Strive for quality in the product not just the process15 Mar 23
Architects and designers are a critical part of the construction industry and it is vital they get involved in efforts to improve quality, said Tamsie Thomson from the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland at the joint GIRI/CQIC in February. The industry needs to be more ambitious about the end product, not just the building process, she added.
Tamsie opened her talk by underlining the importance of construction outcomes not just for the industry but for the end user. Research demonstrates the impact the built environment has on the health, wealth and wellbeing of individuals; although we spend the majority of our lives indoors, these crucial determinants of our health are often overlooked, she said.
“According to a 2011 WHO report, the environmental burden of disease attributable to inadequate housing accounted for 100,000 premature deaths in Europe alone. And that’s pre-Covid. A report by [housing charity] Shelter found that poor housing conditions increased the risk of severe ill health or disability by up to 25% in childhood and early adulthood. And a US study found that just by improving the thermal quality of a building you can reduce blood pressure and the use of medication and hospital admissions among residents,” Tamsie revealed. “Just think of the impact good quality buildings could have, then multiply that from the individual to a nation – that’s what we could unlock for ourselves in terms of education, health, and economic outcomes.”
The launch of the CQIC gives Scotland an opportunity to drive cultural change that will be critical to supporting and building an exemplary and professional construction sector, she said. But some of the issues raised by Sir John Cole in his 2016 report demonstrate how the role of the architect in the construction process is being undermined, which is impacting quality.
Both the narrowing of the architect’s scope and the increase in contractor-led procurement are factors that are contributing to construction’s quality issue, the Cole Report concluded. Cole observed that downward pressure on professional fees for architects and other professionals such as structural engineers has curtailed the frequency and nature of site visits with two significant repercussions: the increase in potentially dangerous defects that are not identified before they are closed in, and the artificial separation of designers from the construction process that inhibits feedback on the effectiveness of design decisions, and risks deskilling the next generation of architects.
“Quality in construction is critical, but sometimes focuses on procedure and, in my view, not on the most important aspect, which is the quality of the end product,” said Tamsie. “And while there has been a lot of focus on bringing forward these necessary changes, I don’t think there has been enough recognition of the lack of ambition in the final product."
To move forward with quality, Tamsie argued that the industry needs a safe space to discuss the issues and shares successes and failures. She referred to Matthew Syed’s book Black Box Thinking which strongly advocates openness within an industry and a willingness to learn from mistakes. The creation of this culture, alongside the ability to capture and analyse every aspect of an incident, has contributed to a dramatic improvement in safety in the aviation industry.
“The difficulty the construction industry has with this approach is the way we view failure and the lack of safe spaces to discuss it,” said Tamsie. “My hope for the CQIC is that it creates that space where we can honestly and openly come together and have those difficult conversations about our personal and organisational defects.”
Tamsie highlighted a recent RIAS award that demonstrates both ambition for the end product and the kind of collaboration required to achieve high quality. In 2022, Scottish Borders Council won the client of the year award for the Jedburgh Grammar campus project. Stallan Brand was the architect and the contractor was BAM Construction.
“The council tasked the architect with radically reimagining how secondary schools work,” said Tamsie. “The council recognised that traditional school design is incompatible with student-centred learning and in many ways is compounding the mental health crisis faced by young people. At Jedburgh, the design prioritises mental health and wellbeing and embodies a more Scandinavian-style studio school that encourages dynamic learning. It is a clear example of a client investing in that design quality at the early stages and embedding it in their procurement process.”
On a recent project with the Crichton Trust, RIAS had the opportunity to reinvent the procurement process to prioritise design outcomes above other considerations. As a result, emerging Scottish practice O'Donnell Brown was appointed. This practice would not have been able to jump the hoops of traditional procurement, she explained, but had the skills and knowledge necessary to meet the client’s needs. “The design is outstanding and represents good value for money for the client. If we are to deliver the buildings Scotland needs and deserves, we must allow quality to become that determining factor.”