The conversation spiralled gloomily downwards as he rhapsodised about builders of the past who'd welcomed the chance to test their skills on great buildings. Something has been lost, he lamented. Soon, challenging buildings such as the Hong Kong Bank, Canary Wharf or the Millennium Dome will only be built by firms from the other side of Channel or the Atlantic, and who knows where some of the subbies might be found?
Pressed further, my lunch partner conceded his analysis was a little simplistic. It wasn't quite right to say he couldn't find a builder for his project. What he couldn't find was a builder prepared to build for a guaranteed maximum price. That's design and build by any other name, by the way. Construction management is off the catwalk. GMP is very much the current procurement fad.
As the management consultants say, the paradigm shifted. From feeling defensive about the deficiencies of British builders, I suddenly felt encouraged. It struck me, here was a sign of increasing maturity among the contracting fraternity. Since time out of mind, builders have been accused of undercutting one another to secure the work, any work. Forget the price, we'll sort that out through the claims process.
In one sense I was saddened to think that at a time when good architecture had never been more appreciated by clients and the public, putting up distribution sheds was a contractor's idea of an acceptable risk. On the other hand, what my friend was describing was a heartening coming of age, an unwillingness to take on work at any price and then to make a margin through some wily quantity surveyor. And let's face it, life for any contractor (or, indeed, designer) is just too short to go through the ridiculous GMP novation process and then find itself landed with some of the more, shall we say, demanding of the current crop of architectural stars.
Of course, economics plays a part in this scenario. If work is plentiful, no contractor puts its head in a noose. And if it's not, any client can dictate terms. At the moment, the terms of trade tilt in favour of the contractor – and so my friend's client should have realised it would have to struggle to obtain a good GMP deal.
If work is plentiful, no contractor puts its head in a noose. If it’s not, the client can dictate terms
Or should it? Perhaps it was hoping that a builder would be dazzled by the glamour of the project – the reflected glory that might rub off on the company's name. After all, British builders have regularly been suckers for the Big One, the glitzy building that attracts acres of PR material and looks so impressive on the corporate CV. Look at Laing and the Millennium Stadium, to take one recent example.
But that's precisely why there's no queue of takers for this glamour project – the name of which I've sworn not to reveal. It's the maturity thing. British builders aren't going to take the risk of catching a cold, even if that means they also turn off potential high flyers in the process.
Of course there's still many a regional, for example, keen to have an Oxbridge college in the brochure. But the bigger fish are, it seems, demanding their rightful rewards – and embarking on a GMP for a complex building with unproven technology is no reward. Gone are the days when a few medals on the mantelpiece and a snap of the MD rubbing shoulders with the Duke of Edinburgh unveiling a plaque was ample compensation. Whether it's because the accountants who run the show these days don't like 55-year old schoolboys playing with their toys, or whether it's because the City (the same institution demanding GMPs) takes a dim view of such pranks, I don't know. But it certainly seems to be the case that contractors have put away childish things. Morrison turned its nose up when the chance came along to build the Scottish parliament. The brothers haven't pocketed near on £30m each by getting sentimental.
So clients wanting to have their cake and eat it are looking around the world for builders with deep pockets who are looking for the construction equivalent of climbing Everest to plant their flag.
And where better to look for big, beefy enthusiastic can-do builders than Australia? Well done Ken Bates for spotting Multiplex. The company is prepared to build the new Wembley for £50m less than fellow Aussies, Bovis Lend Lease, so it really must be keen to lose money and show what a good sport it is.