The blame game

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Architect Don Bunting looks back at what were better times for our industry, and examines some of the possible causes for change.

 

Accepting that memory places rose coloured spectacles on the truth, our industry is in a worse state now than in the mid-20th Century.

Following successive downturns in the 1970s and 1980s, we were no sooner hit by a new performance-based Building Code in 1991 than the leaky building saga made enemies of us all.

Most designers, builders, product manufacturers and local authorities were seen as, at best, incompetent and, at worst, negligent.

A recent article by a building contractor talked about construction having once been a more co-operative, less aggressive and regimented industry. He also mentioned what he saw as today’s risk-averse, highly regulated environment with on-site consent enforcement officers looking for something to catch you out on.

The much maligned joint and several liability approach to determining who pays was seen as another factor in everyone now looking first at covering themselves.

We all have our views on whether he is right and our own opinion on what can be done to improve what is a less efficient, less collaborative and less effective construction industry.

When I decided on architecture as a career, the building industry then offered the potential for modest artistic and financial success. I would be hard put to say the same today.

Technology may have made this a more exciting industry, but the risk of failure has increased, while the likelihood of significant financial or aesthetic success has faded.

This applies whether you design, build or manage.

 

One way ahead

A key factor in returning to a more collaborative design and construction process is centralising the approvals processes.

The current approach of a performance-based building code and a series of “means of compliance” documents and guides, administered by more than 60 largely independent Building Consent Authorities (BCAs), does not work.

Individual BCAs lack any incentive to collaborate or reign in the current exorbitant time/cost of the building consent approval process.

Add what is a strongly risk-averse approach, with larger BCAs still feeling bruised by recent liability costs being held against them, and you inevitably have a slow and expensive approvals process.

 

Design decline

My architectural and engineering practice carried out more than 750 projects, from large to very small, over 25 years to the mid-1990s.

With few exceptions, all were carried out as full service commissions (design, documentation, contract administration) with direct client connection and an invited tender approach to construction contracts.

Yes, the industry has moved on and times and technology have changed. Nevertheless, what we achieved worked. What is occurring today does not work. Go figure.

Anecdotally many designers — architects, architectural designers or engineers — are now heading into middle age having never administered a construction contract. Many designers have never even been on a building site in an official capacity.

There is still a lot of great design work being done, and some designers have retained a degree of influence; but not enough.

In Australia, all major construction sites still display a billboard listing the consultants and sub-trades involved. Most construction sites in New Zealand list only the contractor’s or developer’s name.

Architects, in particular, have lost most and, in some cases, all, of their status as leaders of the design and construction team. Is this a good or a bad thing? That’s a moot point, but I do know that our industry is worse off today than it was 30 or more years ago.

 

The construction process

Rather than commenting specifically on the current state of the broader construction scene, I will use a simple upgrading project as an example of what might be going wrong.

My street contains just six houses on one side of the road, so undergrounding the power and telephone lines should not have been too difficult.

At the time of writing, 12 weeks have passed since work commenced. The project is still underway, and footpaths remain in an unfinished and patched state. The standard of finish is on the wrong side of appalling.

It was clear there was no overall project management and no works programme. Work was carried out on a piecemeal basis, with access holes being dug up and refilled three times. Workers were often frustrated by finding cars parked in work areas because no one had put out signage.

On contacting Auckland Council, I found they took no responsibility for the work, either directly or via their Auckland Transport offshoot.

The fragmentation of our infrastructure companies, with supply, distribution and services all now in separate organisations, only added to the management problem.

I don’t offer this one example as a metaphor for our construction industry. However, it does show that a lack of management and a lack of collaboration among those involved can turn a relatively simple infrastructure repair project into an expensive and time-consuming tangle.

Picture this same approach on a major building project and you can see why our industry might be in trouble.

Looking around Auckland I see relatively straightforward construction projects taking an inordinate amount of time to complete. I see house alteration projects taking more than two years, creating havoc and inconvenience for neighbours and significant cost increases for the poor owners. I see quite modest commercial projects nowhere near complete 18 months after commencement.

Project management? You can’t be serious.