Design & build contracts de-skill architects and make accidents more likely, argues Eleanor Jolliffe

Eleanor Jolliffe

Procurement is a vast and highly complex subject area, of which this column will barely scratch the surface. But the legal agreements architects sign or advise on are one of the key determinants of their role on a project. Diversification of procurement routes over recent years has been one of the most significant catalysts in the evolution of an architect’s place within the construction industry.

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Traditional procurement routes (46% of contracts, according to the National Contracts and Law Survey Report 2018), where the design and construction are completely separated and the construction is managed by a contract administrator (often the architect), have seen a sharp decrease in popularity (down from 72% of contracts in 2011). While giving great control over the quality of the works, the lack of time and cost certainty – as well as the perception that the contract form is unsuited to large complex projects – is behind this decline.

Design and build (D&B) procurement (41% of contracts), where the main contractor is responsible for the design and construction of the project, have become the default option for large or complex projects, albeit with the standard forms of contract often amended to rebalance the risk or add social value requirements. Critics of this route say that D&B has overseen a race to the bottom in build quality and a marginalisation of the architect’s role. Defenders argue that this is a return to a millennia-old tradition of the “master builder” style of construction. Both sides make a good point.

In recent decades, with the increasing scale and complexity of projects and regulations, higher levels of knowledge and specialisation on the design team have become essential. This has led to arguably better, safer buildings but these larger teams of professionals require a greater degree of design team collaboration than had been the case previously. The same is true of the construction side of the equation and one of the major impacts of this has been procurement diversification and increasing use of bespoke or amended contract forms.

The accidents are waiting to happen

D&B was the theoretical answer to this change in the industry: contractually linking a contractor-side design and construction team to collaborate on a building. However D&B has seen tragedies: the wall collapse at Oxgangs Primary School in Edinburgh, the Grenfell fire – and no doubt countless smaller, more mundane failings. D&B rebalances the risk to the main contractor but, as architect and investigator John Cole reports in relation to the Edinburgh schools, it has seen a decrease in frequency of design team visits to site and an often misplaced trust by the client in the contractor’s quality assurance procedures.

This has been further complicated by local authority building control visits that offer “very limited, if any, assurance as to the quality and safety of the construction undertaken”, as RIBA president Alan Jones puts it in Defining Contemporary Professionalism. Additionally the reduced role of an architect on site is potentially leading to a rising generation of architects with less exposure to construction, less understanding of its intricacies, and less ability to design effectively for, or supervise, construction. This decreases their use on site – reinforcing the de-skilling cycle.

When I spoke with Allies & Morrison partner Helen Logan last month she said she had noticed over her career that the architect’s role as contract administrator, and his or her objectivity in carrying out that role (or similar monitoring roles), is now questioned more often.

Perhaps the very concept of authority – the ‘god on site’ architect – is the problem

With architects carrying out this role less frequently, clerks of works rarely engaged and a fragmented “just-in-time” construction supply chain, the accidents are waiting to happen. Good work is done under D&B, but the procurement route is open to exploitation. One of the key suggestions of the Hackitt report, noting this failing, was to call for procurement overhaul.

>> Also read: Architectural education is a problem of degrees


Architects may worry about the diminishing of their role on site but, as they have relinquished the ongoing risks associated with their design they have also relinquished their authority over it.

My first thought is that I wonder if perhaps the very concept of authority – the “god on site” architect – is the problem. Are we trying to fit the round peg of the collaborative working necessitated by modern construction projects into the square hole of adversarial UK procurement and construction tradition?

My other thought is this. Assuming we are indeed losing the role the architect is historically known for – “one who designs buildings and superintends their erection”, to use Martin Briggs’ definition – and assuming it is a role we would like to regain, I would guardedly suggest that the profession’s increasing tendency to insulate itself contractually from the risks associated with its work is precisely the wrong way to go about seeking the responsibility and authority such risk confers.