Colin Harding has been writing his column for 20 years now. Looking back over that time, the single most significant event was probably Prince Charles’ attack on architects, and the howls of protest that followed it …
It seems like only yesterday that I was berating the editor of Building for the fact that the views of real builders were not being expressed in their own magazine. After all, for the first 126 years of its life our magazine was rightly and proudly named “The Builder”.
That was 20 years ago and, while there were plenty of excellent columns – particularly by QS John Simms and lawyer Humphrey Lloyd – there weren’t any by anyone doing the real work. The closest thing to a practising builder was Sir Michael Latham, with his extensive experience in the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, but as an MP, he naturally concentrated on political issues.
What irked me most were the columns by Owen Luder, the flamboyant RIBA president. In his inimitable style, Owen implied that the architect had total and absolute leadership of the construction process and team. Some things never change – except that, reciprocally, it seems that my columns are now upsetting architects.
Graham Rimmer, who was the editor at the time, retorted with the challenge that if I didn’t like it, then I should start writing myself. So I did. The first column appeared on 17 April 1987. Pretty quickly, I realised why nobody had tried this before.
The builders, even then, were at the bottom of the contractual pecking order and were expected to keep to their station. The construction industry was stuck in a time warp, bound both figuratively and literally by a masonic code of secrecy and discretion to protect the failing status quo. You could complain as much as you liked about hopeless architects or difficult quantity surveyors, but not publicly and absolutely never in writing.
All that suddenly changed one autumn evening in 1988 when Prince Charles presented a BBC Omnibus programme and scathingly criticised the performance of architects.
My column on 18 November 1988 opened: “I know it was wicked of me but I must confess to enjoying the Prince of Wales’ television extravaganza on British architecture. To the hard-pressed builder, it was a night of poetic justice.”
Years of builders’ pent-up frustration at the injustice and inefficiency of the consultant-dominated regime poured out. There were howls of protest from the architects but lots of discreet support from almost all the other sectors.
But it no longer mattered. If the heir to the throne could openly criticise the architectural profession in this way, so could we.
Consultant supervisors have sabotaged the opportunity to modernise the industry that Latham and Egan presented to us
Prince Charles’ intervention opened up the long awaited debate on modernising the structure and processes of our rigidly traditional construction industry and paved the way for the Latham and then the Egan reviews.
Of course, since then countless other issues have been covered. Those in the first couple of years that are still running are: self-employment, training, our reactionary institutions, the role of SMEs, and government regulation and interference.
The worrying thing is that 20 years on, none of these issues have been resolved, and they won’t be until we tackle the growing domination of the risk-averse supervising consultants.
These people are taking the responsibility and authority for the design and cost control of a product away from its producers. And as this means more effort goes into defensively managing the process rather than improving the product and service, they are the very antithesis of lean construction.
The associated fragmentation of management engenders conflict, which creates the inefficiency, unreliability and wasted cost that construction has been striving to escape. These consultant supervisors have sabotaged the opportunity to modernise the industry that Latham and Egan presented to us, and so put us back 20 years.
We now have a separate minister for architecture, but as we all know, the way to modernise our industry is the total integration of the team and process. That can be achieved only by single-responsibility design-and-build regimes led by the entity that is directly contracted to the client.
This has been a recurring theme of my columns and I make no apologies for returning to it in my 140th. The future of a successful modern construction industry depends on real integration – including architects.
Colin Harding is chairman of Bournemouth-based contractor George & Harding