Why would you put contractors in charge of anything except construction? asks Paul Finch
The bridge disaster in Genoa is a version of the Grenfell Tower nightmare. Something-must-be-done political hand-wringing cuts little ice with grieving relatives. As ever, groups with an axe to grind focus on aspects of the disaster to pursue their own narrow agendas. The media tries to find some sort of balance (at best) and joins in absurd scapegoating at worst.
A common seam running through these events is responsibility, which in legal terms translates into liability. Who did what, when and how? Who checked?
Genoa photo crop courtesy newcivilengineer
Source: Photograph courtesy of NCE
As we have seen at Genoa, none of this is simple, and to understand what has happened requires the attitude of mind represented by research group Forensic Architecture. Its belief in the efficacy of scientific analysis is a refreshing reminder that Enlightenment values are particularly relevant in an era where facts and truth are under bombardment, from liars and fantasists who seriously believe that words mean what they say they mean – the ultimate vanity of the self-obsessed.
It will be possible to check whether the bridge design and the engineering calculations conformed with regulatory standards of the time, and who signed off both the designs and the approvals. It will be possible to take concrete samples and ascertain whether the material mixes were of the appropriate strength. It will be possible to inspect documents recording periodic surveys, including those by the maintenance company, to determine whether planned repairs to the structure were wrongly delayed for any reason.
What might be more difficult will be to determine the extent to which increases in traffic, and in particular the increased loads imposed by mega-lorries, were properly recorded or planned for.
However, this will be no excuse for the failure to properly maintain and repair, since unanticipated increases by definition can be measured at some stage – if only to demonstrate they were unanticipated. The history of bridge design is partly a history of strengthening and, if necessary, replacement, and has been part of structures education for two centuries.
Real life is of course another matter. The relentless pursuit of ‘risk transfer’ throughout the construction sector is making life more dangerous because responsibility devolved almost inevitably dilutes liability.
An example of this – tiny by comparison with Genoa but still relevant – was the tragic and unnecessary death of a cyclist who hit a pothole in Warwickshire (it was filled with water and looked like a puddle). The pothole had twice been identified by the county council as dangerous. Balfour Beatty had a contract to carry out repairs, which it subcontracted to another company, which in turn subcontracted it to a local company, along with GPS data on exactly where the hole was.
Construction companies have a grim track record of taking ‘responsibility’ for things, then subcontracting the actual work
For reasons that have yet to be explained, the individual sent to do the work failed to find the right hole, and instead filled in one three miles away and then changed the information on the completion form to suggest that the required work had been carried out. This is what I mean by liability diluted. It appears that nobody actually checked that the hole had been filled. Not surprisingly, the council is likely to be sued, doubtless triggering a flow of litigation that will chiefly benefit lawyers.
Construction companies have a grim track record of taking ‘responsibility’ for things, then subcontracting the actual work and holding their hands up in horror when things go wrong. It is never their fault.
You might take the example of Tarmac (as was), providing prisons but subcontracting all security work to Group 4 in the early years of PFI. Why would you put contractors in charge of anything except construction? A point never understood by the Treasury in its lust, a least at the time, to finance major projects off the balance sheet.
Responsibility and liability should be on a very short chain. And, if architects want to have a sustainable future, they would be well advised to embrace both, rather than transfer them to others, and indeed to take back certain diminishing areas like project management and cost control. It is time to stand up and be counted.
Architects have a greater responsibility than other parts of the construction team, because of their unwritten contract with future users of the buildings they create. This involves social responsibility, not simply competent functional design; it does not impose formal liabilities – because it is more important than that. When you have responsibility without power, you are in the world of morals and ethics. That is what it means to be a professional.