Fragmentation and the Failure of Design and Build

Partisan’s regular, fortnightly breakfast roundtable events for business leaders and professionals connected to the built environment spark some lively discussions.

This time around, the focus was on fragmentation in the construction sector, and its impact on design and build.

Who is Going to Build Your Scheme?

Delivering a brief is one thing, but seeing it enacted successfully can be quite another.

The benefit of the design and build approach should be that it reduces the overall project time, and streamlines the whole process.

However, this simplicity has been lost amid the UK’s fragmented and adversarial construction industry.

There is a view that to an extent this fragmentation has always existed, due to the separation of design and construction as disciplines.

But since the 1950s onwards, the construction industry has become progressively more fragmented.

The problem for architects and developers is a basic one: who is going to build your scheme?

This is not about the successful firm in the procurement process, or the name on the contract, but what actually happens on the ground.

Because, beyond the main contractor, there is a complex supply chain involved.

Why is UK Construction Fragmented?

We first have to go back to the immediate post-war years. There was an immediate need for large scale building projects, including the mass construction of new homes.

Back then, the country’s construction industry was dominated by large contractors, including Wimpey and Taylor-Woodrow. Typically, they employed many thousands of employees directly.

Modern building, however, have become increasingly complex, as has the construction industry itself.

Main contractors are unlikely to employ large numbers of workers with the full range of specialist skills required. And they cannot wait for one project to finish before redeploying their employees on the next job.

Therefore, building projects involve specialist subcontractors in varying numbers.

This is where things get complicated, because each of these subcontractors will be likely to want to make their own profit on their work, and may be dependent on supply chains of their own.

In a research paper for supply chain analysis, the UK Government has suggested that typical on-cost additions in construction supply chains are 5 to 6% for main contractors, and up to 13% for tier 2 specialist contractors.

Along with these additional costs come the increased likelihood of disputes, which threaten to disrupt or even derail projects.

Supply Chain Issues

Supply chains in UK construction are often quite fragile. The collapse of Carillion left a £2bn debt hole in the supply chain.

Much of the procurement process is still manual and labour-intensive, with complex invoicing processes and time-consuming checking.

Delivery of materials can be cumbersome, and inaccurate, with variations in orders and delays in delivery due to administrative confusion and errors.

The greater the number of subcontractors, the more likely it is that such disruption will occur. And this kind of complexity lends itself to disputes.

All these factors can muddy the brief, and delay the outcome of projects.

Barriers to Design and Build

The speed that design and build promises can be its undoing.

No developer wants to be mired in the planning process, so they require as much detail as possible.

But how will these specifications translate in the real-world?

There may be plenty of information explaining how the building should perform, but often the designated products or building methods become watered down, under the contract’s terminology of “equal and approved”.

More dramatic changes can take place if the contractor has proposals of their own, essentially retrofitting the original design with alternative methods, such as offsite modular solutions.

Fragmentation can also mean that architects themselves are distanced from the construction stage, and do not necessarily want to involve themselves in the internal politics of the project.

What Should Change?

Smarter design and BIM have the potential to transform how we build in the UK, encouraging the integration of building procedures.

Giving everyone the right access to information at the same time can increase clarity and, hopefully, engender trust.

But it is also a question of educating clients, so that they see the real value in design, and on better-quality builds.

Cultural shifts aren’t easy to achieve, but without them, real progress can’t happen.

Our Guests This Time

The guests at Partisan’s breakfast roundtable event included:

James Alderson, Investar
Michelle Rothwell, Watch This Space
Sean Anstee, Telcom
Shelagh McNerney, Shelagh McNerney Consultants
Katie Wray, Deloitte Real Estate
Scott Griffiths, Glenbrook
Rachel Withey, Space Invader Design
Jeffrey Bell, Jeffrey Bell Architects

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