Standard forms of contract are one of the biggest problems in our industry. (I can already hear all the lawyers, project quantity surveyors and other consultants and contractors murmuring "rubbish".)
The one group of professionals that is probably not wondering whether my audacity outstrips my stupidity is developers. They are used to structuring every contract as a one-off. The result is that they organise the commercial deal and its accompanying legal agreement to reflect their respective rights and commitments. In the process, the average development surveyor gets a real understanding of what they have contracted to deliver. And on top of this, all the other parties refer to the agreement, which then gets reflected in architects' instructions, tenants' specifications, building contracts, and so on.
At the other extreme are all the JCT/NEC/ICE (and so on, and so forth) standard forms. Now, let's be honest: how many people really know their way round these documents? If you read the pages of any professional property magazine (yes, including Building), it will be full of advice on standard forms and the implications of making a change. So my guess is, not many people really understand what they mean.
When you change one clause or section of a contract, you may change the whole structure and meaning of an agreement. This tends to mean that the prefix "standard" is a bit of a misnomer, and as a result, people can relax and assume that another member of the team will have picked up on those changes and their implications.
If an alteration is made, it must communicated and implemented throughout the labyrinth of contacts and supply networks that go together to produce a normal building – which means that the chances of imperfect contract knowledge leading to a catastrophe are high.
So why does the world of construction continue to use a protocol that is so likely to lead to confusion and dysfunctional communication? Because the idea of standardisation has been sold by clear-thinking, intellectually rigorous professionals as the way to achieve better results. What they have failed to do is get ownership and commitment to deliver from the industry and, consequentially, we have poor results.
Let’s be honest: how many people really know their way round standard forms of contract? My guess is, not many
As with any vicious circle, the chain of poor communication, poor results, poor business performance, poor career opportunities, poor skills and so on feeds on itself. It is one that the industry has discussed for decades. Could the use of standard forms of contract be a contributory cause of this poor performance? If they are designed to improve the industry, they do not seem to be having the desired effect.
Now, the average project team will tell you that they do not have time to create unique contract agreements for each project. As a result, they default to standard forms, which, as I have already suggested, are not clearly understood or are delegated to one part of the team (usually the project quantity surveyors). This is a bit like only telling one member of the football team what the rules of the game are, and then being surprised if the team is a bit disorganised.
But let us just suppose – and I suppose it can be only a supposition – that the whole team did sit down and fully establish the rules, sign up to the team and agreed to be held clearly accountable for their own and the team's performance. The chances are that we would have more successful projects, happier clients and a larger number of projects to work on.
To test my theory, I asked a leading barrister and an architect to give their views on my idea.
To my surprise, they both agreed with me without a moment's hesitation. So what's to stop the industry doing something about it?
Paul Hodgkinson is chairman and chief executive of Simons Group.