… especially on these iconic buildings, made infamous by latent defects. The question is, why do problem projects keep getting built – and how can the industry learn from its mistakes?
building failures have hit the headlines again. The most dramatic story, of course, was the collapse of Terminal 2E of Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, in which four people died. On a smaller scale, Hackney council has admitted that it may be cheaper to demolish and rebuild the £32m Clissold Leisure Centre rather than repair it, the holiday firm Saga has announced a £10m recladding project for its headquarters in Folkestone and the opening of the Bath Spa thermal baths has been postponed for months while its pools are repainted.

All four are landmark buildings designed by celebrity architects – Paul Andreu worked on the airport, Stephen Hodder was responsible for Clissold, Sir Michael Hopkins designed Saga's Kent office and Sir Nicholas Grimshaw tackled Bath Spa. None is more than five years old. To these four can be added Arup's wobbly Millennium Bridge over the Thames in London, which cost £5m to rectify in 2002, and Ahrend Burton Koralek's Isle of Wight Hospital of 1991, which has been totally reclad at a cost of £16m. All of these buildings were dominated by their cutting-edge architecture; whether the problem was in design or construction,, a duller building may well have been a more reliable one.

So we are once again in the grip of an epidemic of building failures. Or are we? Certainly, the six projects mentioned could hardly be higher profile, and this casts a shadow over the pinnacle of the construction industry. But are defects on the increase across the board? The answer is we don't know for sure, for the simple reason that there are no longer any systematic surveys of building defects in Britain – or at least, none that is made public. The study of building defects was used to be a mainstay of the old Building Research Establishment, but these stopped when it was privatised in 1997. Government research on construction has dwindled since its funding passed from what was the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to the DTI, and public authorities no longer retain technical expertise in the buildings they develop and run. Insurance companies, which do compile data on defects claims, are prevented from disseminating it by the confidentiality of out-of-court legal settlements.

Alan Smith, a partner in defects consultant Bickerdike Allen Partners, regrets that the UK has no equivalent to the French agency, Socatec. This organisation technically audits designs on the basis of the feedback it gets from insurance claims. The nearest British equivalents are the NHBC, which collates claims on private housing, and Building LifePlans, which covers housing association developments.

Trophy architecture sets out to be adventurous, and this stretches technical competence to its limits – or beyond

Lack of comprehensive data prevents the industry learning from its mistakes. Constructing Excellence, which spearheads the government's campaign to improve construction, has zero defects as one of its prime objectives. But it shies away provoking controversy by pointing the finger at actual failures; instead, it tries to encourage team spirit using 400 model demonstration projects instead.

Surveying the building industry as a whole, it is becoming more technically and managerially competent. Specialist contractors are taking responsibility for the design of the building elements they are contracted to install. The IT revolution makes technical information instantly available and aids the design process. And non-adversarial partnering contracts encourage members of project teams to share problems rather than take defensive positions.

But several trends are emerging that cast a less rosy light on the industry. As indicated by the six defective projects mentioned above, more and more clients aspire to iconic architecture that might distinguish and promote their image. Beginning with lottery-funded civic projects, such as Clissold and the Millennium Bridge, the trend has percolated through other building types, including ones that have had no problems – for example, city-centre office towers such as Foster and Partners' Swiss Re in the City of London, and London Metropolitan University's jagged graduate centre, designed by Daniel Libeskind. Trophy architecture sets out to be adventurous, and this stretches technical competence to its limits – or sometimes beyond.

When the first PFI schools came out, they contained elementary mistakes, such as putting the entrance in the wrong place

Bill Bordass, building feedback consultant

Running in parallel with the drive for trophy architecture is a widespread eagerness to use cutting-edge materials and technologies, often before they can be tried and tested in use. In its campaign to speed up housing development, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is trying to foist off-site fabrication, including the use of volumetric modules, on housebuilders. Conscious of the potential problems of high-rise volumetric housing systems, BRE is launching a certification system in August. Mike Clift, BRE's associate director in charge of whole-life performance, E E points out the problems: "Volumetric units can be subjected to deformation during transport. If they have steel frames, there's a risk of interstitial condensation. And damp gets in all over the place, particularly above eight stories, where there are all sorts of wind eddies and whorls." Latter-day procurement methods also have a lot to answer for. Traditionally, local authorities and regional health authorities had in-house technical departments that were able to acquire, refine and retain expertise on the housing, schools, hospitals and other public facilities they developed and ran. These days, the trend for privatising, contracting out and PFIs encourages developers, design teams and contractors to bid for building types they are not familiar with.

To Bill Bordass, a building feedback consultant, this is a dangerous development. "Local authorities have thrown their learning to the winds, and PFI teams are not plugged in to the history of the buildings they're designing. I know of one local authority that drew up technical guidance notes on school design. But when the first batch of PFI schools came out, they contained many elementary mistakes, such as putting the main entrance in the wrong place, which could have been avoided if they had consulted the guidance note. There should be a culture of more exposure and feedback."

A similar problem comes with the current system of tendering specialist work packages with design responsibility. According to BRE's Clift: "The design part drops out once the packages have been tendered, and it is just left to the contractor. And PFI is just the same as design-and-build. To get the tender information out, the design team takes it only as far as halfway through RIBA design stage E, and it is left to the subcontractor after that. In the old days, the consultants carried out detailed design, and this was repeated in the subcontractor's shop drawings. Now this double design process has been eliminated, and though it reduces design fees, I wonder what the effect will be on defects."

The trend to pass a project from concept architect to executive architect also gets stick from Bickerdike Allen's Smith. "Trophy designers get some landmark design through planning, and then quite often it is handed over to a different practice, perhaps appointed by a design-and-build contractor. They are obliged to deliver on time and to budget, but where's the quality?"

Perhaps the most fundamental latter-day design problem is how to integrate the building elements, each of which has its own distinct technical expertise. As Bordass puts it: "Integration and interface are the two key words. I tend to find that specialists are good at their specialisms, but they're not good at seeing how they fit into the whole building strategy. They are hopeless at the interfaces, and that means that the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

"For instance, I was called in to help an architect detail an office building. The problem was that there were seven different facade treatments. The site team was quite professional at zipping up curtain walling, but where it hit the eaves and the ground slab, it was seriously bad news. On site it was a complete disaster, as there was no technical interface package."

Smith takes a similar view. "Everyone talks about integrated procurement. But is that what really happens? The risk is that we are simply addressing the individual bits and pieces of a building. Each may be done with competence by a trade contractor, but who puts all that lot into the bigger context? Project managers are able to manage time and cost. But we say the architect should be in overall charge of delivery for a quality design product to function properly over 10 or 20 years." This problem is exacerbated by ever shorter periods for the design to be done.

Logging the defects on social housing

External masonry walls account for the greatest number of claims in housing association homes. In the year to June 2001, claims related to external masonry walls made up 23% of all claims, double the figure of a year earlier. This is revealed in risk management consultant Building LifePlans’ defects database, which covers all housing association homes insured by Alliance Insurance.

Chris Loerns, development director at Building LifePlans, says: “Poor workmanship in the construction of masonry walls in an area exposed to heavy wind and rain leads to ingress through cavity and substantial damage to inner leaf. Localised repair is usually carried out, but in some cases rebuilding of the wall was required.

Costs measured in the hundreds of thousands of pounds.”

Another recurrent problem revealed by the housing database was defective construction in floors and walls. The design was often adequate but the workmanship poor. “Sound transmission leads to prolonged arguments and many attempts at repair have still proven to be inadequate,” says Loerns. As for the causes of housing defects in general, poor workmanship was creeping up and overtaking design. “This is down to a combination of skills shortages and poor supervision on site,” reckons Loerns.