Ben Derbyshire writes for Housing Today

On the quality trail

No names, no military-style punishment of marching up and down carrying full equipment, but two years on from the Grenfell disaster, it’s almost as if there are some people responsible for design and build procurement who are hoping the role that poor procurement played in the tragedy will be overlooked, and will be able to carry on as usual.

Tales abound in the technical press (to which I can add to from personal experience) of critical support components omitted, resulting in external envelope failure; parapet cavity trays wrongly installed such as to rot a structural timber frame to the point where a whole building must be evacuated – just two examples of the most basic constructional defects.

But it’s not just poor construction, it’s the culture too that seems unremittingly awful.

I have been asked by contract managers to contribute to the construction budget from our fees in cases where design development has resulted in one element of the cost plan increasing, irrespective of others that have become less costly during design development. We have had to advise members of our team to withdraw from meetings when construction managers become abusive. Colleagues have reported experienced project architects reduced to tears as a result of bullying.

Flashback – and one week to the day after the Grenfell fire, I am speaking at the CIOB conference in Cardiff, announcing that I have agreed to a memorandum of understanding between the presidents of the RIBA, CIOB, and the RICS to work together in the interests of achieving reliable, predictable quality. In particular, knowing the world of design and build procurement as I do, my thoughts were to have not just the contractors and the architects around the table, but the employer’s agents too.

There are many other scenarios in which the golden thread of quality is severed, but in my own experience, never so comprehensively and frequently in the world of housing procurement. Some registered providers, admittedly, have given up on D&B, realising their drive for cost certainty has left them with a dreadful legacy of quality problems.

Others persist in the belief that removing the concept architect at the contract stage avoids the nuisance of fussy architects objecting to cost savings and value for money.

The truth, more often, is that the winning tenderer needs to restore margins meaning that cost cutting, masquerading as value engineering, reduces the quality. Architects are often kept away from this process, and from site operations too, so that the savings can be introduced without interference. Add a shortage of expert labour, lack of supervision and the toxic cocktail is complete. It is no wonder that the participants caught up in this race to the bottom sometimes resort to inappropriate behaviour to cope with the stresses it imposes. And in any event, we are now witnessing newly built housing blocks decanted, empty and awaiting repair at a time of a housing crisis.

Our collaboration between the three institutes, whose members play a key role in delivering new homes, resulted in a project team lead by Nigel Ostime of Hawkins Brown Architects, devoted to the development and trial of a “quality tracker” tool. At its launch, he said: “This is a significant cross-industry initiative which will enable clients and construction industry professionals to achieve better long-term building quality. The industry needs a shared definition and method of measuring quality, and better ways to account for risk and uncertainty – and this tool is an excellent response to those issues. I urge all industry professionals to pilot and help to shape its development.”

Ann Bentley, the Construction Leadership Council guru on procuring for quality and value, has been clear that we do not need more handwringing reports – “Just do it”, she has been saying. But she also acknowledges that there is a tendency to believe that just doing it always applies to someone else – she has a phrase: “Yes, but not on my project”, or words to that effect. All very well, but as Ostime says: “There is a clear need for something that will shine a light on quality – at a bare minimum regulatory compliance – to bring it out from the shadow of time and cost.”

I know that procurement is high on the list of issues that Alan Jones wants to address as president of the RIBA. Like me, the original signatories of our MoU have moved on. I urge Charles Egbu and Chris Brooke, opposite numbers at CIOB and the RICS to pick up where we left off. It’s a matter for the industry’s leaders to make sure that poor procurement, inadequate understanding between team members, lack of continuity in the project lifecycle, and failure to see that buildings are correctly built do not perpetuate this crisis in build quality. I commend the “quality tracker” as a means to that end.

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