Retiring at 82: CIOB past president’s farewell to construction

After six decades in construction, Colin Harding is finally signing off. Here, he gives some valedictory views on the industry.

Last year, the global value of claims on over 1,600 projects around the world, valued at $2tn, exceeded $80bn, according to a report by HKA. It is extremely doubtful that any other global strategic industry has a customer service record quite as appalling as this.

But there is a fundamental reason behind this conundrum: traditional construction doesn’t normally have direct control of the design of its own products. Over the centuries, design and supervision of the construction process have been monopolised by independent architects and surveyors/project managers, who in turn have contractually offloaded most of their own responsibilities back onto the practical builders.

Constructors languish in the management hierarchy

Despite being the only ones doing the real building bit, those ‘real builders’ or ‘constructors’ currently languish at the bottom of the design and construction management hierarchy. They have little, if any, control over the design of their own products, yet are contractually obliged to accept full responsibility for the performance of these products.

Building design has gradually evolved as technology and modern materials have developed and improved, so that client expectations have increased. But construction, being a traditional industry, has been slow to change. Clients and (a rapidly declining number of) constructors still assume that architects and surveyors/project managers in general always know what they are doing and will accept full responsibility for their own design work.

“Traditional contract systems still dump responsibilities onto the constructors.”

Colin Harding

Which is where the system is failing us. Although technology, design and working practices have developed and improved, a significant number of modern architects and other specifiers clearly don’t appear to always know the correct way of doing things, and certainly don’t accept personal responsibility for their designs. Yet the old traditional contract systems still dump their and seemingly everyone else’s responsibilities onto the constructors, whether they are responsible or not.

We cannot allow this to continue. We need a clean start with a new system. Construction must change from being a traditional, supervised service industry to an independent modern manufacturing industry.

Constructors need control of design

That means constructors taking complete control of the design, production and payment conditions, as well as insured warranty, delivery and aftersales service, of their own products.

We used to call it ‘design and build’ but in contemporary terms, we really mean ‘manufacture’. Established housebuilders have been doing that for generations so why shouldn’t the real contracting constructors do the same and reclaim ownership of their own process and products as the true manufacturers?

There is no rational reason why they shouldn’t. As long as constructors employ architects/designers they know from experience are competent and practical, between them they will create value-for-money buildings and estates that will serve their purpose, but also look good, last a lifetime and hold their value.

Unpicking the contract forms

The first stage must be to unpick the hold the lawyers and legal industry have over the UK construction industry process, dictating contract terms (including the critical payment conditions) to independent private sector constructors/builders. Few other industries restrict producers with such onerous and anti-competitive conditions – outside the UK most constructors and suppliers specify their own payment conditions in their tenders for every contract.

Second, the ‘real’ constructors must take back control of their industry from the risk-averse designers, supervisors and lawyers. They must stop working through consultants in general, many of whom no longer understand best building practice and work directly for clients.

The construction industry can no longer afford to fund risk dumping by practically inexperienced, risk-avoiding consultants. The solution is simple: builders should work directly for their clients as any other modern industry supplier does, employing competent, appropriate designers to suit the particular project, and accepting (through properly insured guarantees) full responsibility for the finished product.

Now is the time for the real construction industry to reassert itself, becoming an insurance-backed, self-regulating, product-manufacturing industry, directly employing its own designers. That can be the only way forward for the construction industry and its clients in the 21st century.

Have confidence to grasp opportunities

I wish you all well. We’ve been debating without result about how to deal with this risk avoidance problem for 50 years or more. As construction’s historic institutions gradually lose their old influence and purpose, constructors must commandeer full control of the design of their industry’s products by becoming an independent modern manufacturing industry. We all know it can be achieved: real constructors just have to have the confidence to grasp the current opportunities and finally take control.

Colin Harding was past president of CIOB in 1994-95 and author of Integrated Design & Construction – Single Responsibility: A Code of Practice. His views are not necessarily those of CIOB.

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