Wednesday23 August 2017

Why design and build doesn't work

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Design and build contracts were meant to give responsibility for jobs to one party. The reality is rather different says Julia Park

Julia Park, head of research at Levitt Bernstein

Historians suggest that design and build dates back 5,000 years to ancient Egypt, where the design and construction of the pyramids was reputedly overseen by a master builder. Allegedly, it continued to work well until the Renaissance, when architects decided they wanted their own profession to be distinct from the builder.

Here in its current form, it stems from the early 1980s. The first design and build contract was published by the JCT in 1981. There is widespread agreement that its main purpose was to protect the ‘employer’, usually a public body, by placing responsibility for the whole process with a single party – invariably the builder, not the architect.

Increasingly, design and build is being blamed for the complete opposite – fragmenting responsibility to the point where it is so difficult to hold anyone accountable that redress is almost impossible. In the wake of Grenfell, the RIBA has suggested that this form of procurement must fall within the terms of reference of the public inquiry, and the Association of Consultant Architects has also expressed concern about the diminishing role of the architect.

As well as simplifying responsibility, design and build was intended to save time and provide earlier cost certainty by allowing processes to overlap and reduce conflict by encouraging collaboration between the designer and the builder. It all sounds eminently sensible but the more you think about it, the less realistic it seems, given the way that projects unfold in practice and what motivates the various parties.

Like most clients, housing providers want to get through planning as quickly as possible and with minimum up-front expenditure on fees which isn’t surprising given the other costs they are forced to bear at that stage. Many are reluctant even to appoint structural and M&E consultants pre-planning, let alone a contractor, but they all want to see lots of detail, including fully-furnished, individual, internal layouts. This is understandable, but not very practical. When the structural columns and heating and ventilation equipment finally start to be overlaid on the floor plans of apartment blocks, the majority of layouts will need to be amended, if not re-designed.

Post-planning and with support from the design team, the employer’s agent (often a quantity surveyor) produces the all-important employer’s requirements (ERs). This is often a vast document, intended to describe how the building should perform but with as little information as possible about what that actually means to avoid tying down the bidding contractors.

When the contract is awarded, the successful bidder (usually the cheapest) starts to explain how they intend to build the building for the bargain price that put them in pole position. Where the design has been predicated on the use of particular products or construction methods, this will often be caveated in the ERs by the words ‘equal and approved’. As we know to our cost, the alternatives offered are frequently not ‘equal’, but noticing, and then proving that, often seems too difficult for the client or their agent, so they are ‘approved’ by default.  

The contractor’s proposals may be more radical – they may propose an offsite solution, for example volumetric pods. Increasingly I think they should, and will, but trying to retrofit a design to the millimetre precision and logistical constraints of craneable pods is a million times harder than designing it to suit the system in the first place. In reality, either the result will be a compromise, or the designer will need to spend double the time it should have taken.

In allowing all this to happen, we seem to have forgotten two things; firstly that good designers are always thinking about how to build something as they design it; and secondly, that planning approval is permission for the building shown on the approved drawings, not something faintly similar.

Arguably, the best way to protect the design is for the design team to be novated, but it’s not always easy to switch allegiance to a third party or work to a new set of priorities, particularly if you are undertaking the role of quality monitor to the employer in parallel. Contractors are not always pleased either – and why would they be? Many have tried and tested relationships with executive architects who charge (and argue) less.

Design and build can work really well, but the idea of asking someone to take responsibility for an initial design they didn’t produce seems fundamentally problematic

The package that gets handed over is poorly defined too. Take one example; now that accessibility requirements have been taken into the building regulations we don’t need to prove compliance until after planning. But the new rules for wheelchair housing are very complicated. Even if our clients were willing to wait, we couldn’t risk the executive architects coming back and saying they were unable to produce a compliant layout in the empty footprint we passed on. Suppose we had, and they were right, how would that work in terms of liability? Specialist subcontractors are last on the scene; undoubtedly with valuable expertise but once again, too late to be incorporated efficiently, and often adding yet another layer of complexity.

Design and build can work really well, but the idea of asking someone to take responsibility for an initial design they didn’t produce seems fundamentally problematic; almost as unpalatable as asking someone to hand over their initial design to a third party whose main aim is to build it as cheaply as possible. 

Overall, it has tended to distance architects from the construction stage and made us less inclined to think about buildability. That does the profession no favours. Clients are increasingly concerned that they are not getting the sort of quality they expected and ask us to go much further with the ERs than we should. We’re caught between wanting to do all we can to protect design quality, and knowing that our fees will be stretched with no guarantee of a good outcome as this relies heavily on the experience and tenacity of the employer’s agent. It’s a vital role but often a thankless one.

For small or straightforward buildings, the traditional, architect-led contract has a lot going for it. For more complicated schemes, it does make sense to bring in construction expertise early. But surely that’s the key? It must be early if it’s to be a collaborative relationship, and it must be geared to a process that delivers a building that is faithful to the design, offers accountability and long-term value for money, and allows everyone to make a bit of profit. Evidence suggests that’s not what design and build is doing.



Readers' comments (8)

  • "As we know to our cost, the alternatives offered are frequently not ‘equal’, but noticing, and then proving that, often seems too difficult for the client or their agent, so they are ‘approved’ by default. "

    That sounds similar to the many times I've been asked to prove that something like firestopping is required.

    The last occassion for this, in the last week, was a QS asking me to prove something (insulation that gives off toxic fumes in a fire) was prohibited by Regulations, and telling me that if we do decide to go for a non-toxic product as I'm recommending, then where do we stop?

    With logic like that, no wonder problems happen.

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  • terence, in instances like that you should put in writing your reasoning and state that any variation to your proposal means the contractor and QS take design responsibility.

    They tend to change their minds pretty quickly when you say that.

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  • Two stage D&B can work quite well as you keep the pressure on the contractor at 1st stage when they can be easily replaced if they are playing games.

    It goes without saying, any architect worth their salt should be novated and should make clear to the client that this should be the case.

    The profession does need to address the issue of 'design' architects who only carry out work up to Stage 3. It demeans the profession.

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  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    QUOTE "good designers are always thinking about how to build something as they design it"

    Well said. A contractor always respects an architect whose design has taken account of things like the positions of structural columns, service risers, etc.

    Design and build is not ideal - but it can be made to work if the architect is able to establish a good relationship with the end client, and to agree that design quality is the shared goal.

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  • SoupDragon, you would be correct if I was the design architect.

    I'm not, I'm an Architect working for the contract administrator (doing material approvals) on a project where the project Architect is far from being in control of the project, the documentation architects were appointed badly and have no responsibility, the documents are completely inadequate, particularly for mechanical services, and we have no fire strategy.

    I am as a result making decision not just based on technical design documentation, but my own opinion of "fitness for purpose".

    This is far from ideal.

    At the back of my mind is the responsibility all Architects have, for duty of care. Until this is resolved...I'm not budging, and have documented my viewpoints accordingly.

    For reference: One of my work colleagues (a mechanical engineer) said today he has never worked on a project that was this much of a shambles (me either).

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  • Terence, that sounds like a nightmare situation.

    First, as you are an architect, you shouldn't be making any judgements about 'fitness for purpose' as your PI Insurance will not cover you for this.

    As a practice we always insist that the client novates us to the contractor, or we act as contract administrator after the design stage. Either way we also have it written into our appointment that we have a line of communication back to the client, so the contractor knows that they cannot silence our views.

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  • I have been involved with db projects for some 30 years and the majority have been very successful.

    The key components-
    The architect must be notated as continuity is essential.
    The architect must prepare and coordinate the ERs, and I have never been involved in a project where we didn't do so. They must be full and clearly defined.
    The contractor needs to be selected on a 2 stage basis and to have been involved in the design development. It goes without saying- he must be reputable and the architect must have confidence in him.

    Follow these 3 rules and success generally follows- indeed, the traditional contract form in my view does not work nowadays. Buildings are generally the sum of multiple components, often designed by specialists- and so a wider umbrella of design responsibility is only realistic.

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  • Whilst I agree generally with the history and comments by others on D & B, winding back the clock, in my opinion the main cause of the use of D & B was the lack of leadership from within the architectural profession and practices during the 80s and 90s. Clients lost confidence when using traditional contract due to cost overruns and delayed completions generally controlled by the architects who subcontracted out their responsibilities and relied too much on others.

    The clients looked for new delivery solutions and leadership, turning mainly to QS’s who acted cost consultants and Employers Agents, architects fell down the clients pecking order as team leaders. Contractors objected to the design architect being novated onto their team, to passionate about their design instead they appointed their own working drawing architect generally at reduce fee. The client got wise to design being diluted and ensured that the design architect provided key details in protecting design elements which formed part of the tender document. These are just some of the issues with D & B as these are generally contractor lead. As a profession it’s time we took back controlled of our destiny and with the use of BIM this our chance once again to lead from the front for those who will take on the challenge.

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