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Roundtable: What do architects think of Hackitt’s ‘golden thread’ of design intent?

Aj roundtable kingspan hr s 8

One of the Hackitt Review’s key recommendations was debated by industry experts in the latest AJ roundtable panel discussion. Sponsored by Kingspan

Only a ‘radical rethink of the whole system’ can fix the broken construction industry – this was the message delivered in Judith Hackitt’s post-Grenfell review of building regulations, published in May. Through ignorance and indifference, the sector has created a ‘race to the bottom’ culture, Hackitt said, which requires wholesale reform to ensure the future safety of residents.  

The regulation review was a wake-up call for all those involved in the design and construction of buildings but it was perhaps Hackitt’s suggestion of a ‘golden thread’, embedded through the entire design process, which has resonated most deeply with architects. This golden thread would ensure the ‘original design intent’ is preserved and recorded from design stage to building delivery, with any changes going through a formal review process.

For architects, the proposal offers a route back to a more central role in the construction design process. But does the profession really want more control? And, if so, how can this be achieved in a Design and Build world?

The AJ asked a panel of industry experts and architects from leading practices to take part in a discussion on issues such as how Hackitt’s proposals could work, the fragmentation of the industry exposed following Grenfell and the deskilling of the profession. 

The panel

  • Emily Booth, editor, The AJ (chair)
  • Russell Curtis, founding director, RCKa Architects
  • Adrian Dobson, director of professional services, RIBA
  • Alex Ely, principal, Mae
  • John Garbutt, marketing director, Kingspan Insulation
  • Richard Harrison, past president, ACA Council
  • Chris Jarvis, technical director, Sheppard Robson
  • Jo McCafferty, director, Levitt Bernstein

Industry fragmentation 

Kicking off the debate, the AJ’s Emily Booth asked the panel what Grenfell had taught us about the role of the architect. Alex Ely, of Mae Architects, said Hackitt’s review had highlighted the complexity of both the construction and procurement processes and correctly identified the ‘fragmentation’ within the industry. ‘Hackitt was absolutely right to identify a problem of fragmentation in the industry, a lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities and ambiguity over where responsibility lies,’ he said.

Levitt Bernstein’s Jo McCafferty agreed, but pointed out this was also a problem within local authorities and on the client side, too. She said: ‘It’s quite likely that nobody who is there at the very beginning of a project is involved at the end. Those people that are signing off the conditions or approving substitutions are often an entirely new team.’

The other panellists agreed about the splintering of responsibilities on site. Sheppard Robson’s Chris Jarvis said sophisticated procurement had created a ‘complicated multiplicity of responsibilities’ on projects. ‘It’s very complex to control quality. Hackitt did an extremely good job of identifying the weaknesses there,’ he said.

Cost plans are withheld from us because there’s a suspicion that we’ll just try to review our fees

This has resulted in the ‘deskilling’ of architects, the RIBA’s Adrian Dobson argued. ’Now, somebody who may have started work six months ago for a specialist subcontractor is making the key decisions,’ he said.

Not only that – pointed out McCafferty – but architects are even kept well away from the cost plans. ‘We’re often working on projects where we don’t see a cost plan. We’re given headline figures that mean nothing. We’re designing in a vacuum.’

Ely agreed, adding: ‘Sometimes they [cost plans] are withheld from us because there’s a suspicion that we’ll just try to review our fees.’ 

Aj roundtable alex ely 3

Aj roundtable alex ely 3

Alex Ely

Continuity of information

So would Hackitt’s ‘golden thread’ proposition go some way to solving any of these issues? 

The idea was an interesting one, said RCKa’s Russell Curtis, but he suggested it needed to be extended and that architects needed to brief better at the beginning of a project and engage in post-occupancy evaluations once a building has been delivered.

‘Every other event that takes place along that thread should be focused on, to assess whether we are achieving the briefing objectives at the end,’ Curtis argued.

The panel also debated another of the regulation review’s calls for a digital record of a building’s design and construction to be readily available.

‘Hackitt is saying it’s not the individual, it’s the documentation that provides the golden thread,’ past ACA Council president Richard Harrison pointed out, adding: ‘As to who that individual is who takes part in that, it’s very much up to who wants to stand up and take responsibility for it.’

Jarvis said he thought a move to ensure there was a continuity of information throughout a building’s life cycle was a positive step. 

He said: ‘I think it will be unlikely that the full design team will be retained cradle to grave but at least there’s a continuity of information which I think is where Hackitt is coming from. You can’t change everything but you can make sure documentation is there.’

Aj roundtable jo mccafferty 4

Aj roundtable jo mccafferty 4

Jo McCafferty

The ‘or equivalent’ get-out

Responding to a question from Booth on architects’ role in specifying products, the panel discussed how there were circumstances where original materials were being swapped out. 

Curtis said this was exacerbated as contractors look to save on costs by either beating down the supply chain or picking cheaper materials. ‘The client isn’t in a position to assess whether they should go for one type of insulation over another, at the end of the day they don’t have the knowledge to make those judgement calls,’ he said.

Ely also raised concerns over the ‘get-out clause’ of ‘or equivalent’, which he said was far too broad, adding that frequently architects choose to specify certain products based on environmental thermal performance or longevity, but then the contractor will choose to do it a different way. 

Booth asked what level of discussion would be had in that situation to which Ely replied: ‘If you’re in a monitoring role you can make the case to your client that it is not equivalent. But it’s up to them to make a decision and they might side with the contractor.’

McCafferty said that, because the planning application is the first point at which products can be specified, there should be a ‘more standardised’ approach to what constitutes a detailed application.  

Aj roundtable russel curtis crop

Aj roundtable russell curtis crop

Russell Curtis

Tipping point 

Whether or not architects wanted greater responsibility over the design process was one of the final issues discussed by the panel. The RIBA’s Adrian Dobson said he was reminded of Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger’s observation that the architect ‘is no longer buried next to the king’. 

‘The profession is at a tipping point,’ he said. ‘We’ve lamented that loss of power, but we’ve also been quite happy in some ways to give away responsibility.’

It is the RIBA that should be providing that leadership, countered Ely. ‘If anyone can help that reform and offer that leadership and guidance about how to overcome the fragmentation it should be the RIBA,’ he said.

I don’t know any architect who conceives of a building and doesn’t want to see it through – and yet our procurement often works against that notion

‘It’s very difficult to take responsibility when you don’t have control, added McCafferty.Dobson argued that one way architects might reclaim control is through the principal designer role created by the Construction Design and Management (CDM) Regulations’ in 2015 – a role he argues architects have ‘shied away’ from. 

‘As a profession we turned our back on it,’ said Dobson. ‘I don’t know whether because it was too boring, too bureaucratic, too risky or because it carries criminal liability.’

Architects have perhaps become too used to the Design and Build procurement world, suggested Harrison, adding: ‘Architects do need to think – do they want to be in control? There will be some who do, but there will be others who just want to be flipping sites. There are all kinds of us out there.’

Kingspan Insulation’s John Garbutt said the profession had a ‘huge decision’ to make about whether it wants to take on more responsibility. 

‘Does the profession want it and if so how does it achieve it?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know any architect who conceives of a building and doesn’t want to see it through,’ responded Ely, adding: ‘And yet our procurement often works against that notion. I would support the idea of architects leading the way and offering oversight.’

Agreeing, Curtis added: ‘If you’re not interested in doing that maybe you’re in the wrong job.’


Sponsored by

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Richard Saxon

    A very pertinent discussion. I suggest that the new concept of Insurance-Backed Alliancing should be looked at in this context, to reduce the fear of responsibility. I-BA unites the client and team, removes the need for PII, and manages changes in a balanced way within BIM. The golden thread is preserved.

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  • The Grenfell disaster only became possible after materials of limited combustibility became legal in 2007. Hundreds of towers were then covered with partly organic materials that appeared to pass the relevant tests, despite being combustible in a hot enough fire. The Review makes no attempt to explain why the guidance changed.

    In London before 1984, windows had to be separated by a yard of inorganic material, or by a balcony. This barrier delayed fire spread and gave time to fight the fire. There were never any fatalities, other than in the flat where the fire started. The Regulations never met this prescription yet no tower can otherwise be safe.

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  • Nigel Ostime

    RIBA, CIOB and RICS have collaborated to develop a Quality Tracker that aims to manage the 'golden thread' and improve project outcomes. It is currently being piloted and we want as many people/projects as possible to trial it over the next 6 months and give us their feedback. The final version will then be published in 2019. Please go to https://www.architecture.com/working-with-an-architect/building-in-quality-pilot

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