Architects know why

York Institute of Building: annual dinner speech Thursday 14/11/02 (edited)
by Brian Waters, Master of the Company of Architects also published in the newsletter of the Association of Consultant Architects, Spring 2003.


It is some years since, as RIBA vice-president of Marketing I found myself lunching at the Savoy as a guest of the Aluminium Windows Association. At my table I was overwhelmingly outnumbered by contractors – the chief of Schuco Windows, Laing Construction and all the rest. They ganged-up on me, demanding to know why we architects were wingeing about having to win work by fee bidding when we spent our days putting all of them through the competitive tendering process. What made us so different? they chorused. What we do is fundamentally different I responded. Oh Yeah – how so they demanded to know.
I put it to them that they all could answer the question How? How to fabricate a curtain wall to meet a performance specification, how to manage a site to achieve a programme, how to supply a traction lift, and that no architect could do these things. But the question they couldnt answer, and which only the architect can is: Why? Why aluminium frames and not timber or steel? Why build to this height on this part of the site? Why electric traction and not hydraulic lifts? Hes got a point, they muttered. All the more so, given that when the architect gets hired, the client has little idea of what it is he is going to build – sometimes whether he needs to build at all.
This is evidenced by selection processes which involve design competitions, for example. There is rarely a well defined brief when the client first calls in his architect, and it is the architect who often takes the lead in articulating the clients objectives and evolves options which have to take account of a site analysis, development appraisal, town planning and building regulation constraints, amongst many others. With the end product so ill-defined is it surprising that the same often goes for the scope of the design service which is to be required?
At this early stage in the game, is the difference between say 5.8 and 6.2 per cent of the ultimate construction cost (our fee for a new building) really the determining factor on which architect is likely to get the client the building he needs? David may have silenced Goliath that day, but the argument rumbles on and has reached new heights. In 1994 the DTI was persuaded that the design and production of the building should be integrated.
A report Constructing the Team by Sir Michael Latham advised that a package deal where the main contractor would be in total control was the answer. His report failed to achieve the desired effect so it was followed in 1999 by Rethinking Construction, a report by Sir John Egan. This promoted partnering and based its case on the proposition that the established procedure whereby architects provided the drawings and specifications, invited tenders and awarded contracts, was too confrontational. Owing to the lack of response which this drew, Rethinking Construction was relaunched a few weeks ago as Accelerating Change.
This suggests that the management of a contract should be through a cluster of all parties working together from day one. Last July the DTI issued a guidance note advising clients to assemble the integrated team before the design of the building was started – thus promoting for the public sector something which is never likely to be accepted in the private sector. Putting the client as head of the supply chain is quite a wheeze, says Ken Dixon in promoting his S-Files project. Everyone participating in the design is clearly a bureaucratic approach: imagine the time executives will need to spend in meetings which will have to be paid for by the client.
No wonder the scheme has needed to be launched three times. Only last month Peter Wearmouth, the chief executive of NHS Estates, claimed that the failure of UK architects to adapt to the PFI, and the successes of US architects here, meant that hospitals were too deep and lacked natural light. He even suggested that architects were breaching their duty of care by submitting to cost pressures and designing hospitals with too little room. He told BD: If you are an architect you have a duty of care to ensure you design a building that is fit for purpose….It is getting to the point where buildings become inoperable.
This despite the near certainty that the PFI architects he was referring to had not breached any contractual duty. The Office of Government Commerce last month published a joint report with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) stating that overall standards of design in new public buildings, including schools and hospitals, must improve.
The report makes eleven recommendations for change which include: – clear procedures to ensure that projects which are not of an acceptable level of design quality will no longer receive funding – the adoption of new minimum design standards – giving adequate weighting to the quality of design in making decisions as to which projects to select from the private sector – building in safeguards to ensure that public sector clients do not try to build too many projects too quickly, using a single contractual team.
In the reports foreword Paul Boateng, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, says: Good design is integral to delivery of best value. However we are not yet achieving consistently the design standards that the Prime Minister called for. We have concerns about the capabilities of all levels of government to act as intelligent customers and the recommendations reinforce the work that OGC and CABE are doing to redress this. Sir Stuart Lipton, Chairman of CABE, said: This report shows that Government has accepted that all forms of procurement processes are not delivering high quality buildings on a consistent basis. These recommendations are a call for action across the public sector. We need to deliver a step change in quality in our new public buildings or we will be failing communities across the UK.
But I think they are all missing the point. What is the status given to the designer in the processes they are criticising? You may have deduced that I am a firm believer in the independent professional role and responsibility of the architect and you may accuse me of being a bit old-fashioned in that. I also have to tread with care, being a director and council member of the ACA whose status has been transformed by the astounding success of our partnering contract PPPC 2000.
Oddly, you may think, I am a believer in partnering, but of the organic rather than the GM or forced variety. When the client or customer has enough confidence in you or your firm to hire you again – that I call partnering.
In my view you cannot tender for a partnering relationship – just look at what happened to many of those who fell for that game when first tried by John Egans BAA and who then got de-listed with not a job for their trouble. Writing the other day in Building, Tony Bingham argued that partnership and trust are great, but thats not what contracts are there to promote.
He offered the following thoughts: – The idea that a spirit of trust and co-operation can be contractually embodied in a building contract is a non-starter. – The threat of litigation is effective for improving the output of the construction process. – The purpose of a contract is to enable parties to simultaneously achieve their private ends. This is only the case if the law enforces their promises. A contract that aims to avoid the courts is a contradiction. – A contract that has the objectives of flexibility and clarity is doubtful. When drafting contracts, flexibility is not compatible with fairness. – Contracts need to be, to some extent, adversarial and the interpretation of them should not rely too much on good relations continuing through the life of a project. – A breach of contract that meets with a robust contractual remedy gives businesses confidence that their interests will be protected by a court.
In 1992 I wrote a chapter in the beautiful book Century Tower, Foster Associates build in Japan. It was headed Conflict and Harmony and compares Japanese and Western ways of building. That £60m project was built by Obayashi Corporation using the standard four-page Japanese private sector contract. Its opening words are: The owner and the contractor shall perform this contract sincerely through co-operation, good faith and equality.
This was evidenced by there being only three equal payments: one on signature, one on topping-out and the third on handover. No need for a quantity surveyor there then. As Fosters team discovered, partnering was so deeply engrained in the Japanese system that Obayashi would only work, for example, with one lift manufacturer, since that was their company tradition. The outcome was successful and honourable but at what cost? I think the current state of the Japanese economy gives us an indication of that. If we conducted contracts in that manner they would be considered thoroughly corrupt.
The Latham-Egan agenda for the contractual process has a limitation in its scope which all the papers and discussions seem to neglect.
The great majority of clients build just once. Where there is repeat work it is obvious good business for all concerned that partnering relationships should evolve. This is as true for the public sector, and there is no denying that government needs to emulate the procurement efficiencies possible in the private sector. In the 70s I developed a series for Building magazine called Building On Site – it continues to this day. The editors idea was that, since in those days a journalist would never be allowed near a construction site, an architect might just be trusted enough to be able to get the story of the process while it was still under way.
As well as visiting sites like Lloyds and the Hong Kong Bank, I was allowed to write up zany projects for the summer silly seasons and wrote, for example, about building oil rig modules and the sets for Star Wars. On that one I interviewed John Barry, the set designer, at Pinewood and I asked him to explain the management structure for a movie project. Simple he said.
At the top you have a producer and a director. Think of them as the husband and the wife: he gets the money and she spends it, maintaining a dynamic tension all the while. In our game we have the client (reinforced maybe by a quantity surveyor and project manager) and the architect (with his team of consultants) – the How Much? and the Why? and implemented by a vast and talented cast of contractors, subcontractors and specialists. Thats show business.
To seek to integrate design into the construction process to the extent that it becomes a minor commodity rather than a detached professional service is to reduce the architect to the role of an extra. The price for that, as the NHS Estate is already realising, is that there is nobody to direct the picture and have the answers to the questions: Why? It is now my pleasure to thank you Master for your hospitality and to invite all your guests to join me in rising to toast the Master and the York Guild of Building.

Brian Waters is principal of The Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership,