Passing the buck: The new construction crisis

HUGE PROBLEMS WITH QUALITY IN UK CONSTRUCTION IS APPARENT. ACTION MUST FOLLOW.

(Walter Menteth article originally publish on LinkedIn pulse March 19, 2017)

Over recent months significant construction issues have been reported that highlight major deficiencies in UK procurement culture.

The Orchard Village EstateLakanal House in Southwark, The Edinburgh PFI schools programme, Catalyst Housings Portobello Square developmentSolomon’s Passage in Southwark, and Bovis’s recent £70m pay out to purchasers, are some recently reported examples.

The common thread between each one of these is poor scrutiny, lack of oversight and co-ordination, where responsibilities and the supervision for implementing qualitative judgements had become confused, or worse disdained or ignored. The quality of the construction works has ultimately suffered with disastrous consequences, none of which should have happened.

There is now a recognisable, but long forecasted, crisis in construction, because construction is a culture where passing the buck and transferring risk down the supply chain has become the norm, until the risk is ultimately held by the public (with immeasurably bad consequences).

The apparent lack of supervision and scrutiny by independent professional operatives has led to an increasing separation between design and construction intents, and is now being shown to have prevalent impacts. There may be some other causes for this, but inescapably UK competitive procurement and risk transfer practices within construction and architectural competitions lie at the heart of these issues.

The employment of trades and professionals in the construction industry have also, on the Egan model (which has sought to increase efficiencies through adopting the production line strategies of the automotive industry), compounded the increasing fragmentation of work through production stages.

These factors have also contributed to the now prevalent lack of continuity across production stages and between processes. This is no longer an appropriate approach as the examples described below illustrate. As buildings are more typically one off, site based productions and require a degree of stakeholder and supervisory continuity and responsibility across all production phases, existing principles need readdressing.

The problems that are becoming highlighted are common across all construction operatives. But for professionals “At a time when a more fragmented profession is the last thing the industry needs” and “a lack of continuity having the right skills and expertise across all planning construction stages”, [i]  the procedures and processes are also contributing to deskilling.

In this crisis Architects have a responsibility and wider duty of care, because they have failed as impartial industry professionals to ensure that sufficient qualitative standards have been upheld. It is now time to act to remedy this.

In the past the architectural profession has been held responsible for many historic issues in construction. If it fails to act on this now, once again it will likely be held responsible.

These recent examples highlight the emerging issues:

  1. The Orchard Village Estate,

The Orchard Village estate a newly-built East London residential development with 387 home by Clarion Housing Group was built at a cost of around £80m, approximately £31m of which was public money. Clarion has now offered some residents “initial compensation” payments, which differ according to whether they owned or rented their homes from between £1,000 to £100, and agreed “in principle” to buy back a significant number of defective shared-ownership and freehold properties on the estate.[ii]

  1. Lakanal House, Southwark, London.

The fire in Lakanal House in Peckham in 2009 in which six people died was caused by botched and unsafe renovation work and a council’s failure to inspect the building. The inquest said a proper inspection would have picked up work from the 1980s that removed vital fire-stopping material between flats and communal corridors. It also noted that asbestos window panels had been replaced with composite equivalents, which burned out in less than five minutes, accelerating the spread of the blaze.[iii]

It was found that Building control approval was neither sought nor approved on any element of its refurbishment in 2006/07. James Cousin the main contractor Apollo’s senior quantity surveyor stated ‘He believed it was Southwark Council’s responsibility to seek approval from Southwark’s building control services that the building complied with building regulations.’ Although, contractual documents suggested Apollo should conform with ‘all building regulations and by-laws’ he says Southwark Council usually took on that responsibility. Southwark meanwhile stated they were sure it was Apollo’s responsibility to contact the building control department to ensure the project complied with building regulations, to consider the fire resistance of panels that were to be put on the fire escape balconies and underneath windows. Mr Cousins says he was aware the asbestos panels they were replacing had a ‘fairly good’ fire resistant rate while the panels they were putting in did not. But he did not give it much thought because ‘my company will provide whatever the client asks for’ and he thought it had approved.[iv]

  1. The Edinburgh PFI Schools Programme

In Edinburgh, Scotland the PFI schools programme was shown to be deficient when walls collapsed and a number of other serious defects emerged in 2016; requiring that 17 schools be closed for prolonged periods with over 8,300 pupils rehoused. Poor quality construction and a lack of on-site scrutiny was evident across the 17 schools within this single portfolio.

The report found that “Recent changes to models of procurement of public building, driven by a desire for greater efficiency, and an unachievable desire to transfer all risk away from the client, have unfortunately not appreciated the need to build into these models the essential provision of an appropriate level of independent scrutiny”

  • the collapse …was due to poor construction and inadequate supervision;
  • insufficient independent quality assurance and poor record keeping …;
  • ineffective quality assurance measures within the construction industry;
  • the issues identified … are likely to be more widespread
  • the alternative education arrangements put in place for over 8,300 pupils was a ‘remarkable feat’; (Edinburgh report 2017).[v] 

The inquiry led by Professor John Cole makes a large number of prescient recommendations that deserve the fullest attention from all in construction.

  1. Catalyst Housing development Portobello Square, London

Completed in 2014 it has been found that this development which has had innumerable complaints, lacked basis weatherproofing with leaks into top floors, had defective plumbing, with floor and ceiling collapses. Again the quality of construction had not been adequately verified and defects built in had not been remediated during the construction phase.

“I have contacted Environmental Health and Catalyst, but I can’t help worrying that if this happens again there could be a very nasty accident. These buildings are barely three years old”. [vi]

  1. The above revelations follow only shortly after those at Solomon’s Passage in Southwark (‘Solomon’s Passage’ 2016) [vii] …

where the entire development has had to be demolished; the agreement by the construction company Bovis to pay out £7m to repair poorly built new homes sold to its customers (Bovis Reports 2017): [viii] and a recent survey from the charity Shelter which found that 51% of owners of recent new builds experienced problems including construction, fittings and utilities (Kollene. J, 2017). [ix]

Lets be clear these examples are all related, and such evident multiple occurrences of related issues point to major issues whose causes can inevitably be attributable to the process, procedures and/or the financial constructs underpinning such contracts, where disregard for adequate supervisory professionalism have become major liabilities.

A large number of significant recommendations have been made in the Edinburgh inquiry report (pp228-246). As a first step these need to be adopted urgently and widely across the industry. But there is also need for further reforms with more continuity across production stages to ensure higher quality can be achieved and sustained.

[An abridged version of this article appears in: Menteth. W, (2017). A synopsis of UK Architectural Competitions, Practices and Trends. March 2017. Project Compass CIC, London. At: http://www.projectcompass.co.uk/index.php?page=aboutus&sub=publications ]

 

[i] (Bennetts. R, 2017) Rab Bennetts on novation: Delivery is an essential part of design’ https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/opinion/rab-bennetts-on-novation-delivery-is-an-essential-part-of-design/10017382.article

[ii] (Guardian 2017) Harris. J, (2017) Chairman of Housing Association behind ‘substandard’ development resigns. The Guardian. 27 February 2017. Accessed at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/27/chairman-of-housing-association-behind-substandard-development-resigns?CMP=share_btn_tw

Harris. J (2017). Housing Association agrees to buy back homes on ‘substandard’ development. The Guardian. 6 February 2017. Accessed at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/06/substandard-housing-association-scheme-facing-hundreds-of-complaints

[iii]  (Guardian 2013) Walker. P, (2013) Lakanal House Tower block fire: deaths ‘could have been prevented’. The Guardian March 28, 2013. Accessed at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/mar/28/lakanal-house-fire-deaths-prevented

[iv] (Inside Housing 2013) Lakanal House: The Verdict (2013). Inside Housing. April 12, 2013. Accessed at: http://www.insidehousing.co.uk/lakanal-house-the-verdict/6526499.article

[v] (Edinburgh Inquiry Report 2017) Cole. J. (2017). Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Construction of Edinburgh Schools. The City of Edinburgh Council. 9 February 2017. Accessed at: http://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/download/meetings/id/53239/report_of_the_independent_inquiry_into_the_construction_of_edinburgh_schools

Waite. R, ‘Poor construction and lack of scrutiny caused Scottish schools defects’ The Architects Journal. February 10, 2017. Accessed February 25, 2017, https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/poor-construction-and-lack-of-scrutiny-caused-scottish-schools-defects/10017249.article

[vi] (Dent-Coad. E, 2017) Catalyst Housing development Portobello Road ‘won’t last ten years’ says workman.  http://emmadentcoad.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/catalyst-housing-development-portobello.html

[vii] (‘Solomon’s Passage’ 2016)  Sheppard. O, ‘Condemned blocks of flats ordered for demolition or refurbishment just six years after they were built’. Southwark News 12 May 2016. Accessed February 25, 2017, http://www.southwarknews.co.uk/news/condemned-blocks-flats-due-demolished-refurbishment/

[viii] (Bovis Reports, 2017)  Kollewe. J, ‘How buying a Bovis home came with hundreds of snags’. The Guardian January 28, 2017. Accessed February 25, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/money/2017/jan/28/bovis-home-hundreds-of-snags-angry-buyers-unfinished-homes

Neate. R, Ruddick. G, (2017) Bovis to pay £70m to comp3nsate customers for poorly built homes. The Guardian February 20, 2017. Accessed February 25, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/feb/20/bovis-to-pay-7m-to-compensate-customers-angry-at-poorly-built-homes

[ix] (Kollene. J, 2017) Kollewe. J, More than half of new-build homes in England ‘have major faults’’. The Guardian March 2, 2017. Accessed March 2, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/mar/02/over-half-of-new-build-homes-in-england-have-major-faults