Design & Build (D&B) procurement has certainly had its critics of late. Plenty of negative media coverage has highlighted its detrimental effect on quality. The systemic problems have become widely and wearingly familiar: hazy strategy, poor budget planning and reduced margins leading to cut corners – all exacerbated by a lack of oversight and a disjointed supply chain.
It has been suggested that a lack of clarity and detail in RIBA Stage 0 (‘Strategic Definition’) and Stage 1 (‘Preparation and Brief’) is a common cause of quality issues. Before any design work can commence, there should be an onus on the client to clearly set out project objectives, including profit margins, based on a fully-formed business plan. Proceeding without this information makes it far more likely that the project will stumble.
Lacking proper consideration, the brief and cost plan can become irreconcilable, requiring a wasteful and time-consuming redesign. During these initial stages there is little attention to risk as D&B encourages clients to kick the can down the road in the expectation that the contractor will take on the burden. This in turn encourages the contractor to strip out quality, much to the displeasure of the architect. In circumstances like this, fault can also lie with the architect for over-specifying or leaving too much leeway in its application.
As a result, a project is often shaped by reactive value engineering which rarely satisfies all parties. It is better to invest the time to establish the client’s definition of value from the beginning – framed in terms of needs, wants, cost and timescale – and use this to apply an iterative approach which informs decisions throughout the project timeline.
From a manufacturer’s perspective, there is a feeling that building product suppliers could play more of a role. Many have decades of experience in developing specifications for a huge variety of built environments and offer a vast bank of specialist knowledge which, if utilised at an early stage, can provide better understanding of quality and value indicators, helping to ensure that the right design decisions are made first-time.
It can make a big difference, for example, in balustrade and balcony specification. This relatively complex classification is open to a wide variation in quality and design permutations. It involves a balance between functionality, aesthetics and cost which is often ill-defined: their respective levels of priority are rarely made clear. Balustrade is frequently over-specified by designers in the mistaken belief that the client desires a ‘feature’ stair. It then transpires that the client’s true priorities were lost in translation during concept development. Manufacturers can avert this outcome with a cost-benefit overview which crystallises the client’s thoughts, clarifies expectations for the architect and ensures that all parties are eyeing the same destination.
Architects can’t be expected to know every nuance of every building element and it helps to draw on the technical expertise of manufacturers. We have encountered many occasions when an architect has designed balustrade and opted for vertical rail infills with the assumption that they’re an economical choice. In actual fact, vertical rails are comparatively expensive in their use of materials. Many infill alternatives provide the same performance at significantly lower cost, including glass, but this kind of insight is often encountered too late in the piece.
Regulatory guidance can be equally useful. Industry practice in residential construction is increasingly shaped by emerging stipulations introduced by housebuilding warranty providers. They are not yet enshrined in Building Regulations, but are every bit as vital to gain the approval of influential stakeholders. Manufacturers are often aware of these critical changes long before architects. If manufacturers are consulted when the key decisions are made, they can impart this knowledge to save a great deal of time, cost and hassle further down the line.
D&B has, by and large, made site supervision a thing of the past and the skillset associated with that role has all but disappeared from the project dynamic. In the absence of a site architect or clerk of works, contractors and subcontractors are self-certifying quality and the other stakeholders are effectively taking a leap of faith in their standards. This is where manufacturers can fill the vacuum with factory-tested quality control, well-practiced installation teams and years of supply chain experience. The incentive to do so is obvious: a successful outcome makes repeat business more likely. If an architect sees a manufacture as a reliable resource for quality management as well as for products, then that manufacturer stands an excellent chance of becoming the go-to company for future projects.
Supplying specifications for countless projects brings a wealth of experience of when (and how) things go to plan, honing the ability to repeat that success in future, but even the best manufacturers will have experience of occasions when things don’t work out as smoothly as hoped. The missteps often tell you more than the successes do. Any forward-thinking manufacturer will have a project review procedure in place, including stakeholder feedback, to learn from any hiccups – no matter which party is culpable. That knowledge can be brought to bear to drive standards for future projects.
D&B too often results in the client paying a premium to disregard risk and then accepting a lower quality product. The relationship between brief and budget is simply not standing the test of the project timeline. This year RIBA’s Client Liaison Group will publish a toolkit to help clients and designers better understand risk, but trusted manufacturers can also offer expert advice which works in everyone’s interests. Until a better alternative to D&B procurement emerges, the relationship between designer and manufacturer is more important than ever.