, but we need to ensure our professionalism and commitment to the public interest is stronger than the desire to clear the lowest acceptable hurdle. And because quality in construction is as good (or bad) as the weakest link in the chain, we need to create a culture that is intolerant of any instance of poor quality, no matter how small.

I am optimistic. I see the culture change starting. I see a growing understanding that quality in the built environment is synonymous with the quality of people’s lives – for ourselves and for the users of our buildings. Professionalism in construction is as important as it is in the medical profession. Lives and livelihoods are at stake. We need to keep pushing.

Sir James Wates CBE is chairman of the Wates Group and the BRE Trust