The benefits of involving specialists early in the design process are huge. Savings of up to 60% can be made. But clients are reluctant. Why is this? Are they being poorly advised and what are they afraid of?

These days, the advice to clients is get specialists involved early. In other words, securing the skills of specialist contractors from the outset of a project can add significant value to the design process. In particular, they can offer a seamless progression from design to construction or installation.

Research carried out by the Department of Civil Engineering at Southampton University suggests that 30% of the costs of the average project are wasted because of poor or non-existent management of the interface between design and construction. The Ministry of Defence’s Building Down Barriers initiative indicates that costs can be cut by up to 60% on some elements of specialist works if a specialist contractor is involved early.

Despite this, the fact remains that few clients do involve specialist contractors early in the procurement process. The question is why? It is worth speculating about the reasons.

Could it be that they are getting negative advice? Are consultants concerned that their

roles will be reduced by specialist contractor involvement? Such fear is misplaced. Clients have much to gain from a close relationship between consultants and specialist contractors.

Or does the problem lie with the client’s legal advisers? Let’s speculate what their advice could be:

  • Standard contracts don’t allow for this
  • Main contractors won’t like it because they want to select the specialist
  • Main contractors won’t take responsibility for a specialist design containing shortcomings if the specialist ends up as subcontractor
  • The specialist is bound to hoodwink the client by using a design that maximises the use of materials and components on which it has loaded its unit rates
  • It is easier to follow the traditional procurement path of having specialists appointed as subcontractors to a main contractor.

However, my gut feeling is that many client organisations simply don’t address this matter. This is, of course, shortsighted. There are three elements in a construction project: design, construction/installation and management (some clients also include maintenance). The question that should be asked is: who is best placed to deliver these within the context of the client’s requirements (especially functional requirements)? This key decision dictates the procurement approach – contracts follow later.

It should be rare for clients to exclude early specialist involvement, especially on industrial and commercial projects. Specialists don’t just add value to the design process, they also provide skills in relation to value engineering, whole-life costs and sustainability.

Specialist contractors are also contractors, however. Having been selected by the client, the specialist contractor would expect to continue on to the construction/installation phase unless his involvement was simply to help the client conduct a feasibility study. If the designer specialist were expected to put its design out to tender, the benefits of having a seamless transition from design to construction/installation would be lost.

We therefore come back to the question of why clients are still reluctant to engage specialists early in the procurement process when the evidence is that substantial savings can be achieved by doing so? Perhaps Ann can shed some light on this.

Clash Points