Bricks and Mortar- How to Work with Contractors to Improve Design

Andy Steele, Executive Director at Osborne, spoke to Architects Journal about the Business of Architecture

Scary statistics are circulating about the state of the UK construction industry. There are reportedly 175,000 fewer people employed in the industry than at the start of the recession and, more significantly, official estimates suggest a further 400,000 shortage will occur as the industry struggles to attract new people and the existing workforce ages and retires over the next four years. Combine this with manufacturers being slow to increase production of materials to meet rising demand and we face challenges ahead.

For example, lead-in times for traditional building products such as bricks have extended to well over six months. The impact has hit us all and forced developers and, in turn, architects and others in the supply chain to rethink budgets, timeframes, specifications and construction processes.

The question is, are we in a moment of time that will pass in due course, or is it something the industry should actively seek to resolve now?

In the short term, contractors that engage early with developers and architects can offer up-to-date knowledge of market conditions, allowing design processes and costs to be aligned to market positions and capabilities. Often, contractors are involved too late, meaning that these considerations turn into a ‘value engineering’ exercise, delaying project procurement and, in a rapidly rising market, heaping greater financial and time pressures on to the project.

In the past, we turned to world markets to import more resources and products but current UK politics make this tactic less attractive.

Construction is an inefficient industry. Between 1997 and 2007 productivity only improved by 2%. Combined with the forecast reduction in people working in our industry, it is clear we need to make the whole built asset process more effective.

The implementation and adoption of BIM has been slow. Surely, the current situation creates the perfect trigger to make all of us sit up and drive this fantastic development in our industry into life. By working together we can look at developing the design not purely from an architectural perspective but from all perspectives. Delivering projects in a BIM environment enables us to review the available options and see how these affect the time and cost quickly and accurately, leading to more informed decision making and, ultimately, better quality buildings.

So what about the future? Do we sit back and allow these economic bounces to rule our businesses?
In the medium term (I don’t like referring to long term objectives as they never get done), contractors are increasingly choosing to work with a limited number of sophisticated customers to lead a radical rethink of the design and construction process. This starts with the client brief. Contractors need to fully understand the desired outcomes in terms of building design, function and cost.

Linked to this is the importance of judging the success of the completed asset. The Government Construction Strategy 2025 defines success as 33% lower costs, 50% faster delivery, 50% lower emissions. These criteria are clearly important but does that really allow us to truly measure a project’s success? To me, these are all just parts of the process. What’s key is that the building’s end users should be able – and we should help them – to understand and measure the true benefits they receive from the built environment we create for them. For example, schools should see a correlation between higher building standards and academic results, and offices should see a clear link in terms of productivity and profitability.

Over the last ten years we have seen early engagement of contractors with architects and other stakeholders during the design process, with huge benefits to the end outcome. Examples include Winchester University, where we worked with Design Engine on the new Student Centre, the Performing Arts Building and the Learning and Teaching block.  Since completion, student interest in Winchester as a university has nearly doubled and other universities have visited Winchester to analyse how the look and quality was achieved.

For us, early engagement is crucial because we want every project we work on to be successful. We want to help the architect meet the customer’s needs in an affordable way, and avoid unnecessary redesign costs by ensuring that we are meeting all end outputs as the design develops. We ensure that all stakeholders are on board with the design as early as possible and enjoy working with architects that operate in the same way.
A particular lesson we’ve learned from experience is that collaboration works best when all parties park our egos and value their respective, and differing, expertise.

We are not architects nor do we wish to be. But we love great architecture. We try to avoid dumbing down design during the construction process, and instead enjoy creating exciting and challenging buildings. We were of course disappointed that the O’Donnell Tuomey’s Saw Swee Hock Student Building for the London School of Economics, on which we worked, did not win the Stirling Prize.

Nevertheless, as sustainability in buildings becomes ever more pressing and buildings are increasingly judged on their ‘whole life assessment’, it is important that architects and contractors bind together from the word ‘go’ and find ways of accommodating competing priorities.

As published in Architects Journal, December 2014.