Oscar Wilde said a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Gus Alexander suspects that much the same is true of value engineers …

‘Value engineering” is one of those phrases like “collateral damage” or “extraordinary rendition” that sounds pretty harmless but really isn’t. When a commercial client tells me that they’ve “had the price back but are just going to do a little value engineering” it sounds as though they are simply and sensibly going to prune a few superfluous items. Unfortunately, the apparently unnecessary is often the most satisfying. What is cut out tends not to be the extra 15 cubic metres of concrete designed into the foundations as a “safety factor”. It means the item of joinery in the entrance hall that I’ve spent 20 hours designing, and that everybody who uses the building would have enjoyed and benefited from throughout its life.

What upsets me more about the concept of value engineering is the ha’p’orth of tar aspect. It always seems to be done where the cuts can be made the easiest, rather than where they will be most effective. “Now these four-minute soft-boiled eggs of yours are wonderful, and we like the nice china plates, and the delicious crusty bread all cut into toasted soldiers smell absolutely delicious … but we’ve discovered we can save a few pence if we cut out the salt”. Value engineering should mean tweaking the figures so the budget can include the cost of the salt.

When I first meet a private client, I warn them that the most expensive phrase in their vocabulary is likely to be “we might as well …”, as in “if we’re going to have a new heating system, we might as well get some decent radiators”. They tend to forget about this until work starts, at which time they suddenly realise why the construction process is so expensive, and why it makes sense to get the most out of the organisation that they have put in place. In this case, value engineering can actually mean adding costs.

What tends to get cut is the item of joinery in the entrance hall that I’ve spent 20 hours designing, and that everybody is going to benefit from throughout the building’s life

I built a “gothic folly” a few years ago on the Isle of Wight where the ground was not at all good. The engineer had insisted on a huge raft being provided under the whole building to stop it sliding down the hill and into the sea. The builder and his team spent a week or two carving into the site while my client stood aghast at the huge pit appearing under his house. “As long as I’m paying for this ridiculous hole, I might as well make it bigger so at least I get a proper basement”. In the event he was right and the building is unimaginable without its generous cavern.

Value engineering is nothing new. When Sir Christopher Wren was starting to build St Paul’s he insisted that the whole building be laid out so that when the funding authority first ran out of money it would be six feet out of the ground. Otherwise he thought they’d just build one section with a roof, enclose that and not bother to finish the rest.

The best-case scenario is where the value engineering inspires ingenious people to find a way of doing the same thing more cheaply. When the pods for the London Eye were first conceived, the benches in the middle were to be made using strips of oak. It was later deemed more affordable if these were made in orange cast polyester. The architects were very unhappy.

The benches in the middle of the london eye’s pods were to be made of oak. It was deemed more affordable to use orange cast polyester. The architects were very unhappy

Then, one of their team found themselves on holiday in France where they had discovered a one-man-and-his-dog operation that made garden furniture. Could they make 26 benches for the same price as the plastic ones? “Bien sur, m’sieur.” They were duly commissioned to do so. When the paying public took their places in the gondolas, as they approached the apex of their ascent, vertigo took hold. A number of the visitors looked for something reassuring to hold on to in their otherwise space-age environment and settled on the sturdy oak seating. Suddenly the extraneous benches were proving to be anything but.

Finally, we must remember the law of unintended consequences. I read about the Wandsworth parks department, where it had been decided to replace a team of five men and a horse with a team of four men and a tractor. After a few weeks it was discovered that they needed the fifth man after all. “Before, when we reached the other end of the park, we used to just whistle for the horse …“

Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London