The economic downturn isn’t without its consolations. It seems to be ushering in a new age of collaboration in construction and a more sober reckoning of what we’re about
At my end of the construction spectrum things seem to be pretty busy. To a large extent this means that work that was in progress is still in progress. As planning consent has been prised out of the council for work on a listed building in Westminster, we have been instructed to proceed to the next stage. I suppose that as very little of my present workload involves speculative development, the changing market conditions don’t affect what I am doing as badly as they might otherwise do.
At least my clients can see materials being delivered and tradesmen beavering away so they know where their money has gone – something they never quite found out from their teenage financial wunderkinds before they peeled off into the sunset in their Ferraris. Much as I’d like to take credit for prescience and market control, this state of affairs is mainly to do with luck. And timing. But when developers have got lucky in the past it has been as much to do with the interplay of those two factors as anything else, so it is just another example of what goes around coming around.
One thing that is different in this sort of climate is that it is not quite so much a question of making money as not losing it. Or making enough of it to keep everything going while things level out. I found myself in a site meeting where I have been novated to the contractor. Years ago I might have thought that this would be the erosion of my traditional skills, and the fact that I am now being paid by the builder rather than the client was a complete abnegation of the traditional process. But the builder has allowed a certain amount of bunce in his tender, and we can discuss how much of that is available, and what is the best way of spending it to further the client’s interest. Because if there is any more work, that is where it is going to come from. I know how the client’s organisation operates much better than the builder does, and I can explain that fine-tuning the work to improve the way the staff manage the finished product is far more important than a few courses of coloured tiles.
Knowing just how much clients can mess builders around comes in handy when you find yourself representing the party in the other corner
The other deeply wonderful thing about no longer being the client’s representative is that the project manager has to do all those things that I used to do and no longer have to. Again, I first thought this was something that I would resent very strongly, but the project manager does the job much better than I ever did; it means less work for me and I never enjoyed doing it anyway, which is probably why I didn’t do it very well.
On the other hand, sitting around talking to builders about how one can get the most effect for the least expenditure is something that I like doing very much. And knowing just how much clients can mess builders around comes in handy when you find yourself representing the party in the other corner. Obviously there is a strong element of making the best of what you have, as there isn’t as much around to have as there used to be, but it all helps to make construction a collaborative exercise, which is what it needs to be. God knows what it’s like for those QS firms out there that are getting tenders back miles lower than their estimates, which mean that the consultants have already spent their fees and will have to fund the oncoming war of attrition out of what they have already had. If their clients survive.
I always thought it would be nice to work for one of the ancient, established property estates. They’ve sat out more recessions than I can imagine. When times are hard, they can get all their maintenance work and refurbishment improvements carried out by builders who will not only give them very competitive prices but will behave themselves when they are appointed.
One thing that is different in this sort of climate is that it is not quite so much a question of making money as not losing it
On a bigger scale, I cannot work out whether having the Olympic project is a good or bad thing. It keeps people busy, and it’s not as if someone has invented a construction project in order to do so. Whether what is being built is worth having remains to be seen, but it is likely to cost much less than if we were all still enjoying the “sky’s the limit” building boom.
It is an ill wind and all that, but the most encouraging aspect of the way people are trying to deal with the current downturn is seeing how the green agenda is becoming more central to strategic thinking. There is nothing like not knowing quite where the next job is coming from, or when it is likely to arrive, for making us all think a lot more carefully about what we are doing now, and what we’d like to be doing in the future.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London