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End of an error: reducing waste could save billions

Paul Finch

Greater collaboration in the construction industry could easily save £10 billion in avoidable errors, says Paul Finch

Architects are obliged to synthesise the requirements, desires and constraints of seemingly endless groups of people. You might say that architectural fees are the wages of synthesis. But what about the synthesis of client, design, engineering and construction teams that inform any significant project? How can you ensure not only that you have the right people and organisations in place, but that they work in a truly collaborative way to achieve the best possible outcomes?

Those outcomes, by the way, could include savings made through the elimination or at least reduction of avoidable errors across the construction process. These could easily amount to £10 billion in the UK alone, according to the Get It Right Initiative, launched out of the Institution of Civil Engineers, which became alarmed at the amount of waste (literal and financial) involved in building and civil engineering.

Confidential information provided by anonymised large organisations resulted in a call to arms published last year, aimed at transforming the culture of construction, not least in the language used in relation to error.

Another initiative, Constructive Collaboration (headed by architect Andrew Wright) looks at things from the other end of the telescope: what are the positive merits of collaborative projects? Having identified what they might be, how do you then identify whether the team being put together will have the right constituents, and the right processes?

A new piece of software will relevant parties to determine the likely success of a collaborative project

That complex question has been the subject of 18 months of hard work, testing, client feedback and wide consultation, supported by many of the main professional institutes, though oddly not the RIBA. The upshot, likely to be launched formally at the end of this year, will be a piece of software that allows any or all relevant parties to determine the likely success of a collaborative project, given the people and methods being deployed.

There are plenty of projects that do not need to be collaborative in the full creative meaning of that term. However, where collaboration is a requirement (broadly speaking where jobs are complex, need innovative thinking or are attempting to set new benchmarks), it is highly likely that bidding organisations will wish to express their credentials in this area by signing up for the software. I wouldn’t be surprised if investing institutions didn’t make this a requirement.

Protocols cropped up in another context last week, in the form of a stimulating conversation with architect Simon Sturgis, whose carbon-profiling consultancy is involved with an intriguing experiment, funded via Innovate UK. Three such consultancies are each analysing the carbon footprint of five different buildings/building types in their normal manner, in order to identify differences in results that may arise from different analytical techniques or assumptions (embodied assumptions you might say).

A team from Cambridge University will review the 15 analyses with the aim of harmonising or changing approaches that cause significant differences in findings. This should establish a protocol which will then be incorporated into the appropriate British Standard, helping to produce more consistent data on carbon cost.

Among the projects Simon is working on, his analysis of Gatwick Airport’s buildings, roads and runways is one of the most fascinating. What is the embodied energy/carbon, and how might a strategy be developed that aimed to re-use rather than demolish and replace this infrastructure over time?

This would not affect energy associated with air travel, but significant savings in one area mitigate against increases in others. Mitigation, rather than invention of fantasy utopias, looks sensible – and not just in relation to carbon.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Sensible indeed - but surely there's an 'elephant in the room'?
    As long as relatively young and still useful buildings can be deemed unfit for purpose and demolished in favour of something bigger - and, by definition, more profitable - the notion of the 'end of an error' is surely a bit optimistic.
    All you need is a determined developer, a self-interested architect, compliant or less than alert planners and co-operative politicians - lubricated with a dose of hypocrisy and cynicism, if not outright greed.
    In London, Broadgate and the Carlton Tavern spring to mind (at opposite ends of the scale) - though I'd rather not visualise Broadgate, and we might yet see the resurrection of the Carlton Tavern from the dead, because in that case the planners weren't compliant and the politicians weren't co-operative.

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  • Good points for discussion; my feeling is that replacement commercial buildings that are significantly denser and far more energy-efficient should in general receive a welcome. Just because a profit motive is involved does not invalidate the outcome. In respect of smaller scales, listed building legislation, plus conservation areas, provide plenty of protection. The problem of thoughtless replacement might be addressed by requiring a planning consent prior to demolition, ie extending the requirements of conservation areas.

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