The government’s construction strategy set out a programme to cut the cost of its construction by 15-20 per cent and reinvest the savings in other projects. In an era of shrinking markets and margin squeeze what’s the impact of this strategy on the specialist contractors? Specfinish debated the issue with 10 guests and heard that the current procurement process fails to deliver innovation and best value for clients.

“It’s all about collaboration; designers and contractors need to be on the same page, striving for the same goal and then we can get great results,” said Andrew Talbot, projects director at Maris Interiors.

“We often make designs too complicated and it changes all too often,” added Rudi Klein, chair of the Specfinish annual round table industry debate, sponsored by SAS International.

Concerns were raised about the procurement process and it was suggested that improving on this process could achieve 15 – 20 per cent savings in construction.

James Cunningham, C&G Plastering, said: “We often get confusing information at tender stage. Some data doesn’t even make it clear whether a job is timber frame, steel or concrete. Clients often don’t know about specified products and when we’re involved early we can provide this information and advise on suitability.”

Correct information is vital at the front end as Steve Halcrow, from FPDC, said: “It’s not uncommon that a specification bears no resemblance to the drawings. From what we see procurement is often hurried and muddled.”

Mark Munns, from WA Browne’s SFS business Icaras Steel, said: “Poor information at the top will impact on specialists further down the supply chain.”
Mark Grocock, Bespoke Drywall, agreed: “Often the first a specialist subcontractor sees of a job is at tender stage. If we were involved earlier, such as when setting acoustic and fire rating details, we could advise on the most efficient methods.

“Calls for early involvement are not new but do Tier 1 contractors work out which bits of information are relevant when issuing tenders?”

Ernies Bardrick, a design manager of 25 years’ main contracting experience, said: “We are trying to find the most efficient method, such as design for manufacture and assembly. The volume of information is significant; we use BIM to improve the management and co-ordination of information to achieve savings.”

Andy Radcliffe, senior design manager with Willmott Dixon, said: “BIM can significantly reduce waste. There is often waste in design and there can be too much reliance on technology to produce information. We have to take the time to sift out the information and work with specialist at a pre-construction stage to find the best solution and more accurate tender packages.”

Andrew Talbot commented: “As a D&B contractor what we need in the early stages is help. Two stage tendering is an effective way to bring in trade contractors early. We say to them this is our vision – now tell us how we can create it.”

Malcolm Stamper at SAS International agreed that BIM works well with standard design products but once you start moving from a standard design, then the BIM models are not as easy.

He said: “From a manufacturer’s point of view we are involved early on working through the design proposal to make sure it works but it is also value for money. An architect has a vision and we come back with our proposals. Sometimes a standard component won’t work which may be the stimulus to create new products.”

What was emerging was a theme that involves four issues: collaboration; design complexity and deficiency; the procurement process; and finally, early involvement.
General consensus was gathering around getting the industry to work together more.

Contractor design responsibility has grown over the years and Andrew Talbot said : “In the USA contractors are now grabbing design work from architects because they can afford to invest in the new systems, such as BIM. Perhaps this is a trend that will grow in the UK?”

Specialists taking on design is now commonplace. “We’re taking on more design responsibility than before, because it saves time during procurement which makes us comfortable because we know what we’re doing,” said James Cunningham.

Rudi Klein suggested that the fault line in UK construction is between design and construction: “We have a hierarchical approach. Research by BRE found that a major cause of waste is poor information or lack of information. BIM helps to over come this but early involvement helps even more. 70 per cent of defects are due to poor design.”

Malcolm Stamper indicated that lack of time puts pressure on the supply chain: “Main contractors often put pressure on the supply chain because they’re not given the proper lead-in time by their clients and orders are often left to the last minute.

“Manufacturers also need to consider how their products impact on other products or components. That’s why we produced an interface between a glass partition and drywall partition. A simple thing that wasn’t around but it’s proved invaluable.”

Communication is a vital part of all types of contracts. Mark Grocock said: “Modern main contractors are often removed from site. What happened to the days when you sorted issues out on site? Now there are tiers of bureaucracy and there’s often a lack of knowledge of how everything works.”

Andrew Radcliffe agreed: “I’m an architect but architects need to spend more time on site. As reliance on technology has grown, some practical site knowledge has been lost.”

Returning to delivering on the Construction Strategy objectives, Malcolm Stamper said: “Trying to cut costs often rests with design and in terms of detail with architects. In most cases they’ve passed this responsibility to manufacturers and specialists.”

The Construction Strategy says the ideal brief is where designers and constructors work together. Around the table there was general consensus that procurement needs to change. There is a large amount of waste, especially with front end bidding. You only have to look at the West Coast Mainline tender to see what can happen. So is the government procuring construction in the most efficient way?

Steve Halcrow said: “We hear that specialist contractors feel disenfranchised. A lot of skilled labour has been lost. And those that are left are even looking to leave the industry. The specialist supply chain needs to be protected but getting it to work more efficiently means we can contribute to growth.”

Rudi Klein agreed: “The sector’s still too disjointed and there’s little room for innovation. Risk has been passed to specialists who don’t have a chance to influence the risk early enough.”

Steve Halcrow commented: “Large developers and main contractors often say they want to innovate but all too often decisions are left late and there is no time to innovate.

“There have been examples where contractors are committed to continuous improvement to drive increased efficiency. But when it comes down to it, price is the thing that counts and innovation goes out the window.

“Until someone is bold enough to take a step we won’t change. Spray plasters were a great innovation but haven’t made the impact they should have because they need a different programme and sequence of work.”

Radcliffe agreed: “Different thinking is essential. To get the benefits of prefabrication you need to plan it into a job from the outset. But it’s not uncommon that the end solution is a reaction to a problem that was not spotted early enough.”

Involving specialists more is often not easy to do. Mark Grocock said: “When a subcontractor makes a suggestion it’s not uncommon for it to be treated with suspicion. Trust is critical.”

James Cunningham said: “We had an example of a pre-assembly pod contract where the pod interrupted the line of a separating wall and could not achieve acoustic and fire ratings. When this was brought up at a pre contract meeting we were criticised.”

Malcolm Stamper added: “Westfield Stratford City was good example of where the client was very proactive and took on the role as architect, project manager and main contractor. Once the Olympics was won by London they had to take four years off the original programme.”

Mark Grocock said of his Westfield Stratford experience: “There was indeed a ‘can do’ attitude on the Stratford site. If you had a problem the architect, site manager and project manager were in one place and problems could be dealt with quickly because everyone who was needed to make a decision was on site. Westfield also deserve credit for their pro-active relationships with sub-contractors, particularly on the chaotic retail fit out phase.”

Rudi Klein brought the debate to a close: “What’s clear is you don’t get the best possible deal in tendering. Why do we tender prices on buildings when the industry generally knows what it will cost?

“Innovation is pretty much dead but the opportunity to allow the innovative spirit is killed because we’re not getting it into the design process. The industry then seems surprised when variations to fix design issues push final accounts up.”

Fix the procurement process, involve specialists and produce the correct information and the government will easily achieve its target. Now where have we heard this before?