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Perfect contracts must include design quality

This government, like others before it, has fallen in love with the idea of the perfect building contract. And the inescapable logic of the Egan report, encompassed in the unstated sub-text of the Construction Best Practice Programme, is that the perfect contract is one made between client and contractor. Architecture comes in somewhere else along the contractual food chain; the professions make way for business. It is such a neat idea: the prime contract with single-point responsibility and the promise of the guaranteed fixed price; delivery of product at the right cost and within the right time-frame, a matter of process in which the product is assumed to be appropriate.

The quest for such a contract dates from the end of the eighteenth century. Then as now, government departments responsible for military works were attracted by new forms of contract, and the 'new men' claiming to offer a superior product to the medieval guilds with their concept of measure and value to establish building cost. We can make it more predictable, says the new breed of main contractor. We can organise labour more efficiently. Before long, what begins as an interest in military construction migrates into civil works for government departments, and from there into the private sector.

The response of architects to this new economic force was to professionalise, and to establish a financial regime in which competitive tender was the main route to contractor choice, with the no-fee-competition architect acting as client handholder. Not surprisingly, contractual relationships could become litigious. Now, for certain government contracts, the client handholder is the contractor, while architects submit fee bids for inspection, along with their designs. 'Not very buildable' will become the stock criticism of interesting design. In its apparent belief that the fundamental importance of design can be promoted within a system which privileges the supplier uninterested in those values, the government (ie the Treasury) is on a slippery slope.

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