Dangerous quality lapses in construction, such as that at Oxgangs School, show why architects and clerks of works must get back on site
Over the last few years, particularly following the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 and the discovery, a year earlier, of defective masonry wall construction in schools and other buildings across Scotland, an increasingly strong media spotlight has been shone on sub-standard and potentially unsafe construction.
Among those failures that have attracted most media coverage are two that can directly affect the safety and lives of building occupants and passers-by. One is omissions or inadequacies in fire-protection, including the defective installation of fire-stopping in external cladding and compartment walls and floors, so potentially facilitating the uncontrolled spread of fire. Second is the defective incorporation of essential brick accessories, fundamentally compromising the structural integrity of masonry walls and in some cases resulting in their collapse due to insufficient strength to resist wind loading.
Many projects are of course well-built. However, evidence suggests that a significant and unacceptable percentage of new buildings contain defective construction. The extent of reported construction defects of the two types described above has led to concerns that these defects may be systemic in the industry. Unfortunately, evidence also suggests that these are indicative of wider problems in the general quality of construction.
Both the UK and Scottish governments have expressed concern and have already initiated a series of actions seeking to address the underlying causes of these problems.
While inadequacies in design and specification can and do occur, the cause much more frequently identified is the failure of on-site construction to comply fully with the designs and specifications provided by design teams.
Reasons for poor workmanship
Many contributory factors underly poor workmanship of this type, including: not enough competent tradesmen; contractors failing to ensure the competence or trade qualifications of those working on site; a payment system that incentivises largely self-employed sub-contractors to build rapidly rather than with care and attention; too few main and sub-contractor supervisory staff with the necessary construction knowledge and skills; the selection of contractors and sub-contractors predominantly on a lowest price basis which unsurprisingly tends to result in the lowest quality outcomes; the lack of assured integration of design elements due to the amount of design delegated to contractors; and, most importantly, the inadequacies of contractors’ quality assurance systems.
With the increasing adoption of contractor-led procurement methods, the role of the architect in protecting the interests of the client through independent inspections of on-site work is ceasing to be the norm. The scope of architects’ appointments under design and build forms frequently excludes site inspections and, to add to this problem, the use of properly resourced and competent clerks of works, previously the essential additional eyes and ears of architects on site, has dramatically reduced as clients seek to reduce project overhead costs. As an indication of this latter trend, the membership of the professional body representing clerks of works is a third of what it was in the 1990s. Only now is it beginning to grow again as the impact of disregarding this critical role becomes clear.
Similar downward pressure by clients on the level of professional fees has inevitably led to a reduction in the quality of service that architects, and other construction professionals such as structural engineers, can viably provide and has directly affected the frequency and nature of their site visits. As a result of this combination of factors, thorough independent inspections of the work of contractors is increasingly limited.
This situation has at least two significant repercussions. The first, and most important, is the increased percentage of potentially dangerous defects that will not be identified before they are closed in. The second, is a growing artificial separation of designers from the construction process. This separation inhibits essential feedback as to the effectiveness or otherwise of design decisions – and thereby the informing of future design decisions. Younger members of the profession are getting fewer opportunities to understand the practicalities of construction on site, which may ultimately lead to a deskilling of the profession and affect its ability to effectively undertake core aspects of its functions.
Problems with self-certification
Recent widespread discoveries of substandard and non-compliant construction have demonstrated a reduced ability of clients to rely on the quality assurance and self-certification processes of contractors. Recent evidence also shows that the frequency and level of detail of inspections by building control inspectors, whether private or public sector, tend to be insufficient to ensure full compliance of construction, particularly in relation to work completed between inspections.
It is therefore important that clients, who ultimately retain responsibility for their projects’ legal compliance with building standards, appoint appropriately resourced professional advisers to undertake or oversee, independently from the contractor, all inspections required to provide the necessary degree of assurance. Depending on the scope of appointment, this role used to be undertaken by architects under the traditional model. Employers’ agents, normally appointed to the role in design-and-build contracts, are often inadequately resourced or insufficiently competent to replicate the level of informed scrutiny that designers of a project can offer.
So given the changing position of the architect in the organisation of projects, inadequate client investment in the direct employment of architects or other independent professionally qualified inspectors and clerk of works, the practical limitations of inspections by building control officers, and uncertainty over quality assurance and self-certification by the industry, society must question how confident it can be about the quality, and resultant safety, of new buildings. This serious issue needs to be addressed by those responsible for government policy on procurement, by public and private sector clients, by the industry and by members of the relevant professions, especially architects (see box).
This is a critical time both for our industry and the architectural profession. Goethe described architecture as ‘frozen music’. It would appear that while architects are increasingly prevented from taking up their long-held position as conductor of the orchestra, some no longer want the responsibility of occupying the podium, appearing almost anxious to pass the baton to others, even if some of those others have been found to be tone deaf. In such circumstances the level of discord should not come as a surprise.
Points to consider regarding inspection of the works
- Ensure the extent and limit of your responsibilities for site inspections is clearly defined in your terms of appointment and explained to your client.
- Ensure your fee proposal is enought to cover the described site-related responsibilities.
- Advise your client appropriately, in light of the size and complexity of the project, as to the need/benefit of appointing clerks-of-works.
- Ensure your specification requires the contractor to give the client’s representative weekly signed quality inspection reports on each of the main site activities.
- Advise the client of the need for an appropriate level of independent inspection of higher-risk elements of construction, particularly those with the potential to affect user safety, for example fire compartmentation, structural integrity etc.
- Give the contractor a schedule of areas that specifically require inspection before closing in and specify in advance a list of tests/certificates to be provided.
- Consider specifying regular date-and-location verified digital video recordings, by the contractor, of specific aspects of the construction.
- Ensure that all materials and components used on site and all contractor or sub-contractor designed elements are fully consistent with the detailed requirements of the design and specification.
- When being novated to a D&B contractor, advise the client in advance to specify that the novated design team should undertake site inspections, and ensure that it also obtains separate independent inspections.
- Finally, it should also be made clear whether or not the client will have access to site inspection reports prepared by the novated design team. While not currently the norm in D&B contracts, ißnformed clients have successfully incorporated this requirement into such contracts.
The architectural profession must decide whether its essential raison d’être is still the physical realisation in situ of high-quality, safe, functional, sustainable and life-enriching buildings, or whether it is to be increasingly restricted to creating primarily conceptual design solutions on computers in offices. Architecture only happens on site and it is difficult to deny that this is where architects must be, safe-guarding the accurate translation of their designs into safe, high-quality buildings that will meet the needs and enhance the lives of this and future generations.
In wider industry, an entrenched focus on least cost rather than greater efficiency has facilitated an unacceptable level of sub-standard and potentially unsafe construction. The culture must change to one where the participants at all levels focus on delivering the required quality. Until there is evidence of this essential change, it will be necessary to significantly increase the current inadequate level of detailed independent scrutiny of construction. This could most effectively be achieved by restoring an adequate cadre of well-trained and experienced construction clerks of works supporting appropriately qualified professional client representatives, ideally those who designed the buildings.
Finally, it must be recognised that clients are the starting point in any project. In their selection of procurement model and their specification and designation of services to be provided, they play a pivotal role, either positively or negatively, in influencing the construction quality and safety in use that will be achieved in the building projects they commission. Recent events demonstrate that clients may need to reconsider the effectiveness of their current approaches in discharging this onerous responsibility.
John Cole CBE, an architect and member of RIBA Council, chaired the recent Independent Inquiry into construction failures in schools in Edinburgh. He is a member of RIBA’s Expert Advisory Group on Fire Safety and of the Government-appointed Industry Safety Steering Group.