Opinion

Construction’s parallel universe

1 February 2019 | By Chris Blythe

Crossrail: was anyone paying attention? (Crossrail)

To be taken seriously by those outside the industry, construction needs to learn lessons from its own failings and embed quality in everything it does, argues Chris Blythe.

The construction industry sometimes seems to inhabit a parallel universe. To those outside the industry, and those in government especially, what the industry says has very little value. Any kudos that the industry got as result of the Olympic delivery has long evaporated.

The current cycle of cynicism started with the Edinburgh schools fiasco where bricklayers seemed unable to build walls with the right ties in place, compounded with poor supervision and inadequate inspection which failed to identify the issues. How children were not killed was a miracle.

Dysfunctional industry

About the same time, a housebuilder was alleged to have been involved in a scandal where it was paying people cash to move into unfinished homes, presumably to hit “completion” targets.

Imagine if you went to pick up your new car and the dealer said: ‘The car’s not finished – we still have a door to put on but we need to book the sale, so here’s £50 for you to take it out of the showroom.’ Perhaps if you worked in housebuilding you might take the deal!

“The contractors blame the client and subcontractors, the subbies blame the consultants and designers, everyone blames the lawyers.”

Along came Grenfell Tower and what Dame Judith Hackitt said in her report came as no surprise to anyone. She characterised a dysfunctional industry full of well-intentioned people but missing the point. As if to prove her case, the finger-pointing that followed came as no surprise.

The consultants blame the contractors, the contractors blame the client and subcontractors, the subbies blame the consultants and designers, everyone blames the lawyers, and the designers blame the regulations and the government.

Credibility gets stretched to breaking point with the Persimmon bonus lark. What sort of board of a PLC agrees such a deal and what sort of beneficiaries allow this to roll out the way it did?

Credibility is finally shattered with Carillion. Unfinished roads, hospitals left empty, and the lives of both the people depending on Carillion for providing the means for life-saving treatment and businesses and livelihoods wrecked. It is no wonder the government has asked public contractors to prepare a “living will”.

Appreciating complexity

The big project competency gloss finally went when less than three months before Crossrail was due to go into operation in December 2018, it was announced it would be delayed until December 2019. 

I cannot help but think that someone was not paying attention to what was happening because I suspect anyone working underground could tell you that the opening date was impossible to meet. The criticism of Crossrail is that no one appreciated the complexity of the project.

Is there any guarantee that the same is not the case for HS2? London to Leeds and then Newcastle via Birmingham? Originally conceived to move people quickly and rejustified on grounds of extra capacity, it is already admitting that it is considering running fewer, slower trains in order to save money. 

Is HS2 doomed, leaving devastation to homes and communities in its wake? Or will efforts within the industry to learn lessons and embed quality in construction bring them back to the real world?

Chris Blythe is chief executive of the CIOB

Comments

People learn lessons all right.

Among them are, cover your own backside, makes sure the problem sticks with someone else, take responsibility only when you absolutely must, and if you can't avoid, fudge it so it's not clear you're at fault.

I've certainly seen the manipulations employed by senior staff in the company I work for, and the lack of consequences to same for doing exactly that.

Trying to make sure things didn't go wrong myself, in trying to improve quality, I've ended up being called 'emotional' and then excluded from any further discussion by all involved.

RICS, CIOB and other institutes may require ethics in their members, but it seems what happens in practice is a long way from that ethical position.

Clients are accordingly quite right not to take the construction industry seriously and view it with suspicion, if they really knew what goes on they would be horrified I think.

John, 2 February 2019

The only problem with being transparent through the various management levels within an organisation is where the pressure sits. If everyone is strong enough to hear, & appreciate, the bad news, then the process works. Unfortunately, more often than not someone in the structure is unwilling to hear the honest programme assessment, and informs their reports to 'make it happen', which they try but more often than not fail. Hence, the process fails.

Iain Thomas, 4 February 2019

I have had a long career and worked on some brilliant projects with some very clever people. We still produce competent leaders, often, but not exclusively, members of the CIOB or RICS. It is apparent to me that Contract Managers need to think like Quantity Surveyors and that Quantity Surveyors need to think like Contract Managers. The focus of their thinking should be on ensuring the achievement of sectional completions and understanding the Clients needs. I will give an example, on major projects nowadays much componetry comes from abroad. Contractors tend to assume the contract programme is right and order materials ' just in time', however we are not building identical cars but bespoke buildings and inevitably the programme has been altered by the time the materials arrive. A wait of several weeks then ensues as the building is not ready for the materials to be installed. An alternative scenario is that the Contractor uses off site warehousing near the site to store additional production which an enlightened client will pay for as materials held off site, a 'win/win' for all concerned.
I have noticed more and more that , professionals, the architects, the commercial team, the planners, the section managers are working in silos, firing off emails to their colleagues instead of having productive face to face discussions and forgetting the poor Client.

Robert Durose, 4 February 2019

I have had a long career in the construction industry with many international contractors and was introduced to the saying "that bull sh_t baffles brains!"

Many senior construction managers (numerous international companies) have told me that their Project Managers do not tell them the truth. That they find out when it is too late to problems.

I have frequently heard it publicly voiced that "Construction projects never finish on time and always cost more than 1st declared.

At a seminar on the Fire regulations back in the 1990's we were told the Building regulations priorities were:- 1) get the people out. 2) have the building save for the fire brigade to ensure that 1) was achieved 3) well we can always build another building! This has been the design philosophy on the projects I have been involved.

Quality can be astoundingly poor because of poor supervision.

Continued Employment in the construction industry is rare with projects being completed and perhaps with no continuation provided.

John Morris, 5 February 2019

Robert,

The response I get when I suggest anything from the Architects perspective, is usually 'It's too late', which presumes no design is ever able to developed, problem solved etc. beyond the initial design development stage.

Well, with that attitude, the people who tell me that and to be quiet, certainly achieve that as the outcome.

Very frustrating, and ends up wasting so much of someone else's money.

Charles, 6 February 2019

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