Having spent 28 years in the commercial lighting industry I remain fascinated by the contractual and design processes used by the construction industry. Often it seems that we make a real effort to make it difficult to do business with each other!
Although I have come to this conclusion as my own opinion, based on experiences from many different types and sizes of project, I cannot be alone otherwise there would have been no need to ask Sir Michael Latham or Sir John Egan to look at construction contracting. And, strangely, when we talk together about contracts and subjects like ‘terms and conditions’ we often agree that they are overly complex and even onerous; and yet we still use them.
Of course there have been significant changes in the way we approach the design and construction of buildings, most with the intention of improving these processes but has it helped us to make better buildings? During my period of experience we have seen the changes brought about by subjects like ‘professional indemnity’ and the rise of ‘design and build’ (or is it ‘build and design’?) but through all of this much of the complexity remains. And, above all, we still seem to focus principally on the original price and seldom think of a building in terms of its whole-of-life cost either environmentally or financially.
There have been many occasions when decisions on the choice of products has been made either solely on price or because one supplier accepted conditions another saw as too onerous. And frequently this results in the products with the lower energy consumption, or longer maintenance interval, being rejected despite the original specification requirement for these features. The need to meet completion deadlines all too often secures the concession to compromise the original design, particularly where the design responsibility has passed to others through the contract.
But even when the original design is not compromised in this manner, designers sometimes present the facilities team with challenges when they get – shall we say – creative, and make decisions on (e.g.) light sources without much thought to the cost of ownership. I recall a building that contained no less than 44 different lamp types and a whole store room had to be dedicated for spares! Or the installation where tungsten halogen lights were used at a ceiling height that required a scaffolding tower to effect lamp changes.
Is there, then, some prospect that we will change our flawed procurement habits in the future? Two things that might have an impact do come to mind; the EC’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive and the introduction of PFI contracts. Let’s consider the latter first.
The prime intention of the PFI concept is to relieve the public sector of the burden of major capital projects, in particular where such a project is capable of being costed on a whole-of-life, long term basis – i.e. the cost of both construction and ownership. This would seem to be the ideal platform for the procurement process to consider more than just the original cost. However, in reality, there often seems to be a separation of responsibility that has the buyer in the development / construction team looking at the original purchase, while someone from the maintenance division is independently considering the subsequent running costs. But clearly this could be readily addressed in the future. Of course PFI is still only a small proportion of the overall construction industry so any improvements, in whole-of-life costs that are realised here, have only a modest impact.
Turning to energy use, the recent European Energy Performance of Buildings Directive and the implementation of the revised Approved Documents L1 and L2 of the Building Regulations (April 2006) is intended to address the green issues attached to running costs. But this presents another challenge – how do we know the building is compliant, and that it will perform successfully over its life? This seems to be a real challenge because (a) the new regulations are quite detailed and (b) the technologies, systems and products often used to meet them are more complex and frequently novel. How can we expect current Building Control officials to immediately understand, let alone spot, the non-compliance?
Presently, in the lighting industry, the intention is to rely on self-certification; an approach that relies on there being a clear and proven connection between the original design and the commissioned installation. Perhaps, then, we now have the necessary incentives to improve procurement in the construction industry so that the original lowest cost purchase no longer imposes a high cost of maintenance on the building’s occupiers. But it will only happen if we change to a more collaborative and team playing industry that avoids the adversarial ways of the past and looks forward to constructing the sustainable buildings we need in the future.