Perhaps this architect should have attended a recent conference called What Do Construction Clients Want? Despite the diversity of clients present, the level of representation by the various consultant professions, who purport to give expert advice to clients, was very poor. When the floor asked the client panel why they thought this might be the case, one client replied: "Professionals in the construction industry are convinced that they alone know what clients should want. When they do condescend to consult us, they do little to avoid the impression that they regard us as ignorant of the importance of design and naive about the so-called unique aspects of the construction process. The same view was expressed by a client at a recent Institution of Structural Engineers/client debate in Scotland. Can there be any justification in this criticism?
Economists will tell you that when a group of experts get together, they inevitably set up a conspiracy against the public interest. Across the UK economy, generally the self-interest of the traditional professions has been one of the last bastions of exclusivity to succumb to the competitiveness of the market. Medicine, the Bar, education, transport have all had to dismantle elements of their closed shops, because their customers had no confidence in the services they were given.
The same is true for the construction client. They feel that they are entitled to receive high-quality independent advice from qualified professionals, directed at the clients' business interests rather than the intellectual and economic interests of the professionals themselves. Unfortunately the reality of the situation is that there is still a long way to go before this is widely accepted and put into practice. Of course, there are examples in the UK of world-class design solutions. Some of these produce reflected glory for the client. But how often are they actually ego trips for the consultants, which enhance their professional reputation but benefit the clients' interest more by chance than intent?
When experts get together, they inevitably form a conspiracy against the public interest
A contractor recently told me a story. Tendering for a project in Manchester, his team decided to go to the tender interview and explain that yes, they could do the project as designed and specified, but they had grave concerns that it would not meet the client's needs at the end of the day. The reaction of the design team at the interview was predictable and the contractors' team left under no illusions that they had blown their chances. A few days later, though, they got a call from the client – he also had concerns about the proposal but every time he had raised these he had been told the designers knew best. In the end, the contractor and the client negotiated the project themselves and dismissed the design team.
With attitudes like this, time is not on the side of the consultants. Accelerating Change, the report by the strategic forum, is currently out for consultation. One of the key elements of this report is a proposal first raised in the Latham report. Then, the concept was referred to as the professional adviser, now it is called the independent client adviser; the basic premise being that if clients take advice from organisations that have a vested interest in the solution being construction, the advice will not be disinterested. (I hear the entire professional community cry "not I". Well then, why am I currently reading drafts of two quite independent pieces of work that clearly state that this is the experience of clients, particularly the small and occasional?)
Zara Lamont is chief executive of the Confederation of Construction Clients.