The lack of oversight, ownership and liability that the inquiry has exposed is of little surprise to those of us immersed in the everyday realities of construction, says RCKa director Russell Curtis
The infamous game of exquisite corpse, invented by surrealists in the cafés of early 20th-century Paris, involved participants contributing to an evolving drawing, oblivious to their predecessors’ intent, save for a few short lines extending across a crease in the paper concealing the previous player’s work. With only limited information with which to extrapolate, each artist’s efforts unwittingly transformed churches into chickens; fish into fountains. The drawing revealed at the conclusion of the exercise could be surprising, disturbing – but never predictable.
As the second phase of the Grenfell public inquiry kicked off last week, the general public unwittingly glimpsed the construction industry’s own version of exquisite corpse. While shocking to many, the lack of oversight, ownership and liability that the inquiry has exposed is of little surprise to those of us who are immersed in the everyday realities of contemporary construction.
Design and build is construction’s dirty little secret; a seductive contractual brew which purports to offer clients certainty and comfort but amounts to little more than the delusive reconciliation of the cost/time/quality triumvirate. This commissioning and construction process has not only enabled the derogation of responsibility; it has positively encouraged it. The labyrinthine blame game now taking place within the inquiry is as predictable as it is devastating.
A rotten culture of risk-avoidance has demoted the pursuit of quality far down the list of priorities
D&B is not, in and of itself, the problem. Rather it’s the inevitable manifestation of a rotten culture of risk-avoidance, which has demoted the pursuit of quality so far down the list of priorities that in some cases it ceases to factor at all. Yet it’s easy to understand why it remains so popular with clients. The opportunity to offload the risk of cost and programme overruns to a main contractor, thus saving face when things go awry, is too tempting to ignore, particularly within a public sector paralysed by fear of failure. In response, contractors – working to razor-thin margins and possibly bidding below cost in the hope they can recoup costs through subsequent ‘value engineering’ – simply bat the risk down the supply chain to the design team, suppliers, specialist subcontractors, or whoever else happens to be in the room at the time. Deniability is plausible when nobody really knows who is responsible.
The Hackitt review went some way to addressing this, but misidentified the elusive ‘golden thread’ as information, promoting the idea that a more robust transfer of data is the cure. But without singular oversight of the entire process – a sole point of responsibility – it’s no wonder what emerges is a poor facsimile of what was intended. No, the golden thread must be quality – the setting out, from beginning to end, of what a project must be like; then the presence of an ever-present and empowered agent with the authority and capability to intercede when things are not as they need to be.
The bereaved, survivors and relatives group, in its submission to phase two of the inquiry, put it thus: ‘Under Design and build there is a danger that the architects, once novated, are squeezed out of the process. They are, after all, now a cost burden for the design-and-build contractor. That certainly seems to have happened here. And there is no independent professional person to administer the contract and ensure that the design intent is fulfilled.’
It doesn’t have to be this way. Within the last quarter-century, a sea change has taken place elsewhere within the UK construction industry, with the number of site accidents and injuries plummeting. Changes in legislation have helped, but this has been principally due to a significant change in culture. The tragedy at Grenfell has made it apparent that our attitude to quality must now undergo a similarly profound transformation.
Russell Curtis is a director at RCKA and a founding director of procurement campaign group Project Compass