Where to Now?

John Held , 6 March 2019

John Held argues that we need to take both collective action and individual responsibility if we are to address the complex, tangled problems of procurement, quality and risk. 

In the past weeks architects have read reports on the Opal Tower and the recent judgment on the Lacrosse fire case. They ask, “What does it mean for us? Will we still be able to get PI insurance? How much risk am I taking and why? What role do procurement options play in these cases and in problems with building quality and safety more broadly?”

It is far too early to comment specifically on these cases, but I’d like to make a few comments more generally. As a director of a small practice I don’t have much experience in larger multi-storey buildings or in the more complex legal agreements relating to novation and risk allocation. What is obvious to all, however, is that constructing a large building is an extremely complicated task with multiple interactions of professionals, clients, project managers, specialist and generalist trades. Reading the reports reinforces the convoluted, entangled nature of contemporary procurement and delivery models and raises many questions about their efficacy.

I recently visited Wichita, Kansas, a centre for aircraft manufacture. The attention to detail and quality control there is impressive – traceability, testing, checking, and quality systems are required to prevent planes falling out of the sky. In contrast, the building industry seems fragmented and disorganised, with the emphasis on shifting risk rather than eliminating it. Relationships built up on one project are often discarded for the next. Technical knowledge is often lost rather than transferred and developed. Price rather than quality or value is often the driving force – and yet risk is often unpriced or built into inefficient systems.

The issue of the role of design and construct procurement in quality and safety has been raised by many in recent times. It is dealt with at length in the Shergold Weir report, which identifies many of the problems.

  • Novation of the consultant team fundamentally changes the relationship between the client and the architect and other consultants. Yet many clients willingly relinquish the independence of that team in the name of apparent cost reduction or risk transfer. This doesn’t say much about the ability of architects to sell their value as independent professionals who can add value to the built environment.
  • The trend for governments to adopt design and construct, particularly for social infrastructure with complex and changing briefs, is worrying. The loss of professional expertise within government departments is demonstrated by the gap between the authority to commission capital works and the expertise to understand the nuances of procurement and risk. It’s not easy to write Principal’s Project Requirements for a complex project with multiple stakeholders without detailed design works.
  • The novation of professional services might limit control over design decisions, but – as the Lacrosse judgment makes clear – it does not reduce liability, nor does it change the way the original service agreement was worded.
  • Time and cost pressures and the open-endedness of the design process make it attractive to not sort out key design decisions early. This can have significant impacts further into the process.
  • Early contractor involvement and Design and Construct are not the same. There is no reason why procurement methods cannot gain the advantages of the former without the limitations of the latter.

Prefabrication, lean construction, integrated project delivery and virtual building show ways forward that require clarity, clear process, and time and space to solve construction problems before work on site commences. The slowness of the adoption of such techniques is frustrating and depressing.

Recently I came across a 2004 report from the CRC for Construction Innovation titled “Construction 2020” by Dr Keith Hampson and Professor Peter Brandon. It looked at the future of the industry in 2020 – now only a year away – and included summary pages for “best dreams” and “worst nightmares” for the future. The “worst nightmares” list was a pretty good summary of where we are. Part of the reason we are in this situation now is the lack of rigorous evidence-based research into the construction industry, particularly around procurement to show what works and what will inevitably fail, and the effective communication of such knowledge to those within the industry.

Where does that leave us as architects? I don’t think anyone has all the answers. It could be that the era of the industry complaining about “red tape” is coming to a close as it realises the red tape was there for a reason. That keeping pressure on governments might result in coordinated, sensible and clear regulation, and that unsafe materials – whether cladding or cabling or plumbing fittings – must be banned from use the same way airbags are regulated and banned if faulty.

Acting together in association, making our voices heard and joining with the wider construction industry to achieve safer, better quality buildings is important. But as well as collective action, think about your next client architect agreement. Your next quality procedure. Your next project plan that outlines relationships and expectations. Your next fee negotiation. Your next risk assessment or safety in design report. Your next novation deed. If you are not comfortable with it now, how much more uncomfortable with it might you be in the future? And, if necessary, speak up, and be prepared to walk away rather than sign on that fateful line. Your future, and a tiny bit of the future of the profession, might hinge on that decision.

John Held is ACA National President, ACA – SA President, and a director at Russell & Yelland in Adelaide.  

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