What’s gone wrong?

Architect Don Bunting

On returning from London, I spent the 70s, 80s and 90s as a partner in a commercial design practice.

As any who were there will attest, it was some ride. There were at least two major downturns, in both cases caused by poorly conceived changes in how our industry operated.

The 1970s was about easy money, which turned out to be no money for anyone. The 1980s was post-modernism at its worst in design and corporate practice. In the 1990s we barely survived after the semi-collapse of public and private banking systems.

New words appeared, representing the change in how the industry worked — developer, design-build, project management, fixed price contracts and that real doozy, fast-track design.

These changes led to new forms of contract and new ways of divvying up the money, the responsibilities and the blame.

And reflect for a moment on the recent tragedy of the collapsed pedestrian bridge in Florida, and ask why the bridge was fast-tracked and left structurally incomplete over a busy highway.

Did these earlier dark days lead to the faults behind the leaky buildings and other current flaws?

It is certainly possible to argue that the industry was tired, confused and lacking in skills and confidence after the 1987 crash.

Thankfully, most of the hurt then was for corporates and investors. Today, the fall-out from weathertightness problems is much more personal and raw.


Danger signs

With a leading construction organisation suffering huge losses on major contracts, you don’t have to look far to find reasons for concern.

And while the leaky building issue is a continuing and shameful situation, there are far too many instances of faulty building products and faulty construction methods for anyone to be complacent.

During a time of prosperity and a high demand for more and better buildings, the industry is in a parlous state. To correct this situation, significant change is needed right throughout the design, approval, pricing, contracting and construction process.

The state of our building control system is scandalous, with ridiculously high charges coupled with unacceptably long delays in gaining approval. Some improvements are promised, but that’s been said too many times before.

The consenting system needs a complete rebuild, followed by a complete rebuilding of our design and construction practices.

New technology and new approaches to contracting and construction are being adopted piecemeal without anyone taking a single bold step.

We must seriously question why our industry is not advancing, and analyse how to take advantage of modern technologies and better ways of collaborating.


A complete change

While most industries and commercial enterprises are moving ahead, our industry is still back in the “dirty boots” era.

Tim Harford, author of Fifty things that made the modern economy, talks about the “productivity paradox” — why the introduction of a new technology is often delayed.

He uses as an example the development of electricity as a new and superior power source to steam in the 1880s.

Factories were slow to accept the obvious advantages because it would have involved a complete change in factory design and production management.

No great big central boiler and a system of drive shafts, belts and gears any more. Now each individual worker could have their own personal power source.

Factory owners finally realised they needed to reinvent and reinvest to survive and, as they soon discovered, to thrive.

Having agonised myself in 1985 over the huge cost and disruption of a move to a stage one computer-based practice, I appreciate how difficult it can be to change traditional ways of working.

For our industry, it will also require ways of encouraging industry-wide collaboration — and for our stick-in-the-mud industry that’s going to be really, really hard.

Being brave

After nearly 50 years in the industry, I find it perplexing that in a time of such dramatic improvements in technology our industry has changed so little.

Not that importing ideas from overseas is necessarily the answer as this, with a few exceptions, is a global, not a local phenomenon.

The design and construction industry is like a crusty old campaigner who knows it has to change but is reluctant to take that first step down an exciting but also terrifying path.

I just offer up two words as catalysts for change — prefabrication and robotics.

Sure, prefabrication is being employed to a modest extent, but from personal experience there is less prefabrication today than we were using in the United Kingdom in the 1960s.

And robotics is now widely accepted for most industrial processes — just not in our industry.

Will radical change occur? Well as Confucious once said: Prophecy is difficult, especially about the future.

Nevertheless, to make better use of new technologies and better ways of working together, our industry organisations must accept that implementing real change is in their hands, not the hands of government or government agencies.


Lessons from the past?

The construction company currently under serious financial stress built the wonderfully ornate and atmospheric Civic Theatre in Auckland in only nine months in the late 1920s.

Today, even with new materials and improved construction knowledge, I doubt it could be rebuilt in five years.

And in the early 1930s, following the deadly Napier earthquake, the local industry constructed 160 new commercial buildings in less than three years. Today Napier is a Deco gem of world renown.

Compare this with the criminally slow efforts in Christchurch, and wonder why.

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