Let's hear it for the design manager

12 May 2011

Acting as the intermediary between construction and design teams can be an underrated role. Denise Chevin reports on a new CIOB-backed plan to raise its status.

It’s not the kind of role that is showered in glory. But projects that don’t have a good design manager soon know it. The contractor runs out of information and is left standing idle. The frame gets built to the wrong size and it doesn’t fit the cladding, or the services won’t fit in the riser. These are just some of the problems that might occur when no one is acting as a go-between, or translator, for the design and construction teams.

Design management has come to the fore on the back of the need for better co-ordination and delivery of information from design teams to main contractors, particularly on design and build contracts. The advent of design packages by specialist subcontractors has also increased the demand for the role.

The design management role can encompass overseeing internal and external design consultant teams, controlling the development of the
design concept into manufacturing and managing the installation information. It’s about process and people management, requiring a blend of management, technical, people and communication skills. Or as Alex Newing, head of design management at Costain, puts it: “People who have a willingness to deal with creative people and can cope with less tangibility tend to make good design managers.”

But while the importance of design management has grown, exactly what design managers do and their status on a project varies enormously. Quips suggesting the design manager is the site’s photocopier may be apocryphal, but it’s symptomatic of a role that can still have a bit of Cinderella feel to it.

John Eynon, head of proposals at Wates and chair of the CIOB’s Design Management Forum, has now instigated a new CIOB-backed initiative to raise standards, create a better understanding of the role and bring a degree of uniformity of thought to the process. The main thrust will be the production of a DM Code of Practice — The Design Manager’s Handbook — to be published in 2012.

“In the medium term we want to explore the formation of a cross-institute Special Interest Group for Design Management and to develop a learning and development framework, which recognises the rich diversity of the people that do this role, ranging from the graduate to the seasoned industry professionals who have worked their way through from the trades,” says Eynon.

All of the leading UK contractors have design management teams to some extent. Due to its position, DM sits very closely with other roles in project teams, such as bid management, estimating, pre-construction management, project planning and programming. In addition this can include being “client facing”, for instance dealing with briefing, and managing compliance with the Employer’s Requirements.

On-site DM roles are much more construction information focused, maintaining and co-ordinating the flow of design to enable construction work to proceed efficiently, as well as facilitating cost control and buildability review processes.

People enter into this role from all sorts of backgrounds including architects, technologists, engineers, surveyors, administrators, construction managers, and site managers. Job titles are extremely variable, and so are qualifications — ranging from none, through construction and design degrees, to BTEC/ONC/HNC. There are now a few bespoke DM degree courses available in the UK. One course is at Northumbria University, where a handful of students graduate with a BSC in design management every year. Paula Bleanch, senior lecturer in construction at the university, says that even in the downturn those with this qualification have been in greater demand than other disciplines.

Recruitment consultant Gary Sheldrake, senior business manager Hays Construction, concurs. “There has been increasing demand for design managers particularly from housebuilders in the last six months, with people now moving jobs to get a better deal.” Salaries range from about £38,000 to £55,000, though the average of early 40s is lower than it was two to three years ago, he says.

Eynon, himself an architect, concedes there are cynics who question whether this is a role and ask whether it isn’t something architects or engineers should sort out for themselves. Another issue is that it furthers the trend for architects to get one step removed from putting buildings together. But as Eynon points out, whether it’s carried out by the contractor’s team or the design management team, it’s an activity that has to happen

“DM is a relatively recent role recognised in the industry. Consequently this is still developing, and the practices, tools and roles are still emerging. It is highly probable that this will flex over time, and I think the impact of technology in this area will be immense.

“Who knows? Today’s design manager could be the next generation’s BIM manager or technologist, dealing with compiling 5D BIM models that provide all design, manufacturing and construction information, as well as financial and procurement information, whilst providing an on-going vehicle for controlling carbon emissions, energy consumption and facilities management,” says Eynon.

If you want to know more or want to be involved contact

Top tips for design managers

Charles Rich, of the Charles Rich Consultancy, advises:




Back to basics: Expert witnesses

Expert witnesses are often used to resolve construction disputes. And for more than 400 years these expert witnesses have enjoyed immunity from being sued for negligence.

But on 30 March this year the Supreme Court brought that immunity to an abrupt end. The case in question was Jones v Kaney and concerned the appellant’s claim against his own expert who had decided, after a telephone conversation with the other party (the defendant), to switch sides.

The appellant’s expert signed a joint statement with the defendant’s expert. That statement included comments such as that she found the appellant (for whom she was acting) to be “deceptive and deceitful”.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this was very damaging to the appellant’s claim and as a result the appellant had to settle for significantly less than he would otherwise have done.

There was evidence that the appellant’s expert had been negligent. But the underlying issue was: could he sue given the long history of expert witness immunity?

That issue came, on appeal, before the Supreme Court and after a detailed consideration of the case law, the court ruled that experts should no longer have such immunity.

It remains to be seen whether this decision will open the floodgates to claims from disgruntled litigants against their experts.

What is clear, however, is that this does mark a new era for experts. If they are negligent, their clients will now be able to take action to recover any resulting losses.

The impact of this could mean that professional indemnity insurance costs rise for professionals to cover the liabilities they face as expert witnesses.

By Stuart Thwaites, associate in the construction law team at Wright Hassall.

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