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Let's all play the glass bead game . . .

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Paul Hyett

Fifty years ago the Nobel Prize for Literature was bestowed on the philosopher Hermann Hesse for his book Das Glasperlenspiel. It describes a future society where knowledge has reached its zenith: there is nothing left to discover. The commercial world, strangely remote (but with a certain attractiveness) is barely glimpsed; the spotlight is on the most venerated part of society, cloistered away from trade and politics: an elite strangely and obsessively engaged in a narcissistic pursuit of the one remaining intellectual challenge, the Glass Bead Game. This game becomes ever more complex as it develops, but the players are blind to the fact that it also grows in futility. All the while it opens an unbridgeable chasm between the towering folly of those who play, and the receding reality of those who don't. I'll not spoil it by telling you more.

What brought the Glass Bead Game to mind is a new book by Keith Pickavance, Delay and Disruption in Construction Contracts, that finds no limit to the complexity of its subject. Its 500-odd pages comprise a biting criticism of our contracting environment: a world that has left common sense and simple arrangements far behind.

John Cane, who, sadly, died last month, was a practitioner and teacher with a specialist knowledge of contract matters. One of his delights was to extrapolate Parkinson's Law with his axiom that 'all building contracts grow inexorably in size and complexity'. Proof is immediate: ifc84, with no fewer than 12 amendments since publication, is now so complex and impenetrable that it is scarcely useful. Will there be no limit to the number of future amendments? What is their ultimate purpose, and whose interests do they finally serve?

Over the past few years we have seen determined efforts by this and the last government to write construction legislation that is clear, concise and accessible. Why do we accept that the language of building contracts should be any different?

It is now surely time to recognize the truth in Cane's extension to Parkinson's Law and the follies we now have as building contracts. If the newly incorporated jct Limited is incapable of writing useful, accessible, cogent and effective agreements, then employers, architects and contractors alike should look elsewhere.

Who can write a model building agreement? jct Glass Bead Game players? No thank you. And when pondering this issue, bear in mind the final words of Sir John Egan's report published last July: 'We must rethink construction.'

There is much cause for concern regarding Egan, but one underlying truth prevails - the huge amount of time and money wasted on disputes arising from the construction process has been, and remains, unacceptable. The ever-increasing complexity of our contracts is a symptom of the fact that the conditions for the mutual success of service purchasers and providers (that is clients, consultants, builders and sub-contractors) are increasingly elusive. Instead of writing ever-more complex contracts, we would do well to create conditions in which all parties can succeed in their work - that means, essentially, clear instructions and adequate time, with proper and timely payments.

It is because these conditions for success are increasingly so rare that contracts have become so complex, and litigation so profuse.

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