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A design for strife?

Design and build - Problems on a number of high-profile design and build projects have raised major questions about the ability of contractors to manage designers. Andrew Mylius investigates.

The very public battle between Multiplex and Cleveland Bridge over the construction of Wembley Stadium has led some commentators to suggest that their problems stemmed from the way the project was procured.

Client Wembley ational Stadium Limited was pressured by government, to let the project as a fixed sum design and build contract.

Only one firm was willing to accept the terms. Australian contractor Multiplex told investors it could deliver to time and budget.

But it has reaped a whirlwind of problems, with the project running more than a year late and £50M of claims at stake.

There are, of course, plenty of design and build projects that come through construction smelling of roses. But a host of major projects taken on as design and builds has gone rotten. Claims have festered in the courts long after completion; some have been hit by accidents.

In principle, design and build works well, according to Simon Murray, chairman of contractor Geoffrey Osborne and former director of major projects at Railtrack.

'Having a single party who the client deals with and who takes responsibility for delivery is good, ' he says.

'But it shouldn't be absolute. It's naîve to put all risk onto the team doing the project.

Unless the project is incredibly straightforward, the approach won't work.' Murray explains that clients and main contractors are still creating a division between commercial and technical sectors.

'There are huge numbers of people in the industry who want to do commercial deals, get the lowest possible price and dump risk on the people they hire to do the work. Yet the people who really know how to do things are the suppliers and specialist contractors, ' he says.

Scratch a bit at the question of whether design and build works, and mud starts to fly.

Contractors do not understand the design process or the value of good design, consultants say.

They lack the education and management skills to co-ordinate design and construction on complex projects, they add.

Contractors counter that consultants are conservative and do not understand, or design for, construction.

'We came unstuck on a bridge not long ago, ' moans a regional contractor. 'The design appeared straight forward but actually required us to develop new fabrication techniques. We were supplied with 30 drawings and had to produce 150 of our own to make the design work so that we could build the damned thing.

'Designers aren't responsible for delivery, and that affects the quality of their thinking.' A leading geotechnical engineer adds: 'Design and build puts the contractor on the designer's back and keeps them doing proper, economical design as opposed to conservative rubbish.' But the boss at one medium sized contractor confesses that his board of directors has recently held a meeting to discuss the firm's shortcomings on design and build projects.

'Compared to other industries, construction is under skilled - there aren't enough top quality managers around who know how to work well with teams of suppliers. And there's also an incredibly naîve view of risk.

'We are concerned whether we employ the type of staff who are capable of understanding and managing the design element, and the risk in the design element of design and build.

'Contractors tend to be gung ho, can do, commercial people, driven by cost and time. They are not trained or educated to know when a design is actually ready, to convert design drawings to build drawings or see where the risk is.' Failure of contractors to understand designers happens even on elementary structures, consultants told NCE.

'I retired early because of the lack of respect from young managers with no experience working for design and build contractors, ' one says.

'The last straw was to be told [by a young manager] to redesign a steel frame because it did not fit the budget. The frame in question was a standard portal frame shed;

I suggested he build one half the size to obtain the saving.' He said that contractors were employing college graduates and failing to train them in essential design skills.

'Most cannot scheme a job on the back of a fag packet, so lack the ability to visualise what components are essential and what are not.' Specialist Contractors Group chief executive Rudi Klein agrees that the construction industry lacks efcient design management skills.

This came to light recently in the Wembley case. Cleveland Bridge's barrister Hugh Tomlinson taunted Multiplex project manager Ran McGregor over his qualications for the job of co-ordinating and delivering the steelworks design packages.

These were being delivered by three different consultancies making up the Mott Connell Consortium.

Design information had been delayed because of co-ordination problems within Mott Connell.

But McGregor kept insisting that steelwork subcontractor Cleveland Bridge should have been able to crack on with fabrication using the design drawings available, even though these were not the nal versions.

Tomlinson asked McGregor what his degree was in.

'Construction management, ' came the reply. 'So you're not a qualied engineer?' asked Tomlinson. 'No, ' replied McGregor.

The view that, despite the design problems, steelwork fabrication should have charged ahead was echoed by more senior Multiplex managers, among them project director Ashley Muldoon - a project manager with a building background.

Muldoon told the court that MSC's drawings could have been used to 'develop' fabrication drawings even though they were not released as 'for construction'.

'But if the drawings say they can't be used for construction purposes, it'd be wholly wrong for them [CBUK] to fabricate from them, ' said Tomlinson.

One senior engineer says 'I call it build and design. That's what's happening - you are starting construction before you've got the design half done'.

In their rush to press on with construction, contractors often fail to resolve signicant design issues or co-ordinate different design elements, says Alan Baxter & Associates (ABA) partner Jim Gardiner.

'The contractor sees piling and foundations as the start of the job, but we need architectural and M&E designs in order to set out the piles and concrete edges properly, ' he says.

ABA senior partner Michael Coombes calls the process of integrating all the different structural, services and aesthetic requirements 'creative design'.

'When the creative design process is squeezed, you get the potential for clashes and other deciencies, ' he says.

Coombes is worried that increasing numbers of designers end up working for contractors as little more than technicians.

'Contractors don't see the value of creative design and won't pay for it, even though time spent on design at the start of a project delivers savings during construction, ' he says.

Design and build works best when designer and contractor elect to work together to win a job. It is most likely to break down when a consultant who has been advising the client is then novated to the contractor. Coombes describes novation as a 'shotgun marriage'.

'It can sometimes produce good results - you get a constructive dynamic. But novation is a risky process, ' warns Construction Industry Council chief executive Graham Watts. 'It is more likely to produce a clash of cultures.' The commercial director of one top 10 consultant explains that training and education are the historical reason for the culture clash. 'Architects and engineers used to rule the roost, and construction used to ow to the contractor. Now there's been a role reversal that consultants aren't comfortable with.' He adds that 'you get people with different views on different aspects of the project. The designer may have a certain idea about how to engineer it but the contractor will want to value engineer the project down. That means the designer has to repeat design work for which he won't be paid. That creates commercial tension.' Novation lands the contractor with a design and a design process that they must rst understand and then take control of. Mott MacDonald head of building engineering Mike Barker explains: 'One of the things that can be troublesome to a contractor is understanding what stage design is at when the designer is novated. The contractor needs to know what is nished or not so he can calculate the risk in his bid before making a commitment to the client.' In making a commitment to deliver, the contractor normally seeks performance guarantees for the design.

'Contractors would probably prefer not to have design and build. They just want to build, ' comments Barker. 'But because clients want it and the contractor wants work, he looks for ways to lay off risk.' Barker contends that 'where we always end up in conict is when the contractor gets it wrong: he doesn't understand what design changes have been made, or makes a mistake in buying a package.

'If things are going well, ne, but if he's losing money he looks to claw it back. The problem may be nothing to do with us but the contractor starts looking everywhere for savings. [As a consultant] you have your back to the wall from day one.' Lawyers like encouraging clients to procure using design and build because it offers contract writing opportunities, Coombes says. Frequently terms are onerous - consultants and subcontractors are 'led like lambs to the slaughter, ' he says.

'I'm amazed to see some firms accepting the terms, ' says Coombes, adding that sometimes contracts are even written to give the contractor access to a consultant's professional indemnity insurance (PII).

Contractors argue that claims against consultants are fair game, says Gardiner. 'They say 'you're covered by your PII'. There's a lack of understanding of what PII is for - they think it's like travel insurance. A lot of contractors see it as something they should have access to.' ABA is cautious about embarking on design-and-build projects, says Coombes. But such is the prevalence of design and build in the construction market that it cannot be avoided. To minimise exposure, ABA trains staff to be ultra-vigilant and super methodical.

'The way some rms operate is that you don't have the experience of people at the top of the firm trickling down to junior staff, which makes them vulnerable, ' Coombes notes.

'It's difficult when you are inexperienced to think of everything - to keep track of all information, note what you have and haven't done. It's an issue of record taking. The thing that needs to be uppermost in minds is the status of information 'Everybody needs to understand exactly what the score is. We have to tell the contractor when we are expecting to issue information and what we require from him in order to do that on time. You can't let your guard down.'

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