221109 – WAF November 2022: ‘Sold a Pup…’

I gave a talk at an international conference last month 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 herein….   

The term ‘Sold a Pup’ alludes to a swindle. It comes to us from English Medieval times and the practice of farmers selling live piglets at market. Traders would take the cash and hand over the sale securely incarcerated, no doubt occasionally kicking, securely tied up (and, I suspect, gagged) in a ‘poke’ – or as we know it today, a sack – hence the term a ‘pig in a poke’.

Unfortunately, unscrupulous dealers often substituted a much less valuable dog (sometimes even a cat) for the pig. By the time that the unsuspecting buyer had arrived home and discovered that he had been ‘sold a pup’ the seller had already moved on to the next town.

I used this phrase in 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 of course disagree suggesting that I am rekindling long settled arguments, but I hold my ground on this one: the rash of litigations pertaining to cladding failures 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 on 6 July 2017) requested the BRE to set up a testing programme in which combinations of different types of polymeric insulation, and of stone wool insulation, with ACM samples of different categories (1, 2 and 3) would be assessed 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 categories 1, 2 and 3 with stone wool insulation (Tests 2, 4 and 7), and three combined ACM of respectively categories 1, 2, and 3 with differing types of polymeric insulation; these were:

  • PIR (polyisocyanurate) with category 1 ACM (Test 5)
  • PIR with category 2 ACM (Test 3) 
  • What was referred to as ‘foam’ with category 3 ACM (Test 1)

An additional PF (phenolic foam) test was for some reason also carried out with another category 2 ACM sample Test 6).

The results revealed that of the seven tests only three (Test 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. All too often, 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 barriers’ 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, of course 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 which are largely forgotten. I take you back to circa 1978 when – I kid you not – inflation in the construction industry peaked at 28%. That against general inflation of 16%. Thus, a contract sum agreed at, say, £1,000,000 would at the year’s end routinely rise to £1,280,000 even without the instruction of any variations. This was all accommodated under special forms of contracts 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 due course it was realised that delaying tendering, and thus a start on site until all drawings, and a full specification plus Bills of Quantities had been created, had become a very expensive process and pressure grew to tender, and ultimately let contracts, on abbreviated design an specification information. 

Some of you might even 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 through getting onto site early against abbreviated information were usually lost in their entirety and more against successful claims.

To counter such claims contractors were eventually forced to assume the 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.

And so that 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 rare is that? 

Think about it: if the public was asked to board an aeroplane designed and constructed to the standards of the buildings that our industry delivers, they would fly empty, supposing that they were even cleared to fly. 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 and two part: 

  1. Design and specification work must be prepared by professionals who are properly trained and who have authority over their own work. Would you allow a project without medical training to oversee a surgical team’s work? 
  2. Those same professionals must regain their role in checking that the work, as 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. Adopting that Paul Finch mantra: ‘no responsibility without authority’.

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….its for practice to teach this, post graduation.

One even suggested that architecture should not be seen as a vocational course!

Yes, and pigs can fly….