The construction industry is in a state of permanent revolution, which puts a lot of pressure on those of us who have to build things
The Construction industry has been around for thousands of years, yet it is more that ever an industry of experimentation. These days, almost any building of consequence is an experiment. The more unusual the design of the building the more the boundaries of possibility are pushed. It is no wonder, then, that when disasters occur and defects develop, they tend to be in buildings designed by the world’s top architects. There is no argument for favouring the pedestrian members of the architectural profession who design tried, tested and extremely boring buildings – rather there is a case to understand the troubles that are sometimes inflicted on us by famous names.
The problem for most builders today, be it a leak, a crack or even a collapse, is that the builders’ work often cannot withstand forensic scrutiny. There will always be something somewhere that the builder has done wrong, and it may be unrelated to the problem, but nevertheless shows the builder in a poor light.
The building industry, unlike the makers of microchips, does not operate in an airtight dust-free environment. Construction is subject to wind, rain, snow and heat, not to mention the vagaries of its workforce. Mistakes happen and mostly they make no difference, however as buildings become more complex the consequences increase dramatically.
So what can be done about this? Well, a good start could be made if the client only employed contractors that have done a similar type of building before. An equally good start could be made by builders sticking to the type of work they have carried out successfully in the past. An extreme example would be to employ a contractor to construct a nuclear power station when that contractor has not even built a conventional power station.
It is too common among contractors to believe that they can build anything, that their expertise is universal. This attitude denies the value of experience and expertise. Nobody in their right mind would go to a dentist to have a heart operation. Despite the fact that the training for a dentist is longer than that of a surgeon. Yet in the construction industry, a cheap price and a silver tongue seem an acceptable alternative to expertise gathered on the ground.
When things go wrong, however, it is far better for the builder to investigate the problem and if wrong, to admit this and set about putting it right. This may be a costly course of action but in the end it will prove cheaper for all concerned and at least the builder may have goodwill if not cash.
In construction a cheap price and a silver tongue seem an acceptable alternative to expertise
The words of a long dead chief engineer quoted before in this column contain a dreadful truth. “You only make one mistake,” he said, “you sign the contract.” In the end, the builder tends to carry the can. Solutions to construction problems are often solved by conventional thinking when the original mind can come up with an easier and cheaper solution.
The rather beautiful bridge that spans the Thames between the Tate and the City of London opened in triumph; as the waiting crowd tramped across the bridge it began to sway. The crowd was not marching in time. The late Cedric Price had a solution to this, the erection of a tollgate at one end to break the stride of the crowd. In the end the bridge’s design was adjusted and it reopened.
This was a problem that was, in the event, comparatively easy to solve and not one that in anyway involved the builder. The disaster at Charles de Gaulle airport and a myriad other problems with some of the world’s most spectacular buildings will not be as easily resolved.
The prudent builder takes great care these days as to which projects to undertake. The prudent client takes great care as to which builder will be employed. Today, because of the track record of an industry that seems beset by problems, both builders and clients employ armies of lawyers, and it is extremely doubtful whether they help in any respect at all.
Lord McAlpine is a writer and former treasurer of the Conservative Party.