Putting your house in order Zara Lamont, director of the construction best practice programme, aims to revolutionise the way architects work
This woman wants to change the way you work. But, she insists, it's for your own benefit.
Zara Lamont, director of the construction best practice programme, believes that, post-Egan, it is not only rogue contractors and cowboy builders who need to change their tune, cutting out waste and duplication to please clients, but - whisper it quietly - architects too.
Lamont's main proselytising message to practices all round the country, whether big or small, is to 'get involved - it does mean you'. If that sounds Camelot-esque, she's got an answer. 'It's not a lottery - but it is the case that if you don't get involved in the challenge then you lose. You'll get left behind because the client will only be looking to work with those who have adopted new ways of working.' She's trying to teach the industry at large to learn from itself through example - 'innovate and continually improve'.
An engineer by training, Lamont worked up through the ranks at Tarmac and was around when the company launched its Total Build - looking at how to deliver so-called 'cradle-to-grave service', 'customer focus', 'integrated design', dedicated to forming teams, partnering and looking at all the issues about what the client actually wanted. She feels it was 'innovative' - a favourite word - and before its time, but failed because the industry was not ready, and was just lurching into recession. But the parallels with the cultural changes that Egan, Latham, et al now say are necessary are striking.
She joined the best practice programme on secondment in September last year. 'Why did I second? I suppose I just got fed up of sorting out problems - there has to be a better way of doing things,' she says. She brands herself an 'ambassador', but definitely not a 'champion' in the current climate. 'Why do we seem to allow the same problems and issues to arise each time? Why is it that an engineer can work very happily on a complex problem and it goes very well, and then on the next project, which could be a very simple, straightforward project, it goes so wrong?'
Lamont's job is to raise but also to answer those questions. She is also there to disseminate information about the practices - sadly, there are very few examples - and construction firms that are eliminating waste and cutting duplication of effort. 'To me a lot of it is down to team- building and going in with the right attitude. I was solving problems but what we should be doing was ensuring the problems didn't arise in the first place.'
The best practice programme (she hesitates to define what 'best practice' actually is) aims to get people to communicate and work together in teams and end the adversarial approach - with the promise of increased profits, and repeat business from satisfied clients in return. 'It's 'what is it that the client wants and how, as a team, can we deliver that?'' Lamont sees no sense in architects, for example, designing all the 'fixings' when there is a range of 'experts out there who know their product and know how it fits together'.
Her aim is simply to change the methodology of companies: streamlining the process, easing the problems inevitably arising at the 'interfaces'. The programme involves a web site and helpline, with information based around themes, fact sheets, case studies and company visits - and she wants more architects on board. 'It's not War and Peace,' she says; 'it's not the British Library - we're trying to keep the information fresh and focused.'
But isn't this really only open to the big boys - the major construction firms rather than the small architectural practice? A misconception, says Lamont, although very few case studies are so far from the design field. Doesn't this mirror architecture's place in the Egan report - largely forgotten behind a mania for cost and time savings and standardisation? 'But architects should see that as an opportunity, not a threat' she retorts. 'They are an integral part of the design process - it's the architects who are one of the first people the client brings on board.'
One of the programme's main aims is to get practices to share expertise. 'Everybody, no matter what size, has the ability of doing things better. I think the industry is starting to wake up to the fact that its clients aren't happy with what we're doing - they come to us as professionals to help them overcome their problem; they may only ever build one building in their life and the service we give them is not what we'd expect to get from them.'
Lamont also thinks that an industry that last year spent £800 million on lawyers' bills and £14 billion on tendering is 'criminal', especially when you imagine what that would achieve if spent on r&d.
Zara Lamont loves the 'buzz' of her job, its 'challenging' and 'rewarding' nature. She's happy to accuse a major architect of having cost control that is 'absolutely diabolical', and to ask probing, revolutionary questions about an industry which is mired in deeply rigid professional antagonisms and adversarial positions. And she's not going to rest until construction gets its house in order. Zara Lamont means business.