The story unfolding at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry is a lack of leadership and responsibility in the supply chain. Witness after witness points to a lack of skilled resources, effective task management and an overwhelming focus on cost as the key project target. Where has the requirement for delivering quality gone?
The drive to deliver a product that achieves corporate cost targets missed the fundamental need to meet legal standards and regulations and check that what is being provided is fit for purpose. At no point does anybody seem to be accepting responsibility for making a decision.
The decision making and approval process shows that approvals and acceptances for designs and workmanship were being batted up and down the contractual chain. The designers were expecting the specialists to know what they were doing and contractors were expecting the designers and building control to know what they were doing. And the clients was expecting his design and contracting team to provide something that met quality and regulatory standards.
Testimony from the contracting team has also seen the commercial aspects of procurement been exposed. Public sector commitment to ‘lowest price is best’ clearly does not stack up in a complex world any longer.
Commentators and barristers for the inquiry, unfamiliar with the nuances of construction contracts, tried to understand why the contractors did not disclose and hand back all the better buying savings. And the inquiry appeared to be suspicious with the level of discount offered on insulation materials.
Sadly the evidence about costs and pricing is just another example of standard industry practice. The smoke and mirrors of discounts, rebates and ‘value engineering’ (or devalue-engineering) highlights that outdated procurement practices still exist.
Understandably the Inquiry is seeking to identify the process that led to the disaster and recommend changes so this does not happen again. There are also those who want to allocate responsibility for the cause.
From top to bottom the testimony from executives is bringing to light the fragmented nature of the industry and the under resourced and under skilled supply chain.
But none of the events of recent weeks should come as a shock because the Hackitt Review has already highlighted the broken system that exists in the world of design and construction. It calls from greater competence – from client and lead architect to fitter and fixer.
One of Hackitt’s key recommendations for construction procurement is that specific responsibilities for complying with building regulations should be allocated to three duty holders: the client, the principal designer and the principal contractor.
This new threesome will have to accept its new found responsibility under the new Building Safety Bill for checking that what is designed and built delivers a building that is safe and conforms to standards and regulations.
How events impact on unsuspecting members of the supply chain when the new gang of three seek to transfer the risk as part of a new approach to the construction procurement process, only time will tell.
Adrian JG Marsh
Editor at Spector magazine