Opinion

CIOB president Paul Nash: Industry must act on Edinburgh schools

13 April 2017

CIOB president Paul Nash says industry cannot afford to ignore the issues raised in the Edinburgh schools report.

Paul Nash

Professor John Coles’ report into the building defects that led to emergency closure of 17 schools in Edinburgh in 2016 makes sobering reading for anyone who cares about our industry and the reputation of those who work in it.

The report lays bare the failings of those responsible for the construction of these buildings as well as the potential consequences that could have resulted were it not for “a matter of timing and luck”.

Poor-quality bricklaying, inadequate supervision and “fundamental and widespread failures of the quality assurance processes” all contributed to the eventual failure.

In fact, so serious is this case that SCOSS (Standing Committee on Structural Safety) has published an alert to highlight the structural safety implications of the report.

So how could those responsible have got it so wrong?

In its submission to the investigation, the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) highlighted the use of design and build and what they believe is the lack of independent scrutiny that results from using this form of procurement. In my experience, design and build itself is not synonymous with a lack of quality or quality control. It is probably the most common form of procurement used today and defects on this scale are rare.

I think that we have to look beyond the procurement process and understand the behaviours that led to an acceptance of poor workmanship on these sites. This was not a single defect affecting one building, this was multiple defects that occurred on a number of projects, procured and constructed as part of a single programme of works. The only conclusion that one can draw from this is that the failing was a systemic one, which is a point that bears closer examination.

"We have to look beyond the procurement process and understand the behaviours that led to an acceptance of poor workmanship."

Paul Nash, CIOB president

Much of the industry reporting of this case has focused on the failings at trade and supervisory level. But there are many unanswered questions about the role of those responsible for commissioning, directing and managing these projects, which have wider implications for our industry and society.

And the report comes at a time when the issue of quality in construction has been making the headlines for other reasons. Recently Bovis Homes announced that it was setting aside £7m to compensate buyers for defects in new homes, recognising that their production processes were “not sufficiently robust in order to deliver the quality of homes to our customers when we would expect to deliver them”.

In other words, quality was being sacrificed for speed of delivery. For Bovis the immediate impact of failing to manage quality was on the bottom line, although the damage to its reputation is arguably greater.

Elsewhere, the investigation into the fire at Lakanal House highlighted that defective workmanship and a lack of quality control can have much more serious consequences. In this case, a lack of adequate fire protection was found to have contributed to the rapid spread of the fire that resulted in the deaths of six people. And this at the same time that the report into the Edinburgh schools identified that there was a lack of adequate fire stopping, which would have made the buildings unsafe in the event of a fire.

As professionals we have a duty to the industry and wider society to act responsibly and ethically. This defines what it means to be a professional. And we all have a responsibility for the reputation of our industry and the wellbeing of those who work within it. 

It is important that we understand the issues that allowed these defects to occur and act to ensure that it does not happen again. To this end the CIOB will be reaching out to the other professional bodies and industry representatives to create a forum to discuss the issue of quality in our industry and the steps that we need to take to improve it.

Comments

Commissioning on many of these building types tend to focus on the function and operational aspects of the building services and less on the actual structure and fabric of the building itself. Perhaps introducing structural assessment along with the construction quality reports within the commissioning scope would provide additional checks in addition to those normally specified.

Another avenue worth exploring is the quality of the design drawings and documentation provided as the preparation of such has deteriorated in terms of clarity, organisation, legibility and conciseness over the last 20 years.
Quality draughtsmanship is not taught anymore which undoubtedly impacts the interpretation and legibility of the design.

Hugh, 21 March 2017

I worked on two PFI/PPP Schools Projects delivering five large secondary schools (pupil age 11 - 18). My role on both projects involved providing the "Provider" oversight of the delivery of the construction works. On this I worked closely with both the Building Contractor and the ultimate Local Authority (the ultimate Client for each relevant project), undertaking extensive daily inspections of the building works.

As with other projects, a degree of non-compliant works occurred on each of the five school sites; with some sites experiencing a greater level of non-compliant works than others. In all cases I found that the site based personnel were very willing to seek to rectify the non-compliant works; albeit they were often prevented from doing so by managerial pressure from above.

The pressure from above often being so great that very capable, very principled personnel felt they were left with little choice other than to allow the presence of non-compliant works or risk losing their positions.

Both Main Contractors I worked with had extensive, third party certified, quality assurance policies and processes; and both Contractors had skilled and experienced Project and Construction Managers. If left to follow their own judgement I am confident the level of non-compliant works would have been reduced.

A top-down managerial commitment to producing quality workmanship (just as with the top-down approach to health and safety) has helped; and is required if instances of large scale defective works are to be avoided.

The balancing of the Cost, Time, Quality triangle requires a great deal of thought (by all parties) during the Tender and Pre-Contract periods of a project if quality (and other) problems are to be avoided during the construction phase.

Adam Sharp, 24 March 2017

John Coles and Edinburgh Council have provided the UK construction industry with an excellent report and recommendations which should be taken very seriously, perhaps even as if ‘timing and luck’ had not been on the side of the children and fatalities had actually occurred!

I fear the next time the industry’s management of quality is subject to investigation will be following such a disaster. Action is required to ensure this does not happen.

When poor quality puts lives at risk, it should not be seen as a balancing act between cost-time-quality, or optional to have independent scrutiny, or lost in the complexities and politics of PFI.

Quality is indeed about ethics, doing the right thing and upholding standards, whether of workmanship, supervision, design, or independent scrutiny by both designers and building control.

We know the causes of defects; past experience and international research support many of John Cole’s recommendations. We also know the good practice that should be maintained, even in design-build, to provide the necessary checks and balances in an often fragmented process.

Quality and independent scrutiny can be managed economically, using a risk based approach to focus limited resources, similar to safety management, particularly where quality becomes safety critical.

It’s good to see the CIOB taking a lead and planning to create a forum to address the industry wide issue of quality. It’s about skills but also about process and will require interdisciplinary collaboration to reinstate the checks and balances required.

The school children in this incident were ‘lucky’, they all went home, but it’s the industry that needs to learn the lessons and must do better.

Steve, 5 April 2017

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