Enhancing the design or specification of office buildings has become unsustainable – they generally increase construction costs, and often the ‘improvements’ are unnecessary


In our industry the enhancement of some developments has always been seen as important – but it might be time to focus on what else is important and challenge the status quo. With the cost of construction testing viability and the supply chain in a fragile state, perhaps a reality check on design and specification is not a bad idea.

A good starting point, like many things in life, is what and why? What are we building and why are we building it? Who will use the building and how will they use it? Simple questions, I know, but often overlooked as people charge off to create something they think is the right answer.   

If by having more bells and whistles than other competing schemes in the same vicinity translates into a better chance of finding an occupier, why would you turn anything down? 

We all want to be associated with successful projects, and some aspire to achieve awards and industry recognition. To what extent do we really target the occupiers requirements? Or perhaps a better question is, to what extent are we catering for multiple occupier requirements and building in so much flexibility that the cost and time of construction is being pushed up? 

At the risk of being controversial, I’m struggling to remember the last time that anyone associated with letting an office building was brave enough to say “no” to an idea around enhancing the design or specification. And to be fair, if by having more bells and whistles than other competing schemes in the same vicinity translates into a better chance of finding an occupier, why would you turn anything down? This mindset, then, creates an environment where many want to have “more” than their rivals, hence the continuation of enhancement. 

Do modern workplaces have to comply with British Council for Offices specifications across the board? 

A project team is made up of different disciplines representing different interests, so most decisions are debated in search of the optimal answer, helping to ensure that important criteria which will help define project success are maintained in a state of equilibrium – otherwise known as cost, time, quality and risk. I am reminded of a former business partner telling me many years ago that “anyone over the age of five shouldn’t always expect to get everything they want”.

Being a quantity surveyor (aka cost consultant), you may not be surprised to hear that I believe there are always ways in which unnecessary construction costs can be eased, but it is the definition and debate around the word “unnecessary” which is key. For example, do modern workplaces have to comply with British Council for Offices specifications across the board? Why design a building for a 60-year life and knock it down after 30 years? Do we have to have granite on the floor and walls? Do we have to clad buildings in materials such as bronze? Do we have repetitive floor plates, geometries and details throughout the building (please) or are we creating many versions and types of details and components (no, thank you)? 

The building absolutely must be fit for purpose and provide great space, fantastic amenities and a high-quality look and feel. It must contain the highest sustainable credentials, provide durability and there must be an effective maintenance regime; however, there must also exist the opportunity to “rein things in a bit”. 

In addition to design and specification, it’s always staggering – bordering on depressing – to appreciate how much cost is sunk into a construction project which is not physically seen at completion. By this, I am referring to cost items such as management and supervision, organisation costs, temporary works, insurances, permissions and approvals. The direct labour and materials only represents a fraction of the total construction cost. 

This does, of course, shine a light on the topical issue of how projects are delivered, as the benefits of design for manufacture, prefabrication generally and efficiency through repetition would assist in removing cost and improve construction programmes, thereby enhancing the certainty of experience for both client and builder. Creating a more sustainable industry (with the aid of more efficient processes) would also be a fantastic breakthrough, as carbon-neutral targets for buildings become a growing reality.

Whether we are trying to save money, build  more quickly, build more safely, reduce carbon or provide a greater level of certainty to a construction project, the “what we build” – design and specification – and “the how we build” it – methodology and process – are obviously not mutually exclusive. 

With client appraisals in the balance and the supply side struggling through continued low margins and a diminishing workforce, perhaps now is the time for a reality check on the detail of what we build and how we deliver it.

Iain Parker is a founding partner of Alinea Consulting