Professor John Coles’ report into the building defects that led to emergency closure of 17 schools in Edinburgh in 2016 makes sobering reading for anyone who cares about our industry and the reputation of those who work in it.
The report lays bare the failings of those responsible for the construction of these buildings as well as the potential consequences that could have resulted were it not for “a matter of timing and luck”.
Poor-quality bricklaying, inadequate supervision and “fundamental and widespread failures of the quality assurance processes” all contributed to the eventual failure.
In fact, so serious is this case that SCOSS (Standing Committee on Structural Safety) has published an alert to highlight the structural safety implications of the report.
So how could those responsible have got it so wrong?
In its submission to the investigation, the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) highlighted the use of design and build and what they believe is the lack of independent scrutiny that results from using this form of procurement. In my experience, design and build itself is not synonymous with a lack of quality or quality control. It is probably the most common form of procurement used today and defects on this scale are rare.
I think that we have to look beyond the procurement process and understand the behaviours that led to an acceptance of poor workmanship on these sites. This was not a single defect affecting one building, this was multiple defects that occurred on a number of projects, procured and constructed as part of a single programme of works. The only conclusion that one can draw from this is that the failing was a systemic one, which is a point that bears closer examination.
Paul Nash, CIOB president
Much of the industry reporting of this case has focused on the failings at trade and supervisory level. But there are many unanswered questions about the role of those responsible for commissioning, directing and managing these projects, which have wider implications for our industry and society.
And the report comes at a time when the issue of quality in construction has been making the headlines for other reasons. Recently Bovis Homes announced that it was setting aside £7m to compensate buyers for defects in new homes, recognising that their production processes were “not sufficiently robust in order to deliver the quality of homes to our customers when we would expect to deliver them”.
In other words, quality was being sacrificed for speed of delivery. For Bovis the immediate impact of failing to manage quality was on the bottom line, although the damage to its reputation is arguably greater.
Elsewhere, the investigation into the fire at Lakanal House highlighted that defective workmanship and a lack of quality control can have much more serious consequences. In this case, a lack of adequate fire protection was found to have contributed to the rapid spread of the fire that resulted in the deaths of six people. And this at the same time that the report into the Edinburgh schools identified that there was a lack of adequate fire stopping, which would have made the buildings unsafe in the event of a fire.
As professionals we have a duty to the industry and wider society to act responsibly and ethically. This defines what it means to be a professional. And we all have a responsibility for the reputation of our industry and the wellbeing of those who work within it.
It is important that we understand the issues that allowed these defects to occur and act to ensure that it does not happen again. To this end the CIOB will be reaching out to the other professional bodies and industry representatives to create a forum to discuss the issue of quality in our industry and the steps that we need to take to improve it.