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'Just say no' to underfunded social-housing work

Architects and others involved in social housing must learn to say no to unsatisfactory funding, procurement methods and quality, a new report commissioned by the riba says. Social housing will only improve if all the parties involved become more aware of the problems and define their roles clearly, it has found. And, it concludes, those involved in housing in England and Wales could learn from examples in Scotland, where many of the problems have already been tackled.

Written by architect Wright & Wright, Commissioning Quality is the fourth in the riba's series of discussion documents. Calling for proper resources, it says: 'It is possible, but unlikely, that a poorly resourced team with little mutual respect of utilisation of each other's expertise and knowledge will produce good-quality work.'

In current practice, the report says: 'rsls [registered social landlords, the new term for housing associations], have reported a somewhat cavalier approach by some rsls in asking for speculative work to be done that for one reason or another is very unlikely to come to fruition.'

Another problem is that 'architects have been given bespoke, uninsurable contracts by rsls, which they have signed without taking their own legal advice. Consequently, the rsls and architects are working without professional indemnity insurance cover.' While admitting that architects often have a rotten deal, the report also makes them responsible for their own ills. 'Untenable terms exist,' it says, 'because architects have accepted them. Because the real costs have not been effectively communicated to clients, the riba indicative fee scales have fallen into disrepute and so no recognised gauge exists.'

The document is also critical of design and build, the preferred procurement form of many rsls in England and Wales, saying, 'The contractor will include a premium for carrying the risks, which is usually unidentified. Additionally, the client is likely to forfeit, to varying degrees, control of quality. If an exceptional and unforeseen cost arises, the contractor will try to recover his cost somewhere.'

It contrasts experience in England and Wales with Scotland where Scottish Homes launched a revised Procurement Guide for Housing Association in October 1997, which addresses many of the problems identified in the document.

The document recommends that:

Government

appoints an architect to the board of the Housing Corporation

liaises with Scottish Homes

jointly with the riba, objectively surveys architects to assess their perception of weaknesses in the development processes and procedures.

RIBA

provides clear and adequate justification for using riba indicative fees

strongly recommends that business training be upgraded in importance in schools of architecture

facilitates more business training courses for members.

RSLs

agree detailed terms before proceeding with works, or have a general agreement for consultants who are used regularly which automatically applies

pay adequately and on fair terms for work done

appoint an architect to the board.

Architects

agree detailed terms before proceeding with works, or have a general agreement in place for regular clients

realistically estimate the cost and extent of speculative work and sometimes says no.

Chris Natt, development director of Community Housing Association, said: 'We have never gone along the design and build route. We can always say no, we won't do a job because we haven't got enough money to do a decent job. We have often done this.'

Dickon Robinson, development director of the Peabody Trust believes architects should do more work on issues such as life-cycle costing. 'If architects want to have an expanding influence,' he said, 'they should take the lead on life-cycle costing and on procurement.' Peabody is also addressing this issue itself. It has just appointed an architect as a researcher to look in more detail at the long-term performance of its housing stock.'

Robinson warned: 'The housing we create now will last a very long time. In the past there has been far too much short-termism. It s a real pressure for rsls to get people off the homelessness lists quickly, but they should resist it, because they will have to pick up the pieces.

The report's recommendations should have a good chance of success, given its endorsement by a range of rsls, by riba, rias and rsaw and by Scottish Homes. The Housing Corporation, the Welsh Office and the National Housing Federation have also said they see the report as a good starting point.

Like the infamous anti-drugs campaign of Nancy Reagan, the message for those tempted by cost-cutting, speculative work or dodgy procurement methods is 'just say no'.

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