I was talking to one of our members recently about some of the problems they are facing post-recession. I was struck by one statement. You know how we used to occasionally get a major issue come out, usually not our fault but something the team had missed. The main contractor would say “you’ll get over it” and after a monumental effort we’d manage to solve the problem.

The main contractor would then say “see, I told you you’d get over it”. Well, now there is no time to plan, organise or design properly so every project has a couple of “you’ll get over it” moments. “You’ll get over it” has become the new norm.

The problem with this is that it eats up time; you spend time firefighting instead of managing your business for the future. How do you develop a strategy for training, succession, expansion and business improvement when you waste so much of the truly valuable stuff – time? Time wasted is time lost forever.

So although just about all areas we represent are reporting improved order books, the overall picture is still difficult trading conditions. It’s still tough out there and particularly for contractors who picked up work a year ago at very low or zero margin and are seeing it through with increased material and labour costs. In this edition of SpecFinish we have several articles that explore the complexity of the market in which our members operate.

Rudi Klein describes the ‘Battle of the forms’, highlighting the level, care and detail required when placing commercial contracts. It’s so tempting to skip over the detail of the contract when you win an order, but often so costly. This is what makes the debate over late payment so tricky. The late payment is rarely illegal because someone has signed up to the terms and conditions; unethical maybe, but that’s a different point.

Then we look at specifying M&E services, a black art to many. M&E is certainly an area where, if you aren’t an expert, you truly ‘don’t know what you don’t know’ and that is almost always expensive. Andy Sneyd of Crown House Technologies expands on the importance of early engagement to make sure there are clear lines of communication with other supply chain partners and to check that the design is complete and everyone is aware of their areas of responsibility. As technology continues to develop this will become more and more important as BIM comes on line.

This used to be the role of the Clerk of Works, checking we built what was designed. A role so good we didn’t need it and have now reinvented it as the Compliance Officer. Compliance that is with increasingly complex specifications, regulations and requirements. Working out the requirements of Part L (conservation of fuel and power) of building regulations is difficult enough, as Mr Sneyd will tell you. The days of not having to worry unless customers complained of being too hot or too cold are long gone.

Something has to give when time becomes such a precious commodity, but David Cant from Veritas Consulting advises against cutting corners on Health and Safety. A short-term saving can have long-term financial implications and can result in life-changing consequences. Tempting as it may seem to cut a corner on safety, it’s never worth the risk and increasingly, as we learned from the recent meeting with the Health and Safety Executive, they are focusing on the health implications of our operations. We have greater impact on the long-term wellbeing of our people through bad practice than through accidents at work.

All this is time consuming and requires attention to detail, difficult enough when you don’t have to win work, chase payments and organise the labour force. Add to this an increasing skills shortage, an area finally coming home to government with the publication of a report from KPMG stating that in London alone we need 20 per cent more skilled workers to meet current commitments to 2017. A report in Manchester found the shortfalls to be similar. This is no longer someone else’s problem and will require us all to work together to solve.

As we begin 2015 may I take this opportunity to wish you a very prosperous and successful year ahead. It’s a big year for AIS FPDC, not least because of the launch of our new name and identity on 3 February at the Plaisterers’ Awards. See you there.

David Frise
AIS FPDC chief executive