ACA President’s Comment

John Held , 27 September 2020

Better procurement practices will support building quality, but also healthier, safer work practices for a wide range of people in the construction industry, says John Held.

Too many conversations in the construction industry start with a complaint about procurement. Wikipedia notes procurement is used “to ensure the buyer receives goods, services, or works at the best possible price when aspects such as quality, quantity, time, and location are compared”. Sometimes the quote a little further down the page seems more relevant: “Formalised acquisition of goods and services has its roots in military logistics, where the ancient practice of foraging and looting was taken up by professional quartermasters”.

Many in the construction industry feel like they have been on the receiving end of a looting raid. Talk to any subcontractor or supplier who is asked to take all the risk on a project that they cannot control. Talk to architects about fee cutting to a point where the job cannot be documented or serviced properly. Talk to those leaving the profession for project or design management. Talk to clients who do not understand the value of design. Talk to governments whose only objective is to shift risk onto someone else. Talk to lawyers who know their contracts are unfair but write them anyway. Talk to apartment owners bankrupted by shoddy construction. Look at statistics on mental health and suicides in the construction industry driven by unmanageable risk and despair. Read the ongoing transcripts of the train wreck that is still being outlined in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Read the latest report on the Health of the Australian Construction Industry from Melbourne Uni. 

Is it possible to have a fairer system? Sure. Why has it not improved? Could it be a combination of wanting lowest first cost with unreasonable timeframes and disregard of both design and construction quality? A lack of a real understanding of risk and how to manage it? Sometimes we could add greed and perhaps corruption.

Architects do not help their cause with arguments that appear introspective and self-serving. It is easy to dismiss complaints about fee cutting if it appears the architect is the only party to lose out with reduced fees. Builders and subcontractors also lose out when given poor documentation even if it leads to variation claims.

In March 2019 I wrote about the complex, tangled problems of procurement, quality and risk. Has anything changed since then? Certainly, in NSW David Chandler is making waves – preventing start-up construction companies from building apartments using design and construct procurement. Some other states are implementing aspects of the Shergold Weir Building Confidence report – but others are seeing further evidence of poor procurement practices. The Australian Building Codes Board is in the process of consulting with architects on its National Registration Framework, but its remit is limited to the scope of the Building Code. They are aware, however, that procurement is a major issue and that it must be addressed at a national level.

As well as improving our own standards, supporting research into procurement options and lobbying governments to improve their own procurement systems, perhaps we need to become more personal. As well as the newly minted Architects Mental Wellbeing Forum in Australia, the ACA is supporting the ARC-funded research project on work-related wellbeing among architects and architectural students, led by Naomi Stead and Maryam Gusheh. It would be good to know how poor procurement decisions affect mental health and office culture, and whether architects can really enjoy their work. There is little point in creating delightful architecture if one cannot be happy during the process. This applies to the rest of the construction industry too – poor decisions about risk transfer, price and program are contributing causes to family breakdown and suicide levels in the industry.

COVID-19 might have given us better insights into what we really value. We were prepared to value the health and safety of our community as being as important as our economy. Perhaps we can go back to those making procurement decisions with new questions – to what extent do the procurement decisions affect the health and safety, in its broadest sense, of those involved in its creation? On your Safety in Design Risk Register, there should be a new category – procurement. Will the client happily sign off when it says “extreme risk”? New questions might finally result in new answers. Let’s hope that is the case.