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Architects and actuaries should be avoiding not just assessing risks

Cedric Price once told me that actuaries are the highest paid of all professions - better even than barristers.

This discipline first emerged in sixteenth century Spain and Portugal where rationale and logic were increasingly applied when assessing the probability of maritime losses. This was consistent, of course, with general developments in science. With the birth of modernity, 'divine' interventions were increasingly interpreted as 'natural' events.

No longer would fate, destiny or fortune be acceptable concepts: man became preoccupied with understanding and with the accurate prediction of outcomes in all areas of science and human activity.

All this led me to ponder contemporary demands for certainty of outcome in terms of time and cost in building development. As Roger Zogolovitch so aptly once said: 'we need fixity of outcome.'

The 1960s and 1970s were very lax in this respect. Cost and time overruns on state housing, health and educational projects were part of a common culture. Failure to properly predetermine either the input demand or the risk, coupled with inflation which peaked in the late 1970s at around 25 per cent, made cost forecasting perilous.

But instead of improving project planning and risk assessment, the efforts of the construction industry have shifted towards risk transfer.

This process was accelerated by a big push towards design and build. To mitigate inflationary effect developers had been demanding unrealistically early starts on site - well before production information was fully ready. As a consequence outline specifications increasingly replaced Bills of Quantities in tendering procedures, and design information was subsequently supplied literally 'hand to mouth' as architects and engineers tried desperately to meet the contractor's information needs. Claims became endemic because the late supply of information caused serious delays on site.

Any reasonable person would presume that the solution to such problems lay in better front-end resourcing of the design team, more accurate tender information, and more realistic programmes. But not the fickle development world! Instead, it sought ever shorter lead-in times, with even less tendering information and, in order to protect the client from claims, responsibility for detailed design and production information was transferred to contractors: design and build was born!

There have been two major penalties arising through this process. Firstly, clients and their architects have lost control of a large part of the design process. As a result, both the character and the quality of much of the building (particularly its interior) is neither understood nor established when the construction contract is signed.

Secondly, and this takes me back to the world of the actuary, the level of risk in building and development is increased. It may be that through cleverly worded contracts clients can pass such risks to others, but further down the line builders have become very sophisticated at assessing risk which is reflected in tenders or, more likely, in claims.

Risk analysis and risk reduction should be integral to the design process. Structural engineers are particularly good in this field, dealing as they do with the sharp end of uncertainties: ground conditions and obstructions in relation to foundation work. Alan Baxter, for example, has developed a refined approach to these matters undertaking pre-contract investigation that properly informs the design process and enables very accurate forecasting of appropriate monies for site abnormalities.

I would always prefer to work closely with such consultants at the early design stage in establishing and resolving major design problems. Sadly, the alternative preference that QS firms generally have for transferring responsibility to others further down the line is not only frustrating for the design team, it all too frequently leads to bad solutions and legal disputes which, again, is bad for clients and bad for architecture.

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