When we cut through the intoxicating zeal with which many partnering projects started out, we can see a mixed bag of experiences. Reports come in from the very lucky (they have not encountered any problems), the disingenuous (they dare not admit to any problems) and the positive thinkers (a problem is just another challenge to relish). Those in the third category are likely to get the most out of partnering, particularly if they have the means to step beyond their basic legal responsibilities in order to find creative solutions.
One recent example of a partnering problem tackled in this way arose on a £5m tower block refurbishment in the north-east of England when the cladding specialist (a signed-up partnering team member) suddenly went bust. As a domestic subcontractor, it was not the client's or consultants' problem, and the main contractor could have been left simply to find a replacement at its own cost with full liability for any delay. But the project manager knew that there were no comparable cladding specialists within a wide geographical radius, and invited the main contractor to put forward an alternative idea at a "core group" meeting of key individuals.
The main contractor's approved solution was to take on direct liability for cladding, recruiting some of the insolvent specialist's workforce and buying its materials cheap from the administrative receiver. This solution cost the client a four-week delay and £7000. Not hard to swallow, when an alternative specialist would have cost the client a 14 weeks delay and the main contractor £175,000 – wiping out its profit and its motivation to deliver a successful project.
The key was a core group who understood their functions under the partnering contract, and who used consultation based on open-book price information to agree a modest compromise of strict legal entitlements that offered a major benefit to the project.
Of the 100 or so partnering projects on which I have advised, none has ended in a legal dispute. But the honeymoon is over for those who rely on bland expressions of mutual enthusiasm to see them through
However, in order to face such a challenge, a partnering team needs a detailed understanding of its contract. My second recent example is not such a happy story. A £20m regeneration project in the South-east kicked off with passionate declarations of partnering embodied in a Charter, but with no amendments to a standard JCT With Contractor's Design contract. The employer believed that the partnering had led the team to a guaranteed maximum price, whereas the contractor believed that it had cut prices to the bone with site risks and overruns to be shared between team members. Neither of these beliefs were reflected in the contract.
Problems occurred in access and programming that were seen in very different ways by the employer and contractor, and relationships rapidly descended into an old-fashioned "paper war". Only the high profile of the project as an exemplar of good practice obliged the team to limp to completion without descending into adjudication – partnering of a sort, but not exactly what the team had in mind.
So, of course, the problems on partnering projects are just like problems on other projects – namely sorting out technical difficulties, avoiding misunderstandings and navigating a way through unforeseeable events. The key differences offered by partnering should be much earlier agreement of the roles of all team members and more active client participation in problem-solving, using open-book information made available in advance. The results can be impressive – the Rethinking Construction demonstration projects' figures for 2002 show significantly reduced time and cost, reduced defects and accidents and improved customer satisfaction.
And of the 100 or so partnering projects on which I have advised, none has ended in a legal dispute – at least not yet.
David Mosey is head of the projects and construction group at Trowers & Hamlins.