Gus Alexander Architects


Transferring control of the architect from client to contractor can work fine. It can also make everyone's life a lot more difficult particularly the architect's

16 October 2009

By Gus Alexander

I’m presently working on a reasonably complicated residential refurbishment where the aim is to provide accommodation for about 40 psychologically damaged residents. My original client for the job has the understandable, but mistaken, idea that I’m working for them. In fact I’ve been novated to the design-and-build contractor.

This may not be such a big deal. It’s all well and good for the contractor to do all the work after the concept design, and take all the risk if everyone knows exactly what they want (say, 20 units of social housing, the appearance of which nobody really cares about). It’s rather less well and good when the brief is still evolving, as briefs often do, especially when a project is begun at relatively short notice. This isn’t really anyone’s fault, but a different system of obligation emerges as a result, and these present their own problems.

As I am discovering. Under a more traditional procurement route, if my client needed to tweak something, I’d just talk it through with the appropriate consultant, and instruct the builder accordingly. Now find I have to wait for the appropriate consultant to get clearance from its client (that is, the builder) before we can make any decisions.

One of the ways in which this particular brief is evolving is that a compartmentalised building is being turned into an altogether more welcoming space, with a corresponding loss of lobbies. This means that the fire protection arrangement that was in place before work started now no longer applies, and large steel fire shutters have become necessary, as has working with the other consultants to try to get the result the client wants, although none has any professional relationship with it.

“A procurement process that puts the architect on the same tier as the muckaway contractor once work has started on site is probably not the best one”

I suppose architects who have been doing PFI for years get used to this, but it must be exceedingly dispiriting when experienced architects find themselves designing complicated projects such as schools and hospitals where they no longer have the authority that enables them to provide the client with the building they wanted.

Nobody is suggesting that architects should be given world domination, but they are the only construction consultants whose role requires them to be familiar with all aspects of a project, so a procurement process that puts them on the same tier as the muckaway contractor once work has started on site is probably not the best one for the long-term stewardship of the built environment.

Even when the relationship with consultant and contractor stops short of novation, there is a question of whether those consultants can retain their professional disinterest after they have become part of the other side of the commercial divide.

Not long after building control became deregulated, a friend of mine asked me to look over a flat his son was thinking of buying. The unit in question was a third (that is, top) storey flat in a new building with flats grouped around a single staircase. Just so that the prospective purchasers could feel they were living the “Hustle” lifestyle, this flat had an open gallery up a narrow flight of steel stairs rising out of the main living room. Now, whenever I’ve tried to do this in the past I have always run up against a building inspector telling me, not unreasonably, that I need to provide an alternative means of escape. It’s not too bad when one is building a new development as one can provide balconies that link the upper floors of adjoining flats. It’s more difficult with galleries as they tend to be nowhere near the outside walls. However, with a little imagination and some sort of alarm system one can organise a reciprocal means of escape so that if your sitting room suddenly bursts into flames beneath you (but only if) you can escape into the apartment next door.

“Surely she didn’t mean that an independent building control firm found itself owed a large amount of money by a developer that was desperate to sell its flats?”

The flat I was looking at clearly didn’t have such a door. I pointed this out to the agent. “I’m surprised building control allowed this,” I said. “Oh,” she replied brightly, “this whole scheme is self-certified.”

Surely she didn’t mean that an independent building control firm found itself owed a large amount of money by a developer that was desperate to sell its flats. Surely she wasn’t suggesting that such a firm might choose to overlook some little things, in case the company owing it the money went bust …

This is a difference of a degree, but I now have to say to my client: “Listen, this scheme could be improved greatly if you’d pay me to spend a couple of days on it.” “Spend a couple of days if you feel like it … but pay you?”