Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort
Economic recovery will take a long time I suspect. Independence from Europe may bring opportunities for new markets. They will certainly change existing. Importers of stone from the European Economic zone and further afield will find that changes slow down delivery, coupled with transport stacked up around the world because of COVID-19.
We face an uphill climb in 2021. Recovery from the pandemic both physically, emotionally, and economically, and a new trading world, post-Brexit.
Economic recovery will take a long time I suspect. Independence from Europe may bring opportunities for new markets. They will certainly change existing. Importers of stone from the European Economic zone and further afield will find that changes slow down delivery, coupled with transport stacked up around the world because of COVID-19. Contracts should be looked at carefully. It may be best to let your contractor know formally (and sooner rather than later), if you think you are likely to experience delays due to importation issues. The new norm may take some time to emerge.
In any slow-down there is an opportunity to take stock. What markets where you in before? Which would you like to be in now and why? How can we improve the service we offer? Whatever the outcome of any review, improving quality must near the top of any list.
The Dame Judith Hackitt Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety 2018 identified quality as absent from many construction transactions. Of course, this was in response to Grenfell and you may think this does not affect our sector, as I did. I don’t work on external tower block cladding and stone rarely presents a fire hazard, unless coated in resin and matting – but that’s another story.
But the report struck at the heart of what I think is wrong with many parts of our industry. It identified 4 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 and lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities; inadequate regulatory oversight and enforcement.
In other words, quality is lacking. Quality of knowledge, quality of ownership, quality of information and avoidance of responsibility. The report suggests construction contracts are often stuck in a culture of “the 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, “to cut costs” we cry. How many of us avoid or fudge documentation, such as CE marking? Regulation and guidance are non-existent and what should be a useful tool to promote our product and prove its provenance becomes a paper exercise, with little meaning. I am primarily talking about interior contracts. I know many 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, however 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 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 on to the most culpable– the client and the client team. Procurement strategies lead to a fractured industry. By focusing only on cost and not on quality it drives the construction industry ever further to 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 therefore, because of the pressures of time and cost, covering up or ignoring the deficiencies that lead to the enormous cost of rectification.
The Chartered Quality Institute, with University College London recently investigated the financial cost of poor quality in construction – see CIOB Construction Manager Jan 2021 Client Must Lead on Quality – and the results were shocking. Five projects were studied and three had significant rectification costs amounting to 50% of the contract cost in one, 10% of the £50 and £150 million costs in the other two. Not just health and safety issues, as 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 its your money, but not if the overall quality suffers and worse if lives are lost as a result. Of course, this is less likely in interior builds 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 “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.