View Point – Nigel Ostime from Hawkins\Brown

Nigel Ostime, delivery director at architects Hawkins\Brown and chair of the RIBA Client Liaison Group, looks at how a ‘chain of custody’ approach is fundamental to a new toolkit created to ensure a focus on quality in projects

Last December I wrote in ADF about how the RIBA’s Client Liaison Group is developing a toolkit to help clients and designers understand risk better and acknowledge the consequences of passing it down the line. This issue is prevalent where the site is sold after planning consent has been achieved (and a new design team brought in) and where single stage Design & Build procurement is adopted, particularly where there is no provision for novation. This work has developed further and we are now in a consultation phase. The presidents of the RIBA, CIOB and RICS signed a joint memorandum of understanding (JMU) at Ecobuild in March, agreeing to develop the initiative together, so it has real cross-institute support and, we hope, the ability to foster better collaboration between client, design team and constructor. Project team members in the UK construction industry are committed to high standards of quality in the built environment. We all want well-constructed, healthy, safe, inclusive, sustainable places to live and work, which enhance the built environment and quality of life. As an industry we have long acknowledged the structural and cultural barriers that make it difficult to achieve consistently good project outcomes, particularly in D&B procurement. Recent tragic and high-profile building failures have hardened our resolve to tackle them. As representatives of three major professional institutes in the industry, the presidents were acknowledging a joint responsibility to overcome these barriers. They committed to work together in order to achieve the following:

  • Overcome cultural bias in the construction industry for better collaboration and greater transparency between members of the project team, including clients, designers, investors, stakeholders, constructors, and the supply chain
  • Give due prominence to the outcomes stated in the project brief by establishing a documented ‘chain of custody’ for quality indicators as the project progresses
  • Establish a way to identify and track risks to quality, cost and programme aligned to the RIBA Plan of Work
  • Encourage the involvement of end- users, purchasers and asset managers in the conception, design and specification of projects
  • Promote progressive, long-term, integrated delivery and ownership structures

The initiative – which we are calling ‘Building in Quality’ – and the consultation encourage participation from all parties, including architects, surveyors, engineers, contractors, consultants, agents, developers, investors, insurers, lawyers, representatives from industry institutions and organisations, and others with an interest in the quality of the built environment. A core tenet of this JMU is to establish a ‘chain of custody’ for quality – a Quality Tracker – that links commissioning clients to end-users. In doing so we propose to dispel biases in the industry, encourage better collaboration, force change in how we procure built assets, and improve the quality of the built environment. It aims to introduce a simple, straightforward system for documenting and tracking risks to quality through the life of a construction project.

So how will it work?

The notion of a chain of custody is well known in the construction industry in relation to sustainably sourced materials such as timber and natural stone. Clients, particularly corporate clients, want to be reassured that they can say with confidence that their claims for running sustainable businesses in sustainable buildings stand up to scrutiny. The notion of a chain of custody was developed partly to raise awareness of the issues facing our planet, but also to enable designers and contractors to provide documented evidence of the source of not only the materials used but also the working conditions of those people extracting and processing them. It is usually in the form of a certificate or certificates, these forming an unbroken chain that tracks the journey of the material from its source to its final place in the building. ­(In the case of the Quality Tracker, for ‘materials’ read ‘quality’.) The issue we have with quality is in relation to the ubiquitous short-termism many projects face. When the building is procured through a series of owners whose only concern is to be able to pass it on to the next set of hands and maximise their return on investment, the long-term value of the building in use is not considered with enough gravity. As a result, we get designs that are progressively watered down with poor quality being the result. There are strong commercial reasons it happens in this way and these are unlikely to change in the short to medium term. So we must find a way of mitigating the issues. The Quality Tracker is a means to do just that. It does not attempt to improve quality, which in the face of strong commercial interests would be naïve. It does however hope to shine a light on it. It provides a means for the next client or designer down the line, or the constructor, to understand what level of detail has gone into the design. For example, has a consideration of regulations been built into the planning stage design? If not, this might lead to cost pressures further down the line in correcting the design to make it comply. Following the well- understood parameters of cost/time/ quality, these cost pressures will inevitably reduce quality. Set out as an overlay to the RIBA Plan of Work, it will follow each work stage, from zero to seven and note characteristics that will impact on the likely outcome. These characteristics include matters such as the degree of speculation in the development, the likelihood of obtaining competitive tenders, the attitude to cost certainty, the attitude to maintenance and longevity, and the attitude to early involvement of the design team and constructor and to collaboration. The Client Liaison Group has always striven to deliver knowledge and tools that can be used to improve the service architects provide to their clients, and thereby to strengthen the profession. This current initiative has a wider remit – to bring the construction institutes together to improve collaboration and transparency, and through that to improve the quality of our built environment.

Nigel Ostime is delivery director at architects Hawkins\Brown and chair of the RIBA Client Liaison Group

RIBA Client Liaison Group toolkit: key points

The Building in Quality toolkit will provide the means to monitor a project as it develops, particularly when it passes from one owner to another, or from one design team to another and then to the constructor. Quality is often degraded at these handover points and the tracker will help identify where this has happened – or might happen further down the line – and allow the next custodian of the project to do something about it. It will act as a chain of custody, much as sustainable materials are tracked, to provide the means to monitor quality as the project progresses from inception through to completion.