In that holy trinity of any building project – cost, time and quality – it is quality that causes the longest lasting headaches. Once a building is completed and worries over cost and time have subsided, it is quality, or the lack of it, that the client, facilities manager and users have to deal with for the rest of its lifetime. Yet, whereas cost and time come in pounds and days, the judgment of quality has been restricted to architectural brahmins, who speak only in a strange, inaccessible language. This has to change: the quality of a building is too important to be left to the designers.

Now, at last, a "design quality indicator" system has been devised by the Construction Industry Council to give the stakeholders of a building a scorecard for marking every aspect of its design, just as key performance indicators measure the time and cost of the building process.

The problem with the DQI, of course, is that is that it is yet another damn initiative. And given the grassroots resistance to KPIs, do we sincerely want another method of marking building performance? In fact, the DQI is more than just a management wheeze. It is a checklist of 90 statements in non-technical wording that provides a language common to the most casual visitor and the most specialist designer. It is not so much a marking system as a communication tool and structured agenda for discussion.

On pages 38-43, Building reports on a pilot project, in which the DQI was used to provide feedback on an 18-month-old swimming pool in Walsall. Here the structured discussion pinpointed weakness, such as a faulty air-handling system, that needed rectifying. Such structured discussions would play an even more important role at the start of a project, where they could be channelled into preparing a thorough and balanced brief for the design team. It would bring a building project team and the people who pay for, manage and use the completed building closer together – and that is not to be sniffed at.

Amey in the stocks
The sentiment of many contractors this week might be summed up Gore Vidal's aphorism: "It's not enough that I should succeed. For happiness, others must fail." The others, in this case, are those who repositioned themselves as "support services" firms to avoid the stigma of construction. Now, just as the City's faith is being restored in contracting, share prices of Amey & Co are tumbling over fears about their balance sheets (page 22). But it's a bit early for schadenfreude. Amey's woes were caused by holding back PFI bid costs; post-Enron, investors are jittery about any confusion over numbers. Expect other big PFI contractors, such as Amec and Carillion, to come under scrutiny too; indeed, contractors generally face an anxious time. In this industry, judging when to declare costs and profits has always been more of an art than a science. The only consolation is, with profitability harder to assess, the City will concentrate on cash flow. This, at least, will allow contractors to live by their favourite aphorism: "Cash is king".