View Point – Nigel Ostime from Hawkins\Brown

Nigel Ostime, project delivery director at architects Hawkins\Brown, offers some thoughts on how to counter the ills of Design & Build using current procurement.

There has been much in the media recently about the poor quality achieved through Design & Build (D&B) procurement, from examples in the housing sector to the Edinburgh schools debacle. Cut-throat tendering and low margins have led to corners being cut, and the worsening skills shortage has led to poor leadership and oversight. The fragmented supply chain compounds the problems. The problems are well rehearsed, but what might be the solution?

There is talk of a move towards more collaborative ‘alliancing’ procurement, but change in the construction industry is notoriously slow. So, assuming D&B is here to stay, at least for the medium term, what can we do within the current procurement framework?

On the basis that a good start is essential for a successful project, there needs to be more emphasis on RIBA Stage 0 – ‘Strategic Definition’. Clients need to understand that Stage 0 is about getting the business plan right. It comes before the designers are brought on board and it is critical for the good health of the project. Clients need to have a clear understanding of the desired outcomes, both in terms of the building and their profit margin, and then stick to it.

Then in Stage 1 architects need to hold back from designing until the brief has been settled (and clients need to stop expecting their architects to start designing in Stage 1). Stage 1 is ‘Preparation and Brief’ – if there is any design to be done it should be limited to high-level considerations required to validate whether or not the desired outcomes are feasible for a particular site.

A major complaint by architects is contractors stripping out quality. Why is this happening? D&B dislocates the design process but how is there scope for contractors to make changes at all? If the client is accepting lower quality in the built product we have to conclude the designers over-specified the Employer’s Requirements (ERs) or –produced a specification with too much wriggle-room. Yes, clients accept the substitutions but if they were going to do that eventually, why did the designers over-specify during concept and developed design stages?

In Stages 2 and 3 designers need to understand value and deliver it. We need to stop relying on ‘value engineering’ which by its very nature means we didn’t get the brief right or develop the right design in the first place. Value management should be iterative and start with the first pencil stroke, with a full understanding of what the client wants.

Designers must realise that the client defines value – it being what the client wants, at an appropriate cost and timeframe. The fact contractors are able to strip out quality signifies that the client would have been prepared to accept lower quality during the design process, suggesting the designers have not fully grasped the issue of value. (Or perhaps that the client had not fully determined the level of quality they would accept.)

On the other hand, delivering value requires a realistic cost plan and a considered programme at the outset. Too often, the designer is given a brief along with a cost plan that can’t be delivered – or no cost plan at all. The design evolves, only to require redesigning later – this is inherently wasteful. However, the whole premise of this is predicated on the notion of providing a robust set of ERs and design teams will tell you they are often not given the resources, chiefly time, to prepare them. This leads to the next point.

The D&B process encourages clients to ignore risk on the basis that they can palm it off on the contractor. In reality the client pays a premium for this and, usually, has to accept a lower quality product. If time and cost are fixed, in the real world, quality must suffer. The RIBA’s Client Liaison Group will publish a toolkit in 2018 to help clients and designers better understand risk, and acknowledge the consequences of passing it down the line. It is hoped that this will lead to more considered ERs and, potentially, lower tenders, on the basis that contractors will be able to price risk – as a known commodity – more keenly. The toolkit comes with recommendations for improving collaboration between architects and their contractor clients with the aim of getting better project outcomes.

Often there is insufficient oversight by the client (or the client’s agent) during the construction stage, and inadequate quality control by the contractor. D&B has effectively killed off site supervision, and the industry has lost the skills associated with it. Gone are the days of the site architect or Clerk of Works. Under D&B the contractor, by and large, self-certifies quality.

Compounding this, the ageing workforce means that such skills as did exist are dwindling. Architects are becoming less technically proficient as the supply chain takes the strain in Stage 4 and we have less opportunity to gain experience on site in Stage 5. If this is to be reversed, clients will need to recognise the benefits of thorough site monitoring and see it as a good investment in the asset development and asset management processes. Hopefully the recent, well-publicised D&B building failures will help persuade them.

Finally, during Stage 6, we need to do what manufacturers have always done – learn from mistakes and continuously improve. This is done through post-completion feedback, something that is rare in our industry. The Client Liaison Group will be focusing on this next year – last year’s Client Survey showed that client satisfaction is increased just by asking for feedback. g