A day in the life of a clerk of works

29 May 2018 | By Neil Gerrard

Until the Grenfell Tower disaster and problems with schools in Scotland, the clerk of works was starting to become an endangered species. Now the role is in demand again. Neil Gerrard asks Tony Mobbs, managing director of clerk of works services firm Hickton, about a typical day.

How does the day start for a clerk of works?

Initially it is about getting to know the contractor and the client and the design team. Once you have done that, you check the architects’ and engineers’ drawings and specifications, because that is our bible.

When you are au fait with what is being built, most of the day is spent outside going around the different parts of the construction, comparing what is being built against the standards.

What do you do if you find a problem?

We normally point it out to the site foreman rather than stopping the work. We are the eyes and ears of the client rather than someone who can actually say stop the work unless there is a health and safety issue.

If an issue isn’t put right then we put it on our report at the end of the week and it is discussed with the client, project manager and contractor who will either agree with you or not.

How are you generally received on site?

We get two types of reactions. We get some contractors who don’t really want you there because you are telling them what to do and they know how to do it, and others are grateful for a second pair of eyes.

Site foremen are very busy – they are looking at programme, time and cost whereas we are only looking at quality so often we are picking stuff up that they can go back to their subcontractors with. In the main they like it. But they won’t tell you that.

How do you win contractors over?

A lot of it is talking to them and getting to know the names of the subcontractors and the team on site and understanding that they have got a job to do.  Then you just point out where the line is for quality and once they realise that they can’t just build anything and you will pick them up, it is agreed where that line is. 

What are the most common defects you find?

Usually it is quite standard – a door not fitting properly in a fire compartment wall, damp-proof membranes not joining up with damp-proof courses, poor plasterwork, poor joinery, poor plumbing and electrical coiling. A lot of what we find is sorted out during the work. The big issues are to do with fire protection.

You need to understand what is required at the start so that when subcontractors are putting pipes through walls, they know whether or not a compartment is there.

Often, they will put a four-inch pipe through a wall, thinking it is not a compartment – but it should actually have a collar and intumescent paint, and there should be a gap between the pipe so you can get the collars in.

Another common one is when you have a compartment wall between bedrooms – typically you need blankets on the ceilings or the wall, carrying on up into the ceiling void, and that is invariably missed.

Surge in enquiries for clerks of works

Enquiries for clerks of works have surged since the Grenfell Tower disaster, according to one provider, and could increase further after the Hackitt Review recommended their use.

In Scotland, where Hickton worked on remedial work for the defect-hit PFI schools, Tony Mobbs (left) told CM that the company had seen a 60% jump in demand.

That was part of a 20% increase in tenders nationally, which was on top of a 20% increase last year, driven partly in response to Grenfell, he said.

Asked why the use of clerks of works had been less in demand until recently, Mobbs said: “I have been to several interviews trying to suggest to clients that they need a clerk of works and often they reply: ‘Well, I have got a design team and I have got a competent contractor. One of them must be looking at quality so why should I pay for your fee?’

“That is a fairly standard response until you then start talking about how, apart from our fee being relatively small, everyone makes mistakes and a second pair of eyes helps the process. A lot of clients buy into that eventually.”

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This makes total sense.

In recent years in my own experience, it certainly seems as though some Site Managers / Employer’s Agents are either not willing to ensure the best Q.A. checks and measures are in place, or are simply not capable; due to lack of experience / knowledge (or I dare say, due to the relentless drive to "Value Engineer" to the detriment of quality / safety etc.)

I would even go so far as to say that certainly for larger or more complex Projects, that a Clerk of Works is seen as an essential job role, and employed as a matter of course, as the cost of employing a Clerk of Works would be more cost effective that not, and then risking issues / problems arising further down the road during Construction, or snagging at Completion and post-completion stages.

Duncan Stewart MCIAT, 5 June 2018

I have worked in both private and Council positions for 50 years and have always respected the CofW position and when they decided it was a money saving exercise to stop using them in the 2000s I complained as at the time I was employed by Derbyshire County Council and they wouldn’t listen! It ALWAYS takes a disaster to make anybody do anything! Very sad!

Stephen Hall, 5 June 2018

so what liability does a CoW have?
they may be the least well capitalised of all the major parties to the overall contract.

ed martin, 5 June 2018

Hooray for clerks of work. Hope to see them back on every site.

Keith Keown, 5 June 2018

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