Here’s an immutable fact: the world is changing faster than we can put buildings up. So, when it comes to big construction schemes, it’s naive to expect a precise specification and no changes mid-project
It’s the most basic tenet of construction: tell the contractor precisely what you want and let them get on with it. That way, materials can be ordered and delivered and work programmed with the utmost efficiency and method.
Woe betide you if you make a change, as the history of the Scottish parliament building or the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff will attest. I still hold that it is beyond the wit of man to fully legislate for all eventualities on big construction projects. However, we do have forms of contract that are written to allow us some flexibility in the decision-making process. To my mind, the only good contract is the one that stays in the drawer and is never used by either party.
But the world is changing at an ever increasing rate, which means that a long-term construction project is out of date before it’s even got on site. And we do not have the power possessed by the Chinese government, which has just completed the construction of the Three Gorges dam across the Yangtze river in China. This cost about £52bn and required the compulsory demolition of 1610 factories and the displacement of 1.3 million people.
It makes our arguments over compulsory purchase orders and land requisition for the 2012 Olympics seem quite tame …
But we have to build buildings for five, 10, 50 and even 100 years hence, and there is going to be an awful lot of change between now and then.
Do you remember the fuss and trauma caused by the “millennium bug” six years ago? A whole industry was generated around the fear of global computer meltdown; where is it now? Lost in the annals of time and the memory of paying large invoices to IT consultants who no doubt now own large yachts moored in the Caribbean.
Over the past six years, we’ve had stock market crashes and bounces, famines, wars and terror. It wasn’t long ago that pension funds were so full we weren’t allowed, by law, to put any more money into them. People were planning on retirement at 55, looked after by their endowment policies. Now you’ll be lucky if you can stop working when you’re 70 and the term “endowment” has all the kudos of an Enron share certificate.
Just five years ago, universities built rooms for students to access PCs; these are now redundant thanks to laptops and wi-fi
Every famine or war has an impact on us in that it brings a new set of people to our shores. I am told that teachers in the East End of London know what languages and cultures they will meet in two years’ time by watching the world news.
The use of emails and internet has boomed in the recent past – blackberries used to be a fruit used for making jam. The term “pods” was applied to a group of whales – now they are small, portable and for many surgically attached to their ears via headphones. They didn’t exist a few years ago and now they are taken for granted. Look around you on the train at the number of people fiddling with MP3 players, or tiny, sophisticated mobile phones. It has been suggested that by 2012 more people will watch the Olympics on their phones than on TV.
As recently as five years ago, universities built rooms for students to access PCs; these are now redundant thanks to laptops and wi-fi.
One of the joys and challenges of constructing buildings is that as soon as one exists in its entirety, another appears that is just that bit better or more efficient or more exciting. And there is often nothing you can do to change the one you have. By their very nature, concrete, bricks and steel form a finite model and, despite architects’ best imagination, we are not dealing with ectoplasm.
Social evolution is happening at an ever increasing rate, we probably will look back in 10 years’ time and laugh at the way we do things now. Change is an immutable reality and through it all people, for the time being, need buildings, facilities and immoveable accommodation. Whether they cost £60K or £6bn, buildings take time to materialise in a concrete form and while we can build in a degree of flexibility we will need to evolve buildings as they progress on site. Which leads us back to the inherent challenge of coping with change. We have to accept that a big project, like human nature, is changeable and will inevitably bring a moving specification from both the client and society and this will bring with it the problems of delays and extra costs.
Spare us any change or give us some change – the choice is yours, but either way it costs.
Richard Steer is senior partner in Gleeds