Why quality must be our priority

Opinion: As the pandemic accelerates the industry's digital revolution, the built environment must take the opportunity to improve the quality of its work

Author: Andrew Wood

05 May 2021

Scaffolding and blue nets on the façade of a building being repaired

About 20 years ago I undertook some research into the built environment for my dissertation. As we entered the 21st century, at least half the UK housing stock was more than 50 years old, with repair and maintenance costs estimated to be in excess of £12bn annually. Quality was a major concern.

As 60% of this repair and maintenance work was picked up by sole traders and there was no means of quality assurance, homeowners' only recourse in the event of construction failure was the courts. Although the government-backed Quality Mark scheme was introduced in 2003 to address this, it unfortunately failed to garner sufficient industry support, so almost 20 years on the domestic customer has few avenues of protection.

Looking at the wider built environment today the findings of my research still resonate because we seem to have made little progress in addressing quality issues. The Grenfell Tower disaster, the fire at student accommodation in the Cube, Bolton, and Scottish schools' cavity wall failures are just some of the higher-profile incidents that demonstrate how far the issue reaches, and its all-too-apparent impact.

The Hackitt review and ongoing enquiries into the Grenfell Tower fire have rightly focused attention on the industry's regulatory framework, and the draft Building Safety Bill and the Fire Safety Bill will begin to address these issues.

More broadly, the Hackitt review also considers the lack of a consistent approach to the control and management of project information and quality assurance processes for materials and competencies.

Quality versus cost

The importance of quality cannot be underestimated – I believe this is at the heart of the changes needed to improve the industry.

The Latham report and Egan report of the early 1990s identified the potential for year-on-year cost reduction through a partnering approach to contracting and design and build. There was much to be applauded in these documents, but this approach was never sustainable, coinciding as it did with a decline in client budgets, increased short-term thinking and a race to the bottom. The industry has had to wrestle with these issues as it has adapted, cut and trimmed to manage expectations.

The emphasis on scoring quality, achieving sustainability and participating in social initiatives across the suite of construction contracts is greater now than ever, and has the potential to bring about lasting change if it proceeds. But the bottom line is that cost trumps all. If construction standards and user experiences are to improve, more people are to be encouraged to work in the industry and the reputational damage caused by years of neglect is to be reversed, then quality has to be addressed.

“The emphasis on scoring quality, achieving sustainability and participating in social initiatives is greater now than ever”
Return of the clerk?

Central to improving quality is the role of clerk of works as well as independent monitoring of quality in compliance, work and materials defects. But both of these were imperilled by the move to managed services that became common in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Latham and Egan encouraged this move, calling for a less adversarial model with more partnering contracts and contractors taking greater responsibility for quality, giving birth to the self-certification model, with all the scope that offers to sign off poor-quality buildings.

But now, the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the digital revolution, and this gives us an opportunity to reimagine our service, embrace new technologies and regain the independent client-appointed expert in an affordable virtual environment.

This aligns with the recommendations of the Hackitt review and the measures in the Building Safety Bill: robust, digital information for which the client is responsible, generated by a combination of remote data collection, presence on site and lessons in collaboration learned over the past decade, can together make for an affordable construction model.

The use of technologies such as drones, cameras, robotic surveyors and handheld devices can, when aligned with imaginative contract models, cover the entire construction process. With this technology, the professional surveyor can use their experience and understanding of building pathology to focus on good detailing, materials and quality of construction, spending less time in the office and more on site.

Reporting in a live environment and ensuring that inevitable on-site design and construction issues are considered, addressed and resolved to reduce defects can enable soft landings, as well as providing comprehensive data for future property management.

Advanced modelling dashboards complement this, interrogating information to highlight areas of concern, best practice, health and safety issues and scheduling, to inform and challenge contractors with data. When appointed directly by clients and correctly used, the clerk of works can draw together design teams and contractors to encourage quality outcomes and improve performance and project feasibility.

“COVID-19 is accelerating the digital revolution, giving us an opportunity to reimagine our service”
Monitoring quality

Feedback from across the built environment echoes these concerns and challenges. All parties in the industry must address this by developing new quality monitoring processes and tools. Even digitising the recording of quality issues on a mobile device on site in real time and allowing all parties concerned to access, review and address this data offers significant benefits. Ensuring that implementation mirrors design and responsibility for issues on site are addressed swiftly and pro-actively by all parties for better outcomes.

A partnering approach can take on board the best lessons from the past decade, engaging contractors in data collection, independent remote approval and on-site, hands-on validation. This engages all parties in the process, creating a golden thread of information collection, review, approval and validation that Hackitt recommended. This in turn can reduce defects, improve quality, support soft landings and provide comprehensive asset data for future building management and compliance.

Such early engagement and intervention can save time and prevent future rectification issues that affect costs and programmes. It also enables independent input on health and safety and on construction design and management of on-site works. This allows issues to be identified and addressed quickly to prevent escalation and major breaches of duty, protecting all parties from significant risks.

“Early engagement and intervention can save time and prevent future rectification issues that affect costs and programmes”
Restoring reputation

For too long, the construction industry has focused on the quantitative impacts of quality failures. Reputational damage is less tangible, yet can be far wider-reaching and carry a significantly higher long-term commercial and personal cost. Poor-quality construction, the lack of building information and ongoing property issues after handover can undermine trust and leave a legacy of disappointment that is hard to remedy.

The clearest example of this is the ongoing issue of cladding. Although the government has increased the Building Safety Fund to more than £5bn, the volume of applications, complex design and lack of robust, easily accessible, construction data without any external validation means that progress is slow. The high-rise market remains on hold, property investments continue to fall and – based on historic procurement and construction models – insurers are walking away from what they perceive to be high levels of risk, unwilling to offer the cover required.

A robust, affordable and independent client-owned quality management process underpinned by digital solutions that can inform future building maintenance and compliance, can provide the assurance the market needs to break this deadlock and restore trust.

The impact of COVID-19 will continue to reverberate across the globe, and our cities and towns will evolve apace to meet new challenges. This changing environment and the digital revolution that has accelerated over the past year provide us with a unique opportunity to heed the lessons of the past and promote a quality standard model for our built environment – one that works for all, and sets our industry on a path to become both a career of choice and an exemplar of quality and satisfaction.

“Reputational damage is less tangible, yet can be far wider-reaching and carry a significantly higher long-term commercial and personal cost”

Andrew P Wood is the surveying and estates lead in Jacobs Cities & Places UK team

Related competencies include: Construction technology and environmental services, Due diligence

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