Design and build procurement has had mixed results for manufacturers and architects alike. But recent events and the climate crisis are going to be a game-changer
A post written by architect and friend of Insynth, Paul Iddon ARB RIBA.
Pride and Prejudice is probably the most well-known of Jane Austen's novels and has been immortalised on film and TV many times. Of course, people have their favourite adaptations, but one stands out. There cannot be many who haven't heard of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet's romantic jousting, brilliantly portrayed by Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in the 1995 BBC TV drama series.
Most people will remember Jane Austen's masterpiece through Mr Darcy's impromptu dip in the lake of his country estate. The Guardian declared the scene "one of the most unforgettable moments in British TV history". It was even immortalised as a 4m high statue in London's Hyde Park Lake, although my memory of the character relates more to his sideburns being a lot like those sported by Johnny Cash.
The story examines how pride, in all its forms, can wreak havoc in lives and livelihoods, although played out through the restraint and control of the rural English middle classes. The haughty aloofness and impatience of Mr Darcy was front and centre in the narrative, making him an easy target for contempt, but paradoxically also the archetypal romantic hero (for some at least).
The Changing Face of Architecture
Architecture has long been regarded as a vain, male-dominated, testosterone-fuelled profession marinated in creative competitiveness. In the modern era, of course, given the fact that 50% of architects and students under 30 are female, it is just as plausible that Elizabeth Bennet would be an architect. Albeit with a quieter and more subtle version of her own pride and prejudices.
"Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us."
Mary Bennet, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Putting aside his considerable wealth, Mr Darcy resembles the view that some have of the architect in many ways. Egotistical, vain and single-minded, with little time for the niceties of budget and practicality in pursuing their creative vision.
It is strange to accuse architects of egotism, especially those who happily visit Rome, Barcelona, Singapore or Dubai to marvel at their astonishing buildings, widely promoted by these cities in their tourism marketing.
Architects are primarily interested in the creation of architecture. What do they expect?
That all being said, there is more than a grain of truth in the accusation that architects have been insufficiently concerned with cost and project management. On many occasions, specifications are made through habitual behaviour with little regard for cost differentials. So Simon Allford, director of AHMM Architects and new RIBA President, said in this week’s Architects Journal:
“Architects used to run the contracts and be quite powerful….. And there’s a wonderful, rose-tinted nostalgia for that era. We’re not going to get back there. Today’s models of Design & Build and risk transfer will not disappear.”
Many architects in smaller practices, who feel at the mercy of some of the more problematic areas of procurement, argue that this is a relatively privileged point of view from a co-owner of an extensive London practice. There are strange examples of architects faced with signing sub-contract documents designed for site trades. Also, worrying conflicts of interest when asked to sign-off specification changes they disagree with and would impact their professional indemnity insurance in a failure.
There are also the issues surrounding ‘novation’, where the architect’s appointment starts with the client and is then transferred to the contractor. The dilemma is then about to whom the architect is accountable. In some cases, the project manager actively resists the architect having direct contact with the client. One of my most important responsibilities was to ensure the quality of build and correct detailing. I had a reputation for this when working in-house for a contractor that could cause friction with my site colleagues. But I stuck to my guns because it was necessary for a proper, robust result and about my reputation as an architect, my professional pride.
The Manufacturers Opportunity
From a manufacturer’s standpoint, the impact of procurement practises is often felt through ‘value engineering’ a much-derided term in architect’s circles as a euphemism for ‘cheapening’. I have a quote from a marketer who said to me without a hint of irony:
“What’s the point in talking to architects? Half the time their specifications get changed by the contractor.”
The Unknown Marketer
I pointed out that 50% odds weren’t at all bad, given that architects specify by habit. To put this in perspective, Tesco’s ‘own’ about 28% of the retail market and every food manufacturer knows it’s one of the best places to get their products to the consumer. A little perspective helps.
At the outset, I speculated that recent events and the climate emergency could be a game-changer. Unfortunately, whilst Simon Allford is correct, there’s no ‘putting the genie back in the bottle’. However, there may be ways that the bottle might again be a bit more under the architect’s control.
The ‘Golden Thread’ of information and decision making, introduced by Dame Judith Hackitt in the Grenfell Inquiry, may result in specification changes being subject to more scrutiny and the increased resistance by architects.
Dame Judith said that value engineering was a phrase that she would be “happy to never hear again. It is anything but value, it is cutting costs and quality.”
The climate emergency also presents an opportunity for the architect’s influence to gain ground. After all, there is only so much that can be achieved through material changes in any move towards carbon zero buildings. It requires an entirely new approach in many cases, and this begins at the design stage.
Manufacturers can play a key role in helping architects achieve this objective through the development of innovative solutions.
As an architect friend put it: A Pure Concept is Hard to Cheapen
Paul Iddon ARB RIBA
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