Architects vs. Builders: Are builders the world’s experts at rent-seeking?

It’s getting towards the end of the semester and we are starting to talk about procurement and contracts in the Architectural Practice class. This inevitably leads to the issue of how architects relate to builders and contractors and which procurement pathways are better for our clients. It is also gets to the issue of which procurement pathways maximise design outcomes and give architects a greater degree of control over the process.

Of course, for those of you who read my previous blog on our alien overlords the project managers you can probably guess what is coming next.

The above picture the back of my bro’s car. He is a highly intelligent concreter and he spends his life existing from contract to contract, driving across the burbs in his Nissan for up to 4 hours a day.  As sub-contractor, he is regularly screwed over by the contractors and builders he works for. This is often when it comes to the last payment.

As a concreter, the type of work he does is hard and gruelling and the industry is not looking after his health. If he gets sick or can’t work he is in trouble. He has worked on bridges, tunnels, rail, pools, facades, toll roads and of course that noble of all structures the floor slab. At the time of the pictures he was doing concrete stairs in a high-rise apartment building.

So with this background in mind let’s make a few points from an architect’s perspective about the state of the Australian building and construction industry.

Builders vs. Architects.

 Builders will always blame the architect no matter what. It’s just an easier thing for builders to do. They will make out that architects are design orientated wankers who know nothing about construction. They are adversarial and combative negotiators. In fact contractors are more likely to blame the architect if the building has been actually designed. For a number of large public building projects around my city this has certainly been the case. In fact many contractors will often cover up their own missteps by blaming the architects and point the finger at “design” issues. Or that other great spectre “design changes.”

The other aspect of this is the way they will go behind your back and whisper into the ear of the client that you are an idiot. Many clients, including large institutional ones, do not often have the expertise to manage the conflicts arising out of these tactics, or have the knowledge to make the necessary judgements or trade-offs when a builder does this. The culture of the Australian construction Industry is riven with anti-intellectualism and these tactics usually work.

I don’t want to sound overly pedantic or didactic. But, for clients, large and small, arguably it is always in a client’s real interests to get an architect. An architect is an independent professional and carries professional indemnity insurance. Just like the lawyers, and just like the doctors. Why would you do otherwise?

Builders love to “design”

Of course, people don’t employ architects because they see them as being too “expensive.” Certainly, this is a notion that the builders, large contractors and project managers will readily promote. Yes, this is all about the dollar for the builders, whatever is cheaper and easier for them to do, they will do it.

They especially love, and are great at, what I call builder redesign. Usually this involves some pretence at simplification, minimisation or easy substitution. Before you know it those well-crafted spatial arrangements, geometries and details have been erased by the builder.

Builders will do anything or say anything to justify changes, variations or easier and better designed ways to do things. Yep, builders love to “design” stuff. They, in their own minds at least, are great designers. Who needs an architecture degree to design stuff? They will always tell you how much they love to design stuff and how much they know about design, which is generally based on the reality TV shows, and what they have observed at their local gastro-pub or shopping mall homewares store. Of course, they all love Utzon’s Opera House. But none of them would have the guts to do or support something like that nowadays.

All about the dollars

For the builder class it’s all about the dollars. Forget about design, life-cycle costs or zero carbon buildings. If there is some eaves framing and eaves lining that can be easily cut back to the top of the wall plate they will do it. It’s cheaper. You only have to drive out to the outer suburbs of my city to see the results. Tract after tract of houses without eaves. Who needs eaves when you can add a Fujitsu air conditioner

The rise of new forms of procurement have tended to diminish the role of the architect. Yet the best civic buildings in my our city have been procured by methods where the architect has the primary role to both design, oversee and deliver the project. In novated contracts, as soon as you get novated across the contractor will ask for a value management meeting. In PPPs (or PFIs) They will pretend to love your design if it gets them the job then they will butcher it.

Zilch policy initiatives.

Most big contractors will say or do anything to get their local governeloper to redevelop that large slab of industrial vacant land on the outskirts of the city. They will do anything in the name of low carbon, green star city densification. The all love to talk about ESD but they really don’t care.

As policy advocates the builders (e.g. The Master Builders Association) have spent a fair bit of time arguing against apartment standards. Their solution to building more “affordable housing” is not to create design innovation but to ease the regulatory barriers (especially planning) as can be seen here. It’s like they actually want more project homes without eaves and apartments with inflammable curtain walls to be built.

Zilch R&D.

 If the builders cared they would put money into construction and urban research. The inside of my bro’s car is his control centre and probably gives you a pretty good idea of the level and state of ICT technology in the building industry. It is an industry with a low technology base. This is where he does most of his business while he is driving about.

IMG_4211.JPG

In the early 2000s I worked for the CRC for Construction Innovation. It was headed up by a civil engineer and its governing board had a few head honchoes from big builders. Its network comprised of a small tribal clique of contractors and CM academics centred around Brisbane; in other words, a network of mates. The case study and the semi-structured interview reigned supreme. Mates talking to mates. There was a lot of spin about technology futures that did not actually include architects (the naivety of it was unbelievable).

Whilst the CRC did produce some worthwhile intellectual property it produced next to nothing that could be commercialised. You would think after spending millions of bucks on research something might have come out if it apart from a few how to do BIM books. Construction Innovation related research in Australia has never really recovered. In 2013 Australia’s chief scientist Ian Chubb argued that after the CRC R&D investment by the builders in Australia fell into a hole.

Try this and then run 

The Australian construction industry is arguably riddled with bullies, brutes, hi-viz-vest-leering tradies (Tony’s tradies) whose minds are never elevated much beyond low prices and cheap results. Try talking to a builder or tradie about design and watch him (and usually a him) start up with the jokes and the eye rolls and the thought that you are an onanistic character regardless. Of course, cisgender is probably not a word you would even mention to a builder or a contractor: Try it and see what happens.

The upshot

Of course, there are bright things in the contractors and builder’s firmament in Australia. some of them are NAWIC and certainly there a few admirable builders who do support research in my workplace. But mostly it is the builders holding our sector back.

Architects are way smarter, are educated for far longer, have professional insurance, sit actual registration exams and have a better handle on innovation, construction, detailing, urban design and spatiality. Yet many of the builder brutes keep propagating the spin that we are useless aesthetes and could not construct our way out of a paper bag. As one of our graduates once said “I thought you were joking when you said that builders are evil vermin, but you were spot on.”

It’s time for architects in Australia to rebrand ourselves in the public eye. We need to be seen at the forefront of policy and innovation in the design and construction industry. Maybe we architects need to spend less money on the awards programs and the funky conferences and more on promoting our brand at large. 



Categories: architects and builders, architectural practice, Australian Architecture, Urban Policy

Tags: , ,

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