Tough love needed to address housing quality
If the industry doesn't address its customer satisfaction issues, there is always a risk that the government will step in, says Mark Farmer.
At the time of writing there is a continued media feeding frenzy over the issue of poor quality in homebuilding. The problems that beset Bovis Homes at the beginning of this year now seem to be reverberating around the industry – opening a can of worms which many would prefer not to be touched.
The harsh reality is that in an age of growing consumerism, the issue of customer satisfaction is now as much of a high-profile concern for homebuilders and other developers as it always has been for the retail and hospitality industries.
My thoughts are that we need to use this crisis of confidence to pause for thought and reflect on how the industry pursues excellence. The merits of our Building Control inspection system and new-build warranties have been called into question on the back of recent events, but perhaps what really needs to be put under the spotlight is the basic way in which we design, deliver, inspect and sign off construction works.
A potential growing inability by designers to understand the construction implications of their design decisions – or “buildability”, to borrow a rather hackneyed term – does not help sometimes in assisting the process of onsite efficiency and achievement of good outcomes.
Complex detailing, poor interface co-ordination and design that leads to profligate onsite waste are all issues that need to be better focused on. These can all be addressed without detriment to building form and aesthetic.
Hiding behind contractor’s designed portions or design and build has been seen as an answer but has also brought laziness and de-skilling to parts of the design profession which will now be hard to recover from.
"Snagging lists are increasingly used as an excuse to accept patently incomplete and defective work at scales that would just not be acceptable if applied to a car rolling off a production line."
There are now architects that deliver planning consents and those that deliver construction drawings – all too often they are becoming different businesses. The value-add of a planning consent in development terms is many times that of the margin delivered through construction.
As long as this bizarre situation exists – and design fees are allocated accordingly – there will always be pressure to underplay the importance of construction design relative to planning design, which is funded by a largely non-earned land value uplift.
Then there is the role of tradesmen on site. We all know we are in the midst of a skills and training crisis and the pressure to deliver with less skilled and competent resource is inevitably leading to failure points. It is not only the craftsmen, though, but their supervision that provides a key area of concern.
The fact that building control and warranty provider inspections are limited in their scope and frequency brings into focus the need for better onsite supervision, including the introduction of more clerk of works type models. The problem is that those skills are now in short supply and much of the “old school” experience has been lost to retirement.
Finally, there is the issue of completion sign-off. Our industry operates a “practical completion” protocol which, in my mind, has become corrupted – particularly in homebuilding – by the fact that snagging lists are increasingly used as an excuse to accept patently incomplete and defective work at scales that would just not be acceptable if applied to a car rolling off a production line.
This is a product that costs several multiples of the cost of a car – why the different culture? No doubt this decision by contract administrators or in-house supervisors is often influenced by pressure to take receipt of monies and legally complete on a purchase.
In all of this, the real risk is that matters are taken outside of the control of the industry and that third parties – whether central government, mortgage companies, institutional investors or others – start to regulate or set higher standards that even further exacerbate the delivery challenges for traditional new homebuilding delivery that we have in the UK.
The housing minister has already alluded to the fact that he wants to revisit the debate on quality pursuant to some of the findings of last year’s All Party Parliamentary Party Group for Excellence in the Built Environment report into the same issue, More homes, fewer complaints.
Unfortunately, however disruptive the outcome of this might be, it could be just the sort of tough love that the industry needs to accelerate a drive to modernise its most basic processes and delivery techniques.
Mark Farmer is founding director and CEO of Cast