Construction in the age of uncertainty may be confronting a new challenge in non-compliance. And a restoration of architects to their prior position in the pecking order could be worth consideration.

Many in the industry today may not recall Clerks of Work (CoWs). They were experienced construction practitioners normally engaged directly by a client or architect. Some had an architectural background, others were engineers or builders. All seemed to have had years of practical experience and seen most of the mistakes in design or construction that could be made.

CoWs faded from the industry as public and larger private clients shrunk their works departments and as architects slipped further down the design and construct food chain.

Having observed over 40 years of construction in Australia and around the Pacific Rim, I believe clients ended up with the most resolved designs and best built quality projects under a system in which architects were directly engaged by clients to fully document and supervise projects while a CoW was engaged by the architect to work with the builder on site. There was a certainty that was produced by this interface.

CoWs were first and foremost there to ensure work was performed in accordance with the contracted design and specifications, and they did not miss much.

Their secondary job was to act as problem solvers, to resolve design issues or to provide a practical interface between the design office and the site. The bonus was that most were also willing to impart years of industry experience with young up and coming designers and constructors. This something which is missing today.

Architects mostly used CoWs in a prudent manner to help superintend their projects. They used CoWs as a line in the sand to ensure non-compliant work was rectified in a timely manner, and would not lead to later compromise. Architects used work rejection or the deduction of the value of non-compliant work from the next progress claim as their lever. While some CoWs could be a bit heavy handed most were effective practitioners who knew how to put a quality compliance stake in the ground early.

There were few ambiguities in the relationship. Builders knew where they stood. Genuine builder proprietors responded in real time and made sure work was rectified, or agreed to reasonable alternatives to make amends that did not compromise a project’s final integrity.

It wasn’t a perfect world, but with good intentions all round, most results satisfied expectations. The most important benefits were in identifying designers, builder project managers, foreman, leading hands and trades people who may not be experienced enough or who were simply not up to the task. They were either given some assistance or additional training and if they did not change, moved on.

My most recent experiences on this subject occurred during the 2010-11 BER school buildings program. All manner of construction procurement systems were on show, as were the existing levels of informed buyer capability, contractor supervision experience and trades workmanship. Without doubt the best results were observed in the Western Australian Government’s procurement model.

The WA Government school system had well resolved basic school designs, tested documentation and good records of costs for each building type. They engaged managing architects to liaise with schools to determine school specific requirements, to add these to the documentation set and to oversee the engagement of contractors to perform packages of 10 to 20 buildings.

The builder obtained a volume and proximity benefit, and the client took responsibility for the quality of the documentation because they were confident about what they were doing. It was a win-win situation and schools were happy.

From my observations, a diminution in the quality of buildings across the program was observable as the relationship between a certifying architect and the client become less direct.

Where clients had used contract forms which required a builder to take over from the architect to complete designs, where the project manager or contractor was required to directly self-certify or engage a third party certifier, the less predictable the quality of building compliance with the design, contract specifications or statutory standards became. Even the architects were compromised.

This conversation is not intended to be about the worthiness of the design and construct procurement method. It’s about questioning the robustness of tick-the-box quality assurance, self-certification and the independence of third party certification. It’s about questioning the risks associated with a visible decline in industry supervision standards and trade skills. It’s about the potential for conflicts of interest when the cash flow for projects may be affected by the need to stop, go back and self-correct.

It’s about the pressure on all parties to get projects finished and into use to earn revenue or deliver services. It’s about the potential risk to the public of putting projects into service when the integrity of thorough design development and work compliance may come up short. And it’s about clients being induced into paying for work which is not as contracted.

It’s happening today, and unless there’s a change, it will continue. Turning a blind eye or claiming ignorance is not a defence. The Pink Batts Royal Commission will no doubt underscore this.

There are three times when project shortcomings are often uncovered. They include insolvency of the contractor or developer when the real cost of completion is exposed; during contract disputes, and, worst of all, when a building or construction method fails and/or someone gets hurt.

I have seen all of these and they have often ended costing the client or financier dearly. Unfortunately those who let the system down the most seem too frequently to get off the hook because of the potential embarrassment to the client, a poor chain of project administration and/or compromises, and the impact on a project’s value if its quality shortcomings become known in the market.

It’s a huge problem facing industry regulators as has been witnessed recently in Victoria and Queensland.

The restoration of architects to a position of greater project influence may be worth considering. For repeat clients who use recurrent design principles, this would make sense. The increased use of technologies such as BIM and BIM libraries could help make the design and procurement process more robust, and new collaboration and procurement opportunities are opening up for clients, designers, contractors and suppliers as a result. It’s worth testing.

In this context, revisiting the role of directly engaged managing architects may warrant a more serious look, but those who rise to this challenge will need to step up and offer more than they have in the past. The key to accelerating this potential will be demonstration of how these collaborations can be used to lower project cost, to speed up construction on site, to maximise the potential for off-site construction and most importantly to reinstate predictable quality outcomes. The current crop of project managers and quantity surveyors do not provide this assurance or leadership.

While some contractors may not relish seeing the food chain inverted in this way, others will be relieved to see better quality project documentation, less transfer of unquantifiable design risk and less ambiguous project direction. There may even be an opportunity for architects to engage some of the army of experienced constructors out there who could fit into a more functional project administration model. It could be a way of sharing construction knowledge up and down the value chain.

Imagine these old builders longing to see architects become architects again?