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Construction really does need rethinking

I would like to suggest to Paul Hyett (aj 1.10.98) that we have a moratorium on the words 'Egan' and 'car' in discussions about the construction industry. Then we might be able to be thankful for 'Rethinking Construction', which once again proves that some things talked about by many for years start being taken note of widely when stated from a high place, especially if crudely.

The marginalisation of architects, the rise of design-and-build, and the widespread acceptance of the black-and-white world of the project manager are not proof of a lamentable philistinism in the culture or some historical freak which will soon pass of its own accord. These things have happened because too many clients have been grievously disappointed. How could it be otherwise with an industry in which design and production are so starkly separated?

Throughout the nineteenth century and until just after the Second World War, the continuation of craft traditions in the making of buildings, accepted by architects, ensured that what was produced was on the whole what was expected by the customer. The ascendancy of modern architecture, and the exhilarating and necessary rethinking of the design of buildings from first principles, completed the polarisation of the industry which had begun with the emergence the architectural and engineering professions. So now we have our familiar fragmented production process, with different parts of it speaking different languages and an inherently adversarial contracting system round which the whole thing is supposed to coalesce.

We do produce brilliant one-offs, but is anyone arguing that this industry is giving general satisfaction to its public or making anything like the best use of its combined talents and resources? Notably, the component- manufacturing side of the industry, which has developed more along the lines of the rest of manufacturing, is the area of least complaint and where innovation quietly goes on happening.

Modern manufacture is beginning to move away from mass production and standardisation as Henry Ford understood it. Information technology has the potential to enable the making of highly differentiated goods from standardised components with an economy and productivity better than old- style assembly lines. The building industry understands customisation very well. If we could successfully reintegrate its intellectual and physical activities, we could even leave cars behind.

'Rethinking Construction' may in parts be wrong; even a little mischievous and naive. Far more important are its promotion of integration, its acceptance of the divisive effects of tendering and contracting, its emphasis on the people in the industry and its openness to the industry's own proposals for improvement.

SUNAND PRASAD

By email

Do listed churches adapt to needs?

The listing of 28 post-war church buildings (aj 1.10.98) should perhaps serve as a warning to everyone responsible for the provision of new church buildings. It may be that the buildings that have been listed are still eminently suitable for their congregations' needs and will continue to be so, but should they need to be adapted to suit changing needs (the church of 2048 may have very different needs to the church of 1998), the church will almost certainly find that the listing makes such adaptation more difficult (qv the arguments about altering the National Theatre).

It is noteworthy that many 'new' and rapidly growing churches have chosen buildings of no architectural merit (converted warehouses etc), perhaps out of a desire not to leave succeeding generations with the problems that established denominations regularly encounter - should they need to relocate, they will have a good chance of recouping most of their investment, while the presence of a listed church building can render a site almost worthless. Where churches are concerned, it is sadly arguable that outstanding design may prove to be a very bad long-term investment.

TONY BRYER

Twickenham, Middlesex

We need to get relationships right

Kate Heron (People, aj 24.9.98) states that for her, as new head of architecture at Westminster university. 'the most important thing at the moment is to get the relationship with clients right'. Two weeks earlier, in her review of The Illegal Architect, Katherine Shonfield relates how author Jonathan Hill compares the way in which architects can clutch at the user- free perspective or photograph of a building to that of a child clinging to its teddy bear.

For two years now, the schools of De Montfort and Sheffield Universities have been developing and implementing new teaching initiatives focusing on precisely these issues. How can we better equip students with the necessary skills for effective brief building and team working, and, as importantly, where are the foundations currently being laid which cause society to accuse architects of being remote and arrogant in their attitudes and actions?

An architect's educational process is often, and rightly, held up as an example of excellence in its methodology - particularly the emphasis on studio-centred learning by doing. Students are required to work in teams, develop their work through discussion and publicly present their conclusions. However, how are these students acquiring their expertise and patterns of behaviour for these key activities? Often through the aping of a consistently academic role model and the public excoriation of the critical review (crit) as traditionally organised. We believe that not only can these be seen as poor role models for learning, but that there is frequently no attention given to the structured teaching of the skills necessary for students to be able to engage in such activity.

Academics are under pressure of growing student numbers and falling staffing levels. It will always seem easiest to hang o to a familiar model. Our work has shown that, as in any change-management programme, the first steps are the hardest, but that the rewards of looking at the process from the perspective of 'getting relationships right' could be the key to a far richer experience for both students and tutors - and ultimately, it is to be hoped, for the architect in society.

Anyone wishing to know more of this work should email project co-ordinator, Simon Pilling, on e-mail kas22@dial. pipex.com.

SIMON PILLING

London

Project management is a separate skill

So Mr Bartho believes that architects 'are quite cheap'. Mark McPhillips (Letters aj 1.10.98) would appear not to agree, and I think I would concur. If architects who are inclined to act as project managers are now to impale themselves upon the pike of low fee bids, the standards of service and the image of the profession can only suffer further.

Mr Bartho is correct to identify that the holistic nature of the architect's skills does imply that architects can be well qualified for project management, particularly at its generic level, but I am not convinced that Mr Bartho has grasped the essentials of the tools needed for successful project management. A 'project' may be defined as the implementation of 'change' and thus the project manager's role is that of the management of change. In respect of the construction industry, a most important tool is 'design change control procedures', and, as change implies risk, the next handy tool is that of risk assessment and risk management. This is only the beginning. There is not room here to expound upon the range of tools and skills required by the professional project manager.

Mr Bartho has been trained in pm by the rics, and it shows. The focus of that training is essentially financial or based on the new buzzword, 'value management', which is not the primary tool nor aim of good project management - to meet the requirements of time and quality as well as that of cost.

Mr Bartho is clearly unaware that the riba offers an extremely useful certificate in project management, the training for which has been developed in conjunction with the Association of Project Managers, affiliated to the ipma. The riba course is not about the 'project management of architecture' but the 'architecture of project management'. It is a demanding course and is not for the faint of heart nor for those who would sell themselves cheaply. Good project management, as with good architecture or any other professional service, cannot be properly delivered within the constraints of uneconomic fee scales.

There is also within the riba a special-interest group for project managers which meets regularly in the cause of advancing project management as a distinct and discrete service to the client. We can be readily found on ribanet or by phoning the riba practice department. I look forward to Mr Bartho and any other interested parties joining us in the quest.

SIMON DANISCHEWSKY

Fulbourn, Cambridgeshire

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