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Living with Beauty – don’t forget the contractors

Goldsmith Street 5627 Tim Crocker
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Contractors have a crucial role to play in achieving the aims of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, says Andrew Barraclough

The recently published 191-page Living with Beauty report doesn’t tell a great story about the construction industry. To be more precise, it doesn’t tell any story about it at all.

Throughout this important report on the future of our built environment there are just 21 references to construction and eight mentions of the word ‘contractor’ – and many of these are in the same paragraph.

Considering that the articulated purpose of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC) is to ‘tackle the challenge of poor-quality design and build of homes and places’, it’s an astonishing omission.

Where the report does reference construction, it makes fleeting mention of the potential benefits of off-site and modular construction and the increasing digitisation of the construction process (including a recommendation to introduce digital building passports) and also its apparent penchant for value engineering.

Nowhere does it offer any commentary or insight into the key role the construction industry can play, does play and increasingly will play in supporting the design of beautiful buildings and places.

However, if you read very closely there is a tiny hint to what can be achieved when there is the right relationship between the client, architect and contractor and the positive benefits that this can have on a project outcome.

The report rightly focuses heavily on the RIBA Stirling Prize-winning Goldsmith Street in Norwich as an exemplar of housing and urban design and it links to an interview in The Architect’s Journal with Mikhail Riches Architects, who co-designed the scheme.

In the article, David Mikhail says: ‘Our client decided not to go down the design and build route. So, while we worked with a contractor, we were not led by them.

‘The contractor did have good ideas, though. For instance, lots of the three-bedroomed houses had dormers on the roof. The contractor pointed out that working at height is really expensive. So we changed the three-bedroomed houses to two-bedroomed houses without a dormer which, actually, sat quite happily with the council’s needs.’

While there seems to be an element of surprise attached to these comments, they do capture – if in a rather simplistic way - the key role that contractors have to play in the design process. There is no doubt that project outcomes would be significantly better if contractors were consistently involved much earlier in the life-cycle of a project.

The reality remains that much of the work that we do is already very well developed. We are facilitating the designer’s vision so we get the information we need and deliver it as best we can with a very limited influence on the overall design.

Traditionally there has been this impression that contractors are thugs that bully their way through a contract and, while I’m sure that there are some that are capable of this, it is not the reality of the industry today.

In the five years since I joined the construction sector after a quarter of a century as an architect, we have increasingly been trying to build that relationship between the two disciplines for the mutual benefit of all – but there is still work to do.

As the Goldsmith Street example clearly showed, a respectful and reassuring relationship between the designers and contractors can pay significant dividends. Engaging in a positive dialogue about the design evolution should be the norm, not the cause of a diplomatic incident.

Fundamentally the most important aspect from the construction industry’s perspective is being involved in the project at a much earlier stage.

There are many elements that must all align to deliver a great project – aesthetics, functionality, affordability, time constraints, to name but a few. More often than not, though, one or more of these are no longer deliverable by the time the main contractor is engaged.

This isn’t about contractors usurping the role of architects – far from it. This is about taking a more holistic approach to design so that contractors have the opportunity to look at a project in its totality and positively influence the design work in a much earlier way. Indeed many would argue the need for more vertical integration, as is the case with schools and some public sector frameworks such as Scape, where all the parties come together and deliver from the outset.

The construction industry is the ultimate gatekeeper to the built environment and, by ensuring that contractors have an influence on not just how things are built but also what they are building, they can be that point of difference in achieving the ambitions of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.

Andrew Barraclough is group design director at Wates Group

Lead image: Goldsmith Street by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley. Photo by Jim Stephenson

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