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'Poor construction and lack of scrutiny caused Scottish schools defects'


A report into building defects that led to the closure of 17 Edinburgh schools has blamed poor-quality construction and a lack of supervision, rather than design issues or the PFI funding model

The independent investigation, headed by Northern Irish architect and construction expert John Cole, was launched to find out what led to defective walls being built at 10 primary schools, five secondaries and two additional support needs schools desgined by Holmes Architects and 3DReid Architects.

The problem across the school portfolio, which was constructed under a public-private partnership arrangement with Edinburgh Schools Partnership (ESP), came to light after nine tonnes of masonry fell at Oxgangs Primary School during a storm in January 2016.

Wall ties were found to be missing at all 17 schools, and contractors had to carry out remediation work, requiring the relocation of around 8,400 pupils. 

Speaking in front of City of Edinburgh Council’s headquarters, Cole said: ‘The primary cause is poor-quality construction by a brick layer and the lack of his boss to check what he was doing [and a lack of supervision by the contractor].

’My personal recommendation would be to have more independent scrutiny [on behalf of the client]. That might mean a clerk of works or resident architect. If I was a client I would want my own independent scrutiny; not just to be reliant on the contractors’ [reports]’. 

The schools were built between 2002 and 2005 by a consortium formed by Amey and Miller Construction.

One of the issues highlighted in the report was how the inner blockwork leaf was built before construction started on the outer brick layer, meaning brick ties could not be built in later.

Architectural practice the Holmes Partnership had also pointed out the issues with wall coursing, but a written statement from the firm had been ignored.

Cole’s report, while finding that there had been a ‘lack of properly resourced and structured scrutiny’ under the public-private partnership contract, did not directly blame this for the wall collapse.

‘Aspects of the way in which the PPP methodology was implemented on these projects did increase the risk of poor quality design and construction,’ it said. ‘In this regard, however, the approach adopted on the Edinburgh scheme was quite typical of that adopted generally at the time.’

It added: ‘[The] method of financing the project, per se, did not negatively influence the quality of construction in the Edinburgh schools. There is no reason why properly managed privately financed public sector buildings should not be capable of delivering buildings constructed to a very high standard, if best practice approaches to ensuring the quality of design and construction are properly incorporated.’

This statement was challenged by Glasgow architect Alan Dunlop, who recently appeared in the BBC Scotland documentary How Safe is My School? which investigated the school defects.

He said: ‘The conclusion reached that the PFI contract is not to blame and that the wall failure at Oxgangs Primary and potentially 16 other schools in Edinburgh was primarily a construction fault is bizarre and would not be my view.

’The conclusion reached that the PFI contract is not to blame is bizarre’

’I’m sure Edinburgh will be happy with this conclusion, but the PFI contract is for me at the root of the issue. Private finance for public projects seeks to maximise profit for the successful contractor by driving down tenders for subcontractors to the bare minimum while fast tracking the build programme; by lowering specification and design quality and fees for architects and other professional services.’

He added: ‘The contractor is the design team’s client, not the building user, and the subcontractor has no real incentive to complete the work to a high standard when pushed heavily for time and limited return. It is no wonder when buildings constructed under such contract conditions are found not to be fit for purpose.’

And, speaking to the BBC, the  general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, Larry Flanagan, said: “The legacy of the PPP/PFI funding model is too many inferior buildings, for which we will all be paying a vastly inflated price for decades to come.”

Responding to the report, City of Edinburgh Council’s chief executive Andrew Kerr said: ‘The report pulls no punches and makes clear what went wrong, the reasons for it and where responsibility lay.

‘Clearly there are lessons for the council, and I will now be drawing up an action plan to take our recommendations forward to ensure everyone can have confidence in the safety of all of our buildings.

‘The council, our public and private sector partners both in Scotland and across the United Kingdom, need to take on board the issues raised and address the concerns highlighted in the report as they have far-reaching implications for the construction industry.’

Conclusions – summary

The problems they have had to face were fundamentally the result of poor quality construction and poor quality supervision of construction, which in slightly different circumstances, could have resulted in the injury or loss of the lives of school children.

This was not the result of the isolated incompetence of a rogue sub-contractor or bricklaying squad.

What is also significant about the Edinburgh situation is that highly professional and competent teams of structural engineers were unable to identify, through detailed visual inspections, the existence of serious defects in the construction of the walls they examined. This point is worthy of wider consideration by those who may have relied on visual inspections as a form of assurance that the underlying construction of walls are sound. Any such inadequacies in the construction of masonry panels must, therefore, be detected prior to walls being closed-up or there is no easy practical way of ensuring they have been built properly. This requires effective quality assurance and scrutiny during construction.

It is incumbent upon the construction industry to develop and promulgate best practice methods that can be relied upon to provide the necessary level of assurance in relation to those areas of construction that become quickly closed up to inspection, the failure of which could impact on the safety of the users of buildings.

It is also clear that clients, particularly public sector clients with statutory duties in relation to the communities they serve, cannot simply delegate away from themselves the responsibility of putting in place an appropriate level of informed, independent scrutiny to ensure the safety of the public buildings they procure. By independent scrutiny the inquiry is referring to inspection by individuals or organisations appointed by or directly employed by the client, who are independent of the project company or contractor undertaking the project.

Recent changes to models of procurement of public building, driven by a desire for greater efficiency, and an unachievable desire to transfer all risk away from the client, have unfortunately not appreciated the need to build into these models the essential provision of an appropriate level of independent scrutiny. 

Frequently clients under such arrangements have limited direct access to the architects and engineers who design their projects or to any reports they may produce other than through the contractor. Not only does this inevitably impact on the overall design quality achieved, but with these changes the presence of architects and engineers on site has reduced. Increasingly, clerks of works and resident engineers are also not being employed to assist in the protection of the quality of construction

A number of witnesses to the inquiry identified a desire to reduce the cost of fees as a major factor in deciding the level of provision of effective inspection of construction, rather than a serious assessment of the risks of not providing for adequate independent scrutiny.

AJES 0416 0034 Firrhill

Specific responses

Remit 1 Public Private Partnership contract

The inquiry is of the view that a fundamental weakness of the process adopted was the lack of properly resourced and structured scrutiny of the building work at an appropriate level of detail by the external appointment or direct employment of those with requisite experience acting on behalf of the City of Edinburgh Council. There was an over-reliance on the part of the council, without adequate evidence, that others in the project structure, including those building the schools would comprehensively fulfil this essential role.

However, the method of financing the project, per se, did not negatively influence the quality of construction in the Edinburgh schools. There is no reason why properly managed privately financed public sector buildings should not be capable of delivering buildings constructed to a very high standard, if best practice approaches to ensuring the quality of design and construction are properly incorporated. There does however need to be a greater understanding amongst clients and those advising them as to what does represent best practice in this regard.

Remit 2 Adequacy of the contractual arrangements

Failure to prepare or maintain appropriate as-installed records: The PPP Contract contained a requirement for the preparation, provision to the council and maintenance of as-installed drawings and related documentation. This provision has not been adequately complied with as evidenced to the Inquiry by the main organisations involved in the remediation process. 

This omission was particularly surprising as the concession period for this contract has still more than 15 years to run and reference to these documents will inevitably be required by the various parties over this period. In addition to the limited number of drawings able to be made available, the Inquiry found difficulty in the course of its work in accessing some of the key contract documents from the records of the council. 3.2.8 The Inquiry is of the view that insufficient attention was paid by ESP and its relevant sub-contractors to the accurate documenting, storage and maintenance of as-installed drawings and related records of the schools. The absence or inaccessibility of these led to a more prolonged and probably more extensive remediation process than would have been required had this documentation been readily available as required under the contract.

Remit 3 The cause of the wall collapse at Oxgangs

It is the view of the Inquiry that the primary cause of the collapse of the wall at Oxgangs school was poor quality construction in the building of the wall which failed to achieve the required minimum embedment of 50mm for the wall ties, particularly in the outer leaf of the cavity wall. The poor quality relates to all three of the following aspects: 
- the direct laying of the bricks and the positioning of the wall ties
- the direct supervision of the laying of the bricks and the positioning of the wall ties
- and  the quality assurance processes used by the sub- contractor and main contractor to confirm the quality of the construction of the walls.

All three issues were ultimately the responsibility of the design and build contractor in charge of the site.

Remit 4 Lack of adequate independent scrutiny

It is the unequivocally held view of the Inquiry that there were fundamental and widespread failures of the quality assurance processes of the various contractors and sub-contractors, who built or oversaw the building of the PPP schools, to identify and rectify both defective construction of the cavity walls and the omission of the proper incorporation of required masonry restraints and secondary steelwork.

Oxgangs primary

Oxgangs primary

Source: Keith Hunter

The wall collapse at Oxgangs Primary School in April




Readers' comments (2)

  • Is there a single architect with any experience of the grubby ppp who would disagree with Alan or Larry? It is scandalous the AJ won't name the PPP partners and all the PFI owners since contrary to the original deal, PFI assets can be traded. What are the names of the current owners receiving rent money on these buildings?
    On LIFT in London under BBH, in exchange for a new facility the LA was persuaded to relinquish not only the freehold of the devlopment site, but a hatfull of freeholds of other publicly owned properties as sweetners. It was daylight robbery. The sustainability agenda at scheme design that appealed to the LA, was ditched on day one of stage E.

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  • I would have just listened to Alan Dunlop in August last year. This report was hardly worth waiting for, was it. A disappointment and a missed opportunity - and an expensive missed opportunity at that.

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