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Happy builders are key to flawless jobs

THE SNAG-FREE building will remain a pipe dream while construction's labour force is underskilled, underpaid and underappreciated, a structural and building board meeting concluded.

Speakers from the panel and the floor of ICE's Towards Zero Defects event all pointed out that the flaw in any plan to improve the quality of UK construction was the low priority given by all professionals on a project to the actual builders of a scheme.

Speaker Peter Thompson, a senior project manager for Slough Estates, was well aware of the issue.

The industry operates on multi-level subcontracting, he explained, saying, for example, there are 20 trades involved in putting together a piece of curtain walling.

'And at every level someone takes a margin until, at the bottom of the tree, you have the labour-only mercenaries who actually install it'

They have to be motivated, he said, if buildings are to go up without defects. But motivational tools like money, conditions and welfare tend to be the first to be cut when contractor's are preparing competitive bids.

'Construction labour is generally regarded as a last resort job. We use it to frighten our children into doing their homework,' Thompson said. But all the research demonstrates that it is the people who do the work, and the circumstances in which it is done, that have most impact on the final quality.

Thompson was scathing in his criticism of contractors who trade in contracts and manipulate cash flow, rather than managing the process of construction.

'Their prime role should be to build the project on paper and define what information is needed and who should produce it,' Thompson said.

And he hit out at designers who signally failed to provide information that would help the builders put the building together.

'What we want are the sort of instructions you get with a kit of lego,' he said. 'But do we get it? I don't think so.

'I have a lot of experience of specifications written to protect professional indemnity cover rather than how to put the building together,' Thompson went on.

But as a client himself, he accepted that clients have the biggest role to play in the quest for a zero defect building.

'Clients pay lip service to zero defects, but what they are really after is lowest cost. Commonsense should tell us that the lower the price paid for anything, the greater the risk that it will be defective.

'A logical response would be to apply more rigorous checking. However, construction clients habitually procure all the necessary inputs on the basis of the lowest price obtainable, but apply little or no checking of the product delivery.'

Clients, he said, should establish what their true priority is for a project. It could be early completion or lowest lifetime cost rather than construction price, and they should procure the job accordingly.

'It is up to clients to force the issue,' Thompson said.

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