A failed marriage

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They tiptoe around each other like partners in a failed marriage.

Relationships among members of the design and construction industries have never been as poor as they are today. Just to be quite clear, I’m talking about collaboration and not connection on a more personal level.

Today, members of our industry tend to tiptoe around each other like partners in a failed marriage. No one seems to know or care who should take the lead role, and no one seems to care that relationships between industry members worsen every year.

Think about the connection, or lack of it, between designers and Building Consent Authorities (BCAs). Building consent fees often surpass the fees being paid to the designer, and confrontation has become the norm.

A veritable raft of requests for information (RFIs) are used by consent officials to create a barrier between the parties, and are a convenient means of stretching a supposedly set consent approval time frame.

Prior to the 1980s, architects working on a major project in Auckland would sit down with a designated Auckland City manager to discuss and debate the proposed project, prior to completion of permit (now consent) documents. This ensured there were no major surprises either way.

Sure, there were debates with counter staff on the interpretation of Standards or bylaws, but the exchanges tended to be open and, at least, respectful of each other’s role.

Relationship change

Arguably the greatest relationship change has occurred over recent years between designers and contractors/subcontractors. At a time when collaboration and co-operation should be the new industry benchmarks — if we are to take advantage of technological change — it is concerning that, increasingly, designers and those constructing a building may never even meet, let alone collaborate.

Over the past 50 years there have been numerous changes in the way projects are commissioned, designed, approved, contracted and built.

There have also been, in parallel with these changes, significant shifts in who influences who, and which player now controls the only thing that matters — the budget. The person controlling project funding, whether they are the right person to lead or not, automatically rules the roost.

A further significant change is who, if anyone, holds the leadership role in a construction project.

Not that long ago, who assumed the leadership role was clear-cut. While not always universally accepted, the architect was usually appointed as the client’s representative and, therefore, was seen as the logical person to lead the design/construction team.

Why? Because the architect not only had the ear of the client, but was supposedly trained as a project leader. Whether this was correct or logical was never discussed, but at least it allowed the project team to forget about who should or shouldn’t be in charge, and to focus on producing the very best building for the very best price.

With an on-site clerk of works and site engineer to manage project quality and an off-site quantity surveyor to manage the contract finances, it was quite difficult for a project in the 1960s to go too badly wrong.

For those entering the industry post-1980, the idea that the architect should be the logical leader of the design and construction team simply did not make sense any more.

This change in view began a little earlier, with the appearance in the 1970s of quasi-finance companies realising they could make money by borrowing off the general public, building a building very cheaply and then flogging it off to an investment company or corporate.

That all ended in tears in 1976, before re-appearing in a different form, with design/build and “the developer” in the 1980s. And we all know how that ended up.

A more important shift in how projects were promoted and built was the move by larger corporates away from property ownership. By the 1980s most corporates decided they could do a lot better with available funds than owning real estate.

Contractual forms have also changed, with a growing emphasis on control from outside the design and construction team.

In many cases, the project instigator is neither the intended end user of the building, nor a construction company but, more and more, a company with no interest in constructing, occupying or owning the resulting project.

Another key issue was the appearance, at first via design/build companies but later as a separate professional group, of the project manager.

Why the existing professions — architects, engineers and quantity surveyors — did not see this as a new, important skill set remains a mystery, and has led to a loss of status for those who were once the leading construction professionals.

Some quantity surveyors made an attempt to occupy this space, but the two major professional groups — architects and engineers — failed miserably, and are still suffering the consequences.

Quiet reflection

As our industry stumbles from one potential or possible disaster to another — and let’s be blunt, the leaky buildings debacle is, and remains, a disaster — a bit of quiet reflection on why our industry remains the most inefficient and ineffective might be justified.

Yes, we live in a different world than existed in the 1960s and 1970s, and attitudes have changed around building ownership that mean new approaches to building procurement are needed. I’m just not sure that current procurement methods are the right ones.

To illustrate how much has changed, from 1970 to 1990 I received and completed 100 commissions from a single corporate client, all as appointed leader of the design and construction team, and all completed under an invited tender approach.

As Willie Nelson sings: “Ain’t it funny how time slips away?”

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