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The Merry Month: by Robert Merry

5 February 2021
Robert Merry

Robert Merry, MCIOB, is an independent Stone Consultant. He ran his own stone company for 17 years before becoming first an independent project manager and now a consultant. He is also an expert witness in disputes regarding stone and stone contracts. 0207 502 6353 / 07771 997621. [email protected]

If there is the economic slowdown some have predicted we will see in 2021, at least it presents an opportunity to take stock. What markets were you in before? Which would you like to be in now? Why? How can the service we offer be improved?

Whatever the outcome of any review, improving quality must be near the top of any list, as the government seems to have recognised with the announcement that there is to be a National Construction Products Regulator in response to the Dame Judith Hackitt Independent Review of Building Regulations & Fire Safety 2018, which identified quality as being absent from many construction transactions.

Dame Judith’s report followed Grenfell and you might think it does not affect our sector, as I did. I don’t work on external tower block cladding and stone rarely presents a fire hazard in any case – unless it is coated in resin and matting, but that’s another story.

Dame Judith’s report struck at the heart of what I think is wrong with many parts of our industry. It identified four key issues:

  • Ignorance – regulation and guidance is misunderstood and misrepresented
  • Indifference – where the primary motivation is to do things as quickly and cheaply as possible
  • Ambiguity – the lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities
  • Inadequate regulatory oversight and enforcement.

In other words, what is lacking is quality. Quality of knowledge; quality of ownership; quality of information. That and the avoidance of responsibility.

The report suggests construction contracts are often stuck in a culture of a ‘race to the bottom’.

We have all experienced this. At the tender stage, for example, where our carefully thought out and presented tender is binned on the basis that a rival comes up with a ridiculously cheaper price. That leaves you feeling your efforts have been wasted.

Similarly, many of us have cut corners. ‘It’s to cut costs,’ we cry. How many of us avoid or fudge documentation, such as CE marking (or UKCA marking from now on)?

Regulation and guidance are non-existent, leaving what should be a useful tool to promote our product and prove its provenance as a paper exercise with little meaning.

I should point out I am primarily talking about interior contracts. I know some of you are involved in large external cladding and paving contracts and understand the importance of these tools.

The ‘race to the bottom’ is not true of the stone industry as a whole, but we are often caught in contracts that appear to drive us into that space.

Design and build contracts used for interiors are full of ‘design portions’ for sub-contractors. How many of us understand the design or take time to unpick what our precious material is being fixed to and question its suitability? We are all armed with the phrase: “We’re only responsible for the design of the stone install”. But you can bet your bottom dollar that the contractor will firmly pin any blame for design faults on your sub-contract backside if it goes wrong.

Which leads me to the most culpable – the client and the client team. Procurement strategies lead to a fractured industry. Focusing only on cost and not on quality drives the construction industry ever further towards the bottom. Value engineering is a useful tool but when there is no real pain for the designer or architect, removed from the day-to-day issues, the contractor is often trying to build the unbuildable and because of the pressures of time and cost is left covering up or ignoring the deficiencies that lead to the enormous cost of rectification.

The Chartered Quality Institute recently investigated, with University College London, the financial cost of poor quality in construction. You can read a report in January’s Construction Manager under the heading ‘Client Must Lead on Quality’

(bit.ly/ClientLed). The results are shocking. Of five projects studied one had rectification costs amounting to 50% of the contract, two others had rectification costs at 10% of projects that cost £150million in one case and £50million in the other. These are not just health & safety issues, which the Dame Hackitt report focused on, but fundamental flaws in the construction process.

Until clients change their approach to procurement and quality goes back on the agenda we will continue to be driven by time and cost. Both seemingly important when it’s your money, but not when the overall quality suffers and, worse, if lives are lost.

Of course, this is less likely in interiors and I don’t want to over dramatize. But in this changed world, we must focus more on quality. Quality of thought, design, responsibility... and quality of collaboration.

John Ruskin, Victorian critic, philosopher, writer (The Stones of Venice) maybe put it best when he said: “Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort.”

We just need to apply some intelligent effort to the way contracts are procured and run.

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