If the public were asked to board an aeroplane, designed and constructed to the standards of the buildings that our industry delivers, planes would fly empty, says Paul Hyett.

I gave a talk at an international conference late last year entitled ‘We’ve Been Sold a Pup’. It caused an extraordinary stir and, to my surprise, split the room into two apparently irreconcilable factions, more of which later, writes Paul Hyett.

The term ‘sold a pup’ alludes to a swindle. It comes to us from the English middle-ages and concerns the practice of farmers selling live piglets at market. Traders would take the cash and hand over goods, no doubt occasionally muzzled and kicking, securely tied up in a ‘poke’ – or as we know it today, a sack (hence the phrase a ‘pig in a poke’).

However, unscrupulous dealers often substituted a much less valuable small dog for the pig. By the time the unsuspecting buyer arrived home and discovered that he had been ‘sold a pup’, the swindler had moved on to the next town.

I used the phrase at the conference in connection with design and build contracting, suggesting that the design professions and the public had been hoodwinked into accepting something which is both unfit for purpose and not as expected. Tough words? Of course, and to my mind rightly so. Many will disagree, suggesting that I am trying to rekindle long- settled arguments, but I hold my ground: the rash of litigation in respect of cladding failures here in the UK is ample proof of my point.

In the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, the IEAP (Independent Expert Advisory Panel set up by Government in July 2017) requested the Building Research Establishment to run a testing programme in which combinations of different types of polymeric and stone wool insulation were to be combined with aluminium composite material (ACM) samples of varying categories for assessment in terms of the combustibility of their respective polyethylene cores. Those tests, and their timing, can be summarised as follows:

• 28 July 2017 – Test 1: ‘ACM category 3…with… foam insulation with fire breaks and cavity barriers in place…’.
• 2 August 2017 – Test 2: ’…ACM category 3…with…stone wool insulation’
• 8 August 2017 – Test 3: ‘ACM category 2….with…PIR foam insulation…’
• 11 August 2017 – Test 4: ‘ACM category 2…with….stone wool insulation…’
• 14 August 2017 – Test 5: ‘ACM category 1…with…PIR insulation…’
• 21 August 2017 – Test 6: ‘ACM category 2…with…phenolic foam insulation….’
• 25 August 2017 – Test 7: ‘ACM category 1…with…stone wool insulation…’

In simple summary, of these six tests, three combined ACM of respectively with stone wool insulation (Tests 2, 4 and 7), and three combined ACM with differing types of polymeric insulation. (Tests 1, 3 and 5). An additional PF (phenolic foam) test was for some reason also carried out with another category 2 ACM (test 6).

The results revealed that of the seven tests, only three (4, 5 and 7) yielded results that suggested that such a cladding arrangement could ‘comply with the Building Regulations’. The other results confirmed that the tested system ‘did not comply with the Building Regulations’. And that’s just in terms of design.
Ask any forensics architect, façade engineer, or fire specialist worth their salt about construction standards and they will tell you that behind those glistening facades, be they new-building or over-cladding work, lies all too often a disgraceful labyrinth of shoddy workmanship. Investigations reveal missing cavity barriers, cavity barriers installed ‘back to front’, combustible insulation substituted, in breach of contract, for the mineral wool otherwise specified, and even plastic ‘thermal cavity closers’ installed around windows in the (I suspect) mistaken belief that they can inhibit the passage of fire within a cavity. And if that’s the outside, why should the inside of buildings be any different or better in terms of workmanship?

So, how is such a shambles possible? Well, the manufacturers, testers and certifiers of the multitude of new products that replace traditional building materials have much to answer for, but there is no escaping that new forms of procurement, and the shifting of authority as well as the upsetting of work sequences for the design teams, have contributed much to the disgraceful situation in which the construction industry now finds itself. I am referring of course to design and build procurement.

Let’s revisit the origins of D&B, at least in the UK, which are largely forgotten. I take you back to circa 1978 when – I kid you not – inflation in the construction industry peaked at 28%, compared with general inflation of 16%. Thus, a contract sum agreed at, say, £1m would at the year’s end routinely rise to around £1.28m. This was all accommodated under special forms of contract that incorporated ‘with fluctuations’ provisions. Essentially, the original contract prices, across the board, would be subject to an automatic calibrated increase that would be ‘pegged’ to the inflation that had occurred in the intervening period.

In these circumstances delaying tendering, and thus site starts, until all drawings and specifications were delivered had become a very expensive process. Pressure grew to tender, and ultimately let contracts, on abbreviated design and specification information.

Some of you might remember in your early careers preparing full information, virtually down to ironmongery and colour schedules for decorations, at the tender stage. That is all but unheard of now on any but the smallest of projects.

The contractors, of course, tendered against such abbreviated information cynically: winning was all that mattered. Thus, knowing that the abbreviated contract documentation would be ‘full of holes’, they tendered at below cost, confident that they would recover losses through their claims. For some time, therefore, savings achieved by getting onto site early were lost as a result of successful claims.

To counter such claims, contractors were eventually forced to assume responsibility for design and specification variations through the adoption of D&B contracting. Under these arrangements contractors would be required to accept responsibility for all design work done before as well as after their appointment.

This was the start of what we now know as ‘design and build ’which, if truth be told, amounts to nothing of the sort. I proffer this view on the basis that D+B, as operated within the UK construction industry, amounts to nothing more than a process by which risk is carefully packaged and passed downstream, all too often to companies and people with inadequate training or resource to assume the responsibility involved. Accordingly, work processes are dislocated and disrupted, and the quality of constructed output is compromised to a point of disgrace.

There are of course notable exceptions: those few D+B contractors who take their responsibilities with appropriate seriousness, who resource properly, and manage effectively ensuring adequate time at the right time for all stages of the design and specification work to be delivered to standards of excellence worthy of our industry, and qualities of construction that reflect an honourable discharge of contractual duty.

But if we are honest, how frequent is this? Think about it: if the public were asked to board an airplane, designed and constructed to the standards of the buildings that our industry delivers, planes would fly empty. Likewise ships.

And so back to the conference. I dared to tell this story, to catalogue the failures, and to suggest some remedies. My proposition was simple:

  1. Design and specification work must be prepared by professionals who are properly trained and who have authority over their own work.
  2. Those same professionals must regain their role in checking that the work, as they had designed and specified, has been properly carried out. And they must have the power to condemn bad work and withhold certification against which payment would otherwise be made. This adopts the Paul Finch mantra: ‘No responsibility without authority’.

It is of course notable that small architectural practices are used to such responsibility and generally discharge their duties in exemplary fashion – but then most small projects are run under traditional forms of contract.

But, I suggested, to do this work properly, architects must be trained properly, and that training must start in the schools. I went on to refer to the steady drift away from technical training that has been endemic in the academic ivory towers of modern architectural education. And then, of course, all hell let loose: the academics in the room, heads of school and deans amongst them, were outraged. Not for them, they said. It’s for practice to teach technical stuff, post-graduation.

One even suggested that architecture should not be seen as a vocational course!
Yes, and pigs might fly…

First published by World Architecture Festival, with kind consent Paul Hyett of Vickery Hyett Architects was President RIBA 2001-3 and a technical witness for the Grenfell Inquiry