Many public buildings constructed since 2000 could have potentially lethal problems built in, the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) has warned.
Neil Baxter, RIAS chief executive, said a recent report into the structural failings of 17 Edinburgh schools had highlighted problems that could be replicated in other publicly-funded buildings.
Last week’s 260-page study into the Edinburgh schools fiasco found that inadequate quality supervision on site allowed bricklayers to leave out basic structural units such as wall ties, because their inclusion would slow construction down, at the expense of the contractor’s profitability.
Failings of this type caused the collapse of a wall at Oxgangs Primary School, with no deaths only because of “timing and luck” according to John Cole, the report’s author.
Subsequently, similar issues were found at all the other Edinburgh schools built under PPP (Public Private Partnership) and at recently-constructed schools in Stirlingshire, Glasgow and Lanarkshire.
The RIAS submission to the Cole inquiry was released last night. It highlights a “significant change” in project management over 30 years, which has seen the responsibility for safety and quality assurance in building pass from architects and clerks of works to project managers working on behalf of contractors or developers.
A wall Oxgangs Primary School collapsed last year
Too often these new arrangements, while boosting corporate profits, created public hazards, Baxter claimed.
“In contracts where there is too much emphasis on cost saving, there have been a number of occasions when architects have reported concerns relating to specific building safety and building quality issues,” he said.
A lax attitude to quality and safety, as contractors and developers pursued the highest profit, meant that too often buildings were unsafe, he said.
“If we don’t act on this report, there is a good chance people will die,” Baxter added.
“The system effectively builds in a conflict of interest: the contractor has an interest in terms of ensuring his shareholders are well served by profit, so he minimises cost. This may well be against the long-term interest of the client, the public, the users. This is simply not the best system.”
Willie Watt, president of the RIAS, said: “When major inquiry reports are published there is a tendency for everyone to breathe a sigh of relief, mutter ‘well that’s that dealt with’ and move on.”
He said that was not the case with the Cole inquiry, and the message was simple.
Submissions made to the inquiry by architects, engineers and property managers confirmed the picture of declining standards. An unnamed local authority property director said: “If an architect speaks out [about quality assurance issues] then they risk not getting more work from main contractors.”
Meanwhile, readers of Construction Manager have been adding their voices to the debate with numerous comments on the website.
Bob Brooker MCIOB commented: “Appalling situation all brought about by senior management clients and architects who cut corners to increase productivity and ultimately maximise profit margins.
“I spent 26 years with the MoW and DoE supervising major projects my passion was quality control and in the main good results were the norm, but as far as the abysmal situations on some contracts in this day and age there will be no improvements in quality until contractors, clients and architects give more attention to site control and employ clerks of works as a matter of course.”
While Mike Devine added: “I see poor workmanship all the time in my role as a surveyor who post-inspects work. A big issue is the lack of knowledge on the management side. If you don’t know what it should look like you can’t supervise it adequately.”