Wall ties and bricklaying to blame for Edinburgh schools failures, finds report

12 February 2017 | By James Kenny

A lack of proper scrutiny in construction work has been cited as the main reason for the debacle that forced 17 Edinburgh schools to close last year, according to a new report.

The long-awaited independent investigative report criticised the construction company involved as well as City of Edinburgh Council and the partnership that managed the building contracts. 

An inquiry was set up last year following the closure of the schools due to safety failures. Around 7,600 pupils were affected by the closures.

Leading architect and procurement specialist John Cole headed up the inquiry

In his report, he said: “The fact that no injuries or fatalities to children resulted from the collapse of the gable wall at Oxgangs School was a matter of timing and luck.

“Approximately nine tonnes of masonry fell on an area where children could easily have been standing or passing through.

“One does not require much imagination to think of what the consequences might have been if it had happened an hour or so later.”

The 250-page report identified fundamental defects which led to the wall collapse:

The report said: “It is the view of the inquiry that the primary cause of the collapse of the wall at Oxgangs school was poor quality construction in the building of the wall, which failed to achieve the required minimum embedment of 50mm for the wall ties, particularly in the outer leaf of the cavity wall. The poor quality relates to all three of the following aspects:

“All three issues were ultimately the responsibility of the design and build contractor in charge of the site.”

The report said it was not the result of an isolated case of a rogue bricklayer.

It said the substandard bricklaying was either not inspected or was ignored, that an appropriate level of independent scrutiny was missing, and that having a clerk of works may have made a difference.

Cole also questions whether the drive for faster, lower-cost construction is to the detriment of quality and safety.

The report recommends the construction industry should re-examine its approach to recruitment, training, selection and appointment of bricklaying subcontractors, means of remuneration, vetting of qualifications and competence, supervision and quality assurance of bricklayers.

The report said: “The construction industry should seek to review this approach to remove any perverse incentive of the payment mechanism to encourage the omission of elements providing the essential structural integrity of walls.”

The 17 schools were originally built by Miller Construction which, together with Amey, was part of the Edinburgh Schools Partnership (ESP) consortium contract. In 2001 ESP won the £360m deal to design, build and maintain the 17 schools for 30 years. Miller Construction was acquired by Galliford Try in 2014.

City of Edinburgh Council said it was drawing up an action plan to ensure confidence in the safety of all its buildings.

An ESP spokesman said: “We have fully cooperated with the council and Professor Cole in trying to establish the facts of what happened with the schools affected.

“Having only just received a copy of the report, we will now take time to consider its findings in detail before commenting further.”


What role did Building Control play? Surely 1 visit by a competent Building Inspector would have identified the issue. In England and wales where we have a competitive system (I declare a bias) each school would have had 20-30 visits and a rigorous plans assessment (either by Independent or LABC).

We receive calls every week from customers working in Scotland asking us to provide Building Control in Scotland, the market wants it and it appears the public need it.

Michael Mongan, 10 February 2017

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 dont know what it should look like you cant supervise it adequately..

Mike Devine, 10 February 2017

Everywhere are doing away with clerk of works, and allowing the main contractor to self certify the work carried out.
If its left to an independent c.o.w there is always a better end result.

Don, 10 February 2017

It is a risk to put people untrained and without proper supervision... without control over what is being done, There is no guarantee of success

Gianni Picciuto, 10 February 2017

Cut price tendering is the problem, as the Client wants a Rolls for the price of a Mini & the contractor cuts back on site management. Clients therefore, cut back on CofW supervision & council's Building Inspectors either don't have the nessary time to inspect their projects or they're inexperienced. However, although the buck must stop with the contractor, where was the Architect?

Richard Moore. MCIOB, 10 February 2017

Again the cost cutting almost cost young lives,where was the clerk pf works?? where was the regular inspections which should have been carried out by the P.C.I expect the P.C site management team was a ONE man team looking after a large job.

Denis Lawler, 11 February 2017

Appalling situation all brought about by senior management .clients and architects who cut corners to increase productivity and ultimately maximize profit margins .
I spent twenty six 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.

Bob Brooker. MCIOB, 11 February 2017

Richard, how many Architects would be able to specify a brick wall tie correctly, and inspect on site?

Technical competency is not exactly a core concern of ARB, from what I have seen in working in the UK, nor a concern of the majority of Architects.

Charles, 12 February 2017

Will we never learn
Ruskin 1819-1900
“It's unwise to pay too much, but it's worse to pay too little. When
you pay too much, you lose a little money - that's all. When you pay
too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you
bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The
common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a
lot - it can't be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well
to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that you will
have enough to pay for something better.”

Keith, 13 February 2017

There are number of comments regarding not paying enough and price driven procurement, however my understanding is that this was procured on a framework with early contractor involvement (presumably selected on a qualitative basis with both price and quality playing a part) and a D&B contract. the prime failure is one of quality workmanship which comes down to trainiing (knowing whats right) and motivation (being bothered to do it right), the secondary failure is supervision and again it comes down to training and motivation. I have long been concerned that site managers are overstretched and a lot of those working in bigger contractors don't really know enough construction, and rely on the subcontractors to do it right because they don't know.
Whilst I agree with Ruskin about paying too little, just because you pay a bit more doesn't mean you automatically get something better - you need to understand not just how much you're paying but what you're getting for your money; and if you don't have the technical knowledge to ask the right questions and make the right checks how can you know?

John Youle, 13 February 2017

Another facet re.the appalling failures to achieve satisfactory standards on both civils and general construction projects was the decision made some thirty years ago by clients architects local authorities etc to let contracts whereby the selected contractor was responsible for design as well as construction and more recently total supervision ( quality control ); all to the approval of those responsible for initiation. There is no doubt in my mind that when it comes to ensuring that the regulations and the criteria for satisfactory construction are to be met ,third party inspections by qualified professionals are required and not one employed by the contractor.

Bob Brooker, 13 February 2017

Bob, much as I've worked on many D&B projects as one of the architects, I must agree with you.

It was for me less than impressive to be told off by a site manager for one company on a project, for daring to take photos of plasterboard walls with puddles at their bases, because water had been pouring through due to the lack of a roof.

On the same site later, being told in no uncertain words by his successor that any comments I might make on a report by TRADA (requested by his predecessor) on the quality of the project were extremely unwelcome, and were not to be repeated at all. I was to do as I was specifically asked to do, and that was the end of it.

On another project, I fought a lot running saga on quality of electrical fittings, with an MEP subcontractor who was quite aggressive (and quite manipulative) only to find it was a waste of time when the PM (put on the spot) decided it wasn't worth bothering, when even the Electrical engineers (who had failed to engage at any time with the project) didn't give a toss about quality.

[I wonder how many of the fittings have been replaced by now, seeing as most if not all of the external IP rated fittings were half full of water only 2 weeks into opening?]

That we end up blaming the architect, who in many cases now is treated as just another subcontractor, is at times in my opinion quite misleading, when responsibility is usually elsewhere (rot starts at the head) and the Architect has little or no power beyond lead design consultant (pretty pictures and planning approval)

Charles, 16 February 2017

The challenge does need to be there, as others have said a COW will look and “poke” around and whilst that is ongoing it does keep the contractor on his toes.
We have “Systems” for quality but you cannot beat getting off your backside and getting out there on the field and looking! As a construction auditor/ Quality Manager I have seen pristine sign off sheets in the office which look great but when you actually delve deeper and look at the work carried out they are not always reflective of each other!

Duncan Haxton, 17 February 2017

I am afraid I have to take issue re.your comment in respect of a Clerk of Works duties in that he visits a site and "pokes around"!! I agree that a lot of quality control inspections are carried out by regular site visits but on a lot of major construction sites a C of W is employed full time and I can assure you that person does a whole lot more than you have stated, with the architect and contractor, keeping full site and progress records ,ensuring safety and access conditions are met, issuing variation orders etc. and of course ensuring good building and engineering practices (quality control) .

Ronald. W. Brooker, 2 March 2017

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