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Shovelling off risk has to stop – but how?

A shift from minimum compliance to ownership and responsibility for safety is needed for construction to move on after Grenfell, and that starts with procurement, heard the final discussion in the Rebooting Construction series

Risk and cost are words that have come to dominate the construction industry’s contractual relationships. In its attempts to minimise both, however, the industry has left the greatest risk and cost to be borne by the people who live in its buildings, both at Grenfell Tower and other blocks currently deemed unsafe.

In her Building a Safer Future report, published in the wake of the Grenfell fire, Dame Judith Hackitt highlighted the importance of contractual relationships. ‘The procurement process kick-starts the behaviours that we then see throughout design, construction, occupation and maintenance,’ she wrote. ‘The agreements made determine the relationships between those commissioning buildings, those constructing buildings and those occupying buildings’. 

Hackitt’s proposed route to resetting those behaviours and relationships is a new regulatory framework spanning procurement, design and construction, with defined roles and responsibilities in the project team. For higher risk residential buildings, she proposes a ‘golden thread’ of information, which would accompany the building through its lifetime, and three gateway points for risk assessment during project delivery – at pre-planning, pre-construction and handover stages. 

Cultural change required

But in her interim report, Hackitt issues a warning to the industry, writing, ‘Changes to the regulatory regime will help, but on their own will not be sufficient unless we can change the culture away from one of doing the minimum required for compliance, to one of taking ownership and responsibility for delivering a safe system throughout the life cycle of a building’. Construction’s flawed relationships and culture were acknowledged by those from different sides of the industry taking part in the recent round table discussion, Rebooting Construction in the UK, hosted by RIBA Journal in association with Hilti. But participants had varying views on how they could be remedied.
Design and build came in for criticism from Hackitt in her interim report, described as ‘particularly problematic in facilitating evolutionary design, which fails to be properly documented or reviewed’. 

‘Design and build can be made to work with the right mechanisms and the resources but it does create certain difficulties in experience,’ said professor John Cole, member of the RIBA expert advisory group on fire safety. ‘Quite often that’s to do with the appointment of an employer representative, in my experience usually being a quantity surveyor or a QS with project manager experience, but rarely someone with technical or detailed design knowledge. And yet they have the responsibility of ensuring that what is actually implemented on site is compliant with the employer’s requirements.’

Clients often lack the industry understanding to procure buildings properly, Cole said, contrasting the 75 contractor design portions on a project he recently reviewed with the 15 on a similar project a decade ago. ‘Something like 65% of a building’s construction value is being designed by people you [the client] don’t even know,’ he said. ‘The subcontractors haven’t been appointed, their designers haven’t been appointed. Yet you think you’ve gone through a procurement process that protects you.’ 

Design and build – referred to by some contractors tellingly as ‘design and dump’ – is commonly misunderstood, said Will Freeman, design director at Wates and non-executive board member of the Architects Registration Board. ‘There is a misconception around how D&B can support the industry and also why it gets a bad name,’ he said. ‘The contractor employs an architect to take on the design liability, but often architects that are novated don’t seem to fully understand that and are constantly trying to pass risks down the line. That needs to be addressed.’

Other countries are really, truly using BIM, using a profit share model around the whole project, with everyone involved

Total BIM

Gary Neal, head of fire at Skanska, argued for greater use of digital design tools, saying, ‘We’ve got no excuse nowadays. Why can’t we design a building completely before we’ve actually stuck a shovel in the ground?’. The point was picked up by Paul Langford, global head of fire protection at Hilti. ‘Some projects we’ve been involved in recently in other countries are really, truly using BIM, using a profit share model around the whole project and they’ve got everyone – from client to subcontractors – involved in those BIM models,’ he said. ‘The feedback is that the process has worked out cheaper than if they’d used a conventional approach, so there are models out there that show you can have collaborative design, especially using BIM as a catalyst.’ 

Al Beevers, head of health and safety at Argent, went further and proposed an integrated approach to design procurement. ‘We should be paying for more co-ordinated, complete building designs, rather than an MEP design and a structural design and an architectural design, almost all done in isolation,’ he said.
Early engagement

Finally, the case for earlier engagement was set out by Neil Farrance, partner at Formation Architects. ‘I would suggest that early engagement has the potential to reduce costs and abortive work, it reduces the amount of doubling up and reduces inefficiency,’ he said. ‘It enables the people who are going to be responsible for procuring the packages and building it to input on buildability and there can be a genuine focus on value engineering in the genuine sense of the term; looking to achieve value for money rather than simply trying to cut corners and find ways of saving money.’

He continued: ‘Design and dump is often used by clients to try and reduce their own risk, their own exposure, whether it’s risk to cost or risk to time, and place that risk with other people. But it doesn’t necessarily result in a cheaper building and certainly doesn’t result in a better one. There’s much greater potential to improve quality, buildability, efficiency, competence, save time and reduce risk.’ While participants had differing views on the industry’s way ahead, Farrance’s words suggested a positive vision for the future. 


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