Second opinion The road to construction hell is paved with indecision. Thank God for people who know what they want.
“Uncertainty,” our client said, “is the real killer.” He was right, too. Just think how many construction projects have been damned because of indecision. Whether it is uncertainties over funding, end-use, budget, site ownership, ground conditions, eco-friendliness or just the colour of the front door, doubts can lead to endless arguments, the breakdown of working relationships and, ultimately, project failure.

In recent years, with the proliferation of lottery-funded projects, there has been a tendency to assume that the lottery fund or the heritage fund or the millennium fund will provide practically any sum merely for the asking. All you have to do is find a site ripe for development, think up some suitably plausible community benefit, get some pretty pictures done by an architect (for free, on the understanding that he’ll get the commission) and hey presto! But it’s not like that, as one or two lay clients have discovered.

When the Millennium Commission says it will provide matching funding, it means just that. You cannot argue, “OK, so we were a few grand short, you’re not going to let us down now?” Nor is the commission tolerant of escalating costs – a budget is supposed to be set and adhered to.

So, it has come to pass that a few well-meaning but inexperienced patrons have found themselves running out of cash because they didn’t understand that the contingency fund was there to cover unexpected problems, and didn’t put enough money into it. “Well, I thought contingency was a figure that the QS added on just in case he’d guessed wrong.

I didn’t think I was really going to need it,” they say. Mmm. And with rumours of insufficient funding (and there will always be rumours), the contractors get nervous and start upping the interim valuations, the design team gets demoralised at the thought that its fees will be the first to suffer, and the site team begins to wonder if it is worth making the effort to get the building right if it is not going to be finished. At worst, there are site walk-outs and, sadly, almost completed structures left desolate and unused, stark reminders that the lottery is not the answer to the construction industry’s prayers.

Then there is design indecision. Once upon a time, a client would commission an architect with a nice specific brief and the design team would develop a solution (a single solution) that met the client’s needs.

I know of one civil engineer who, when asked to redesign a car park drainage scheme for the fifth time in as many weeks, flatly refused

These days, clients that know exactly what they want are a dwindling breed. There are developers that will promise all sorts of extras to potential buyers without necessarily realising their implications for the building process, first-time clients that are swayed by the latest fashions; then there are the corporate clients that suddenly need to change the colour of everything because of a company takeover, or want to add a floor or a basement just before handover because they have just noticed that there is nowhere to put the IT department.

Of course, these are some of the challenges that make design and construction so fascinating, but they can also disrupt a design team’s strategy and balance.

Engineers have reluctantly become accustomed to redesigns and the struggle to keep up with changes but, at some point, it becomes too much. I know of one civil engineer who, when asked to redesign a car park’s surface water drainage scheme for the fifth time in as many weeks, flatly refused, pointing out that the contractor was already building to his construction drawings, and that the client and architect would, frankly, just have to lump it. (Do I hear a muffled cheer from the ranks of the engineering fraternity?) You don’t have to be quite that radical, but there is certainly a danger that frustration will set in and a sense of “what’s the point in designing anything if it’s a dead cert that the client’s going to change his mind again tomorrow?”.

This applies equally to architects: having evolved a pyramidal scheme to fit a limited urban plot, you can understand the anguish of the designer who is asked to find another 3000 m2 – and still issue the tender drawings for the same deadline.