Can the contractual fence be broken down?

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Despite the undoubted improvements in the way we create and deliver buildings since I came into the industry in 1972 (is it really that long ago?), there are some things that remain the same, always have and always will.

One of these is that any building, requires contracts, systems and management tools that link a need (the Brief) to a solution (the Design) to the manufacture of components and their installation (the build). In other words, someone requires an asset, someone is able to provide an affordable solution, there are companies able to manufacture the components/systems and there are others able to fit them all together into a functional building (the asset).

No single party can do everything and companies have to co-operate and combine their skills to achieve a successful outcome. This is common sense and as plain as day, so why is it that it is still so difficult to actually do that without disputes and conflict arising? Why is it that there remains a lack of trust and confidence in each other, and who ever thought it was a good idea to have multiple contractual relationships creating a blame and self preservation culture, as well as divorcing the designer from the manufacturer?

The reason I bring this up is that a few weeks ago I participated in something that I found quite unusual, but very refreshing, and something of an education, which all goes to prove that it is never too late to learn, and also how powerful communication can be.

The event was organised by a multi-national product manufacturer who are keen to better understand their market, their clients and the challenges faced by everyone involved in the construction process, something very close to my heart. I therefore sat with a journalist, a manufacturer, a major developer and a multi-national building contractor for several hours, during which time we had a free and open discussion about contracts, procurement, challenges, factors for success, irritations, trust and confidence, all in a non-contractual environment where we could speak openly, listen, debate and better understand each other. Having an architect and/or engineer present would have been useful, although we may still be sitting there now had that been the case!

I have always thought of myself as being extremely fortunate, having worked as a contractor for the first 14 years of my career before switching to working with designers, and even being a client for a while, which has given me a balanced insight into the issues faced by those on different sides of the contractual fence. The fact is of course that this “fence” should not exist, as we are all trying to achieve the same thing which is client satisfaction, but unfortunately old habits die hard and there remains a divide between consultants and contractors that even design and build is finding hard to dismantle.

Having said that this open debate showed me that some of my current assumptions are inaccurate, and that as we all strive to do a good job and win repeat business with good clients, through closer voluntary co-operation old habits can die and be replaced by a much better working environment.

For me interdependence is the way forward by which I mean understanding, appreciating and linking success by rewarding collaboration and good behaviours within the whole project team, rather than blaming and punishing mistakes which just leads to a culture of survival and self interest. This concept would mean a complete mind set change within the legal profession and some project managers, but if we were able to convince our clients of the benefits accruing from this approach what a result that would be.

Nick Schumann

Nick Schumann

Founder and Director at Schumann Consult Ltd
Having built the world’s largest specification consultancy and developed innovative methods for the implementation of new design management techniques Nick is considered to be one of the world’s leading authorities in his field writing, lecturing and providing advice to many industry leaders.
Nick Schumann

Posted on June 27, 2014 in Specifications

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