Should there be a collaborative role for the clerk of works?
Bringing the clerk of works into the contractor’s team can help raise building standards, argues Mark Beard
Over the last few years, particularly since the Edinburgh schools collapse and the Grenfell Tower tragedy, there has been considerable debate about the clerk of works and how the role can help our industry ensure higher levels of quality for our customers.
Historically, I have been sceptical about what value the clerk of works brings to a project. But a few weeks ago, visiting one of our projects in Oxford, the penny dropped. I am a now convert. In fact, I am now a huge fan of using the skills of clerks of works on building projects to maximise product quality – which is very different from their traditional role.
If I purchase a new car from BMW, Ford, Honda or any of the major car manufacturers, they would not countenance me sending an independent inspector to check the quality of their product during manufacture. They would be confused and angry by the suggestion. Their reputation is built on getting it right first time through their own thorough checking and pride in their product. This is the way our industry should behave; snagging is for the contractor, not a clerk of works employed by the client.
Different way forward
I used to think the clerk of works role overlapped with the site manager or finishing foreman and could be divisive. But on our project at St Hilda’s College in Oxford, our customer and retained consultants agreed a different way forward. We, the contractor, would directly employ the clerk of works, who would work as part of our team, reporting to our customer at any time, but mainly helping us deliver the highest possible standard building.
The clerk of works in question is very experienced, working ‘client side’ on many projects. Where we have had problems, we have been open with him and he has helped us find solutions. This openness has built three-way trust with customer and consultants and avoided duplicate snagging at end of the project, giving greater role clarity and a more efficient team.
There will still be projects where customers benefit from engaging a clerk of works directly. However, I do find it perverse when customers feel it is good practice to squeeze the contractor and supply chain down on price, then invest part of the saving in a duplicate checking regime.
Contractors and clerks of works may find it awkward working as part of the same team, after many years of forced division. But, as the Grenfell Inquiry is increasingly highlighting, the sooner we take full ownership for the quality of our work, and the sooner the customer can look to a single organisation to take responsibility, the better.
Mark Beard is chairman of Beard Group and president of the CIOB