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Thu 4 Jun 2009 04:00 AM

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Collaborating with contractors

Arup's CO-Director Jeff Willis talks to Architect about the intricate collaboration-or lack thereof-between architects, engineers, contractors and clients.

Collaborating with contractors
Arup’s Jeff Willis.
Collaborating with contractors
All too often clients want things done quickly and cheaply.
Collaborating with contractors
Thinking about architecture and engineering at the start can increase build quality.
Collaborating with contractors
Jeff Willis would like to see collaboration happen much earlier in the design process.

Arup's CO-Director Jeff Willis talks to Architect about the intricate collaboration-or lack thereof-between architects, engineers, contractors and clients.

Contractors are looking for cost-effective materials. Architects are looking to create their vision, regardless of how or how much. Is that an accurate description?

JW: From my point of view, you get different sorts of architects and different aims for the architecture. The architect will definitely have a clear view on what they want their building to look like and what materials will convey the right impression.

A contractor doesn't necessarily try to change that unless there is some inherent problem with either the construction or procurement. If you've got a very tight programme or something that needs fixing, then you'd be looking to make changes.

A contractor really wants something that is easy on his programme as well as being easy on his price. He will have a fixed price and quite clearly be trying to procure and get approved materials that are easier to find, cheaper to transport and less expensive than the competition.

At the end of the day, once the project is finished, the architect has succeeded if he's got a building that demonstrates his skills and the contractor has also succeeded if he's got a building that has allowed him to make money.

Those seem like conflicting initiatives and opposing forces?

I think they can be. If something that is required by an architect presents particular problems for a contractor-especially if it gets him in trouble with his programme with regard to liquidated damages-he is usually going to get very vocal, then very angry about that.

The reason conflicts occur is because there is an imbalance somewhere. The heart of that imbalance may lie in the architect and client wanting to use certain materials to convey an impression-materials that have a time-cost associated with them-which the contractor cannot deal with, but will nevertheless be charged with liquidated damages if he's late. This kind of conflict is inherent here and it's what normally produces arguments.

In this market and this region how do you sidestep conflicts?

It's all about good and not-so-good design. During the design process, if the architects and engineers are interested in designing for buildability, they should be considering all of these things as they proceed. Together, they should be ensuring that anything that may have an impact on programme or cost is being accounted for very early in the design process.

We do operate in a market where time is a major constraint. If you ask a contractor to do something that is particularly difficult or completely different from what he normally does, it's very difficult for him to estimate the programme time required and, sometimes, very difficult for him to complete according to his contract.

If the engineer, with the architect, is doing his job at the beginning to make sure buildability is properly considered, then conflicts will be minimised. But, I really cannot say that engineers can ever mediate these things away once they've occurred.

When it comes down to it, it should be entirely dependent on how strongly the client wants to retain something that is there, regardless of whether its architecturally relevant or just simply preferred.

Just to be clear, the loyalties of architects, engineers and contractors are always to the client?

Yes. Absolutely.

Is that also true when considering the context of the Middle East?

It's true that everyone employed by somebody usually demonstrates some level of loyalty to their employer because they want to continue to get paid, and maybe, be employed in the future. I don't see anything that represents disloyalty in this market.

What do you see?

I always end up in conversations about levels of quality. People tend to work in environments that they're used to. If, for ten years, you've been working in a situation where the client says, "I want a building like this" and the whole team just produces it as quickly and cheaply as possible, that usually results in quite a low level of quality.

If, on the other hand, the client asks, "What do I want to do in this market? How can I do that best? What is the best way to approach this project from an architectural and engineering point of view?" that will often result in a very different, and much higher, level of quality.If you're really thinking about the project at the start instead of just doing the same thing you did last week or last year, then you've got two quite different situations. Everywhere I've worked in the world, I've always seen those two opposing forces working side-by-side.

The demonstration of loyalty, in my mind, is someone thinking on behalf of the client, for the whole team, to get the best result. As professionals, that's what we should be doing, but sometimes the commodity aspects can take over.

Despite all the talk of a "collaborative" approach, are architects still driving the process here?

Whenever you have a situation where architects are employed first and then choose sub-consultants, then as one of those sub-consultants, the engineer's client is the architect. In those cases, the only contract the engineer needs to be concerned with is the one with the architect.

If the engineer gets most of his work from that architect and others like him, then his loyalty will be to the architect. Contractually, that's correct, but the engineer should never lose sight of the fact that the ultimate client needs to ultimately get the product he wants.

There is a strong move in more mature markets for the whole process to become far more collaborative, which is very much led by things like LEED. In order to get a building LEED certified, you need to be collaborating in a very comprehensive way from the beginning. As [sustainability standards] become more important here, it will change this process too.

What do you think would help foster a collaborative spirit?

I would like to see some of the major contractors developing what I would call ‘Design Assistance Teams'. What we all want to do is get the contractor involved much earlier but the client doesn't usually want to commission a contractor for the whole job that early in the process. It's too early to get price certainty and too early for the contractors to calculate and collate an accurate and reliable price analysis.

Nevertheless, it would be very good to have a contractor's advice very early on. If the contractors were to start little design arms or teams of buildability experts that would take a consultancy fee to come and advise the team on the building aspects during the design process, it would greatly help the design process. It would also put the contractor in a very good position to price correctly for the final job.

Getting contractors involved early in the design process is, in my mind, a major problem that we need to work together to solve. My suggestion is that the contractors need to be a bit proactive and set up their own ‘Early Advice Teams'.

Do buildability teams already exist in more mature markets?

What's happening elsewhere is that the collaboration aspect is going much further and the clients are happier to enter into collaborative agreements earlier. Contracts in more mature markets also tend to be more intricate and comprehensive.

In the past is that there was a complete design process, then there was a tender and then there was a construction process. But, the design and construction processes were traditionally quite separate activities.

In order to join it together, we need to be looking at different forms of contracts that are being used elsewhere-many of which tend to be more collaborative andoften end up with a better result for it.

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