It was the celebration dinner of the National Joint Consultative Council in Norwich, and they were there to hand out prizes and watch a slide show of brickwork that was absolutely perfect. As were the slides of stonework, carpentry and plastering. There were slides of roof design, of openings, of a church screen that were a joy.
I watched the watchers. There were more than 250 of them. They lapped up the success, the quality, the high standard brought about by real putter-upperers. I saw no one lose interest, no yawns, no chattering. And then, when the prizes were handed out, there was an acknowledgement of the work of the whole team – the architect and builder and client, too. Then more joy because prizes were handed out to the best apprentices – lads who are the next generation of craftsmen, lads who already know that painting and decorating is what can make or break the finished job. What is it about this quality that instantly converts a piece of construction into something well above average?
And do you know that none of this high-quality work was in accordance with the contract? JCT Minor Works requires the contractor to build in a good and workmanlike manner. So, too, does the JCT Intermediate Form. JCT98 broadens things: it requires the workmanship to be in accordance with whatever is specified in the documents, and where it is to meet the satisfaction of the architect, it must be of a reasonable standard. The engineering forms such as ICE can be said only to require standard workmanship.
In any event, an ordinary building contract, whether written or oral, will carry an implied term that the workmanship is to be good and workmanlike … that's all. So, when a chippy makes a real top-quality job of the junction between the barge board and the soffit, he is not acting in accordance with the contract; he is giving more than the customer bargained for.
It dawned on me that hardly ever do I see a contract that calls expressly for a higher than ordinary standard of work. The work need only be of average quality to comply with legal obligations. Average brickwork is OK, average plastering, average painting and decorating … A case in the 1950s hinted that a building "built down to a price" may only have to reach the standard for that type of bargain.
An ordinary building contract will carry an implied term that the workmanship is to be workmanlike … and that’s all
But put all that aside. How about some of you architects upgrading the standard of workmanship from ord to alpha? What I mean is, coax your client to go for craftsman quality of the sort my builder friends in Norfolk can produce. Alpha is first-quality work. Ord is the ordinary everyday contractual standard. The client, of course, pays more for alpha. But real builders will be very happy to take on this work. They love doing a great job. This, however, must be explicit in the contract. Do not hide the message on page 491 of the specification. Print the alpha sign on every page of every document. Maybe we can coax JCT to print its forms as JCT Minor Works Alpha and JCT98 Alpha. Explain in the specification that alpha is first quality, not ordinary quality, work.
And can you clients and architects introduce alpha forthwith? Why? Because I have a feeling that all the high falutin', clever talk of reforming construction into an assembly line activity is the beginning of dumbing down. Yes, you can build factories in factories and assemble them on site. Yes, you can knock out Honda cars that are perfect – and perfectly dull (they are, they are). But I want a building that feels good. Do you know what I mean? A prefab doesn't have a personality. Beautiful stonework, beautiful joinery, beautiful finish is art, done by lads and lasses with feeling.
We can defeat dumbing down by calling for craftsmen on site. It won't take much more than the alpha sign on the next tender document.
Of course, you could ask for an extra over price for alpha quality … test the water.
Come on, all you clients. Don't build down, build up. You might win next year's prize.
Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator specialising in construction