A bellyful for an architect

May 26, 1995

ENGINEERING, CONSTRUCTION AND ARCHITECTURAL MANAGEMENT Edited by Ronald McCaffer Blackwell Science Quarterly, Pounds 120.00 (institutions), Pounds 55.00 (individuals) ISSN 0969 9988

This new journal has high ambitions "to focus on all aspects of a project's life cycle and encourage cross-fertilisation so that each sector of the construction industry can learn from the best practice elsewhere in the industry". The first three issues cover a wide scope with international contributions.

The construction industry is going through a period of rapid change affecting all professions and contractors. Every aspect of daily life from relationships with clients to the scope of designers' work and how these are enshrined in new forms of contract is under review, and these threads keep appearing throughout the published papers. Information technology's rate of change is such that tertiary education cannot equip students thoroughly enough for a lifetime. Continuing professional development is now so essential to competent practice that the existing sources of research and information, the general weekly and monthly journals, are inadequate.

Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management offers research results which will inform consequent discussions. To give three random examples, Robert Loraine's paper on project-specific partnering lucidly describes the development of this recent method of construction procurement, the benefits it has brought to the United States Army Corps of Engineers, and how it could be successfully applied in the United Kingdom. William Dester and David Blockley offer a balanced discussion on safety behaviour and culture in construction which is well timed to coincide with the recent coming into force of the CDM Regulations on March 31. Akintola Akintoye and Eamon Fitzgerald's survey of attitudes to design and building among architects reveal astonishing similarities and differences in attitudes revealed by similar questions put to contractors and clients.

Yet the thoroughness of the contributors is not even. Alan Griffith's paper on the status of environmental management systems "identifies the level of awareness, raises current concerns and issues, etc." based on only 14 interviews with "major construction clients, consultants and contractors within the UK". Although the ideas put forward are original and worthy of discussion, their validity cannot be judged from the minuscule sample. Researchers should give more information on the method of data collection or risk the disregard of their conclusions. For all the thoroughness of Akintoye and Fitzgerald's survey of architects, 40 practices out of the 5,000 registered with the Royal Institute of British Architects cannot be representative of opinion. In the absence of any information on the type of questioning, the length and complexity of the questions must also cast doubt on the integrity of the answers. Researchers must also resist using blind junk-mailing techniques for extracting information, as they have no control over the validity of the answers.

Sir Michael Latham's reports on the need for increased co-operation between all participants in the system of procuring buildings have focused attention on the way design and construction are contracted for. But the openness and simple communication between the design team required by possible new standard forms of contract is in danger of being compromised by two new layers of bureaucracy. The advent of Quality Assurance via ISO 9001 and the CDM Regulations all herald better quality design with far fewer deaths and injuries on site, but at the price of increased inefficiency and conflicting legal liabilities. How can "co-operation" and "co-ordination" be enforced in a court of law?

Practitioners in the construction industry desperately need greater simplicity in the systems they use. Both contractors and consultants want a satisfied client, but lawyers produce too many variations to standard contracts, allegedly in the interest of their clients. Journals such as this one have a key role in exploring inefficiencies and conflict, and proposing solutions. But complex scientific formulae for basic analyses, such as Gary Holt et al's contractor selection, or Brochner's framework for risk aversion in precontractual investigation, are unusable by an average surveyor. These are classic examples of the dilemma identified in Donald Schon's paper for the 1984 RIBA conference (UIA International Architect no. 5, 1984), which Latham ignores.

A conflict has always existed between research and practice, what Schon calls "rigour or relevance". "Architecture is anomalous - a craft of design also concerned with the aesthetic dimension of human experience . . . devoted to the provision of physical structures for critically important functions". Creativity cannot be defined in a laboratory and is thus devalued by those who wish to systematise the building procurement process. Architects can add financial and aesthetic value to a building if allowed to contribute fully to its design, but the opportunities have diminished with the advent of design and build with insensitive management. There is a danger that within the next five years architectural design will have been diminished to component assembly as in France. This journal will have failed if it cannot come to terms with architecture due to its problematic nature or find a wider audience.

N. E. Bridges is a chartered architect practising in London.

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