Has quality control fallen off construction’s radar? And as the skills crisis worsens and with EU labour restrictions on the horizon, what is to be done about it? James Kenny reports.
While image, productivity and skills are often touted as crucial challenges facing the construction industry, a little less in the spotlight is the issue of quality.
As the government pushes house builders to produce more homes amid rising costs and labour shortages, there is increasing evidence that quality standards across the industry have begun to decline, which is becoming a real concern among contractors, clients, industry bodies and the public alike.
The issue could become more pressing as Brexit looms, with the spectre of restricted labour movement across Europe at a time when there is a huge pipeline of infrastructure projects and a determination to ramp up house building.
As Mark Farmer, founder of Cast Consultancy and the author of the skills report, Modernise or die, published in October, put it: “The industry must modernise or face inexorable decline.”
Evidence that quality is suffering already comes from a number of sources. In July the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment (APPGEBE) looked into the quality and workmanship of new-build housing in England.
It found that there is an increasing disparity between customer demands and industry delivery when it comes to new homes and said house builders should be upping their game and putting consumers at the heart of their business model. Alongside this, it said, government should use its influence to promote quality at every opportunity.
"There is also an issue with getting the right people into management and professional disciplines. If that quality reduces then the end result is a poorer quality job."
Mark Robinson, Scape
Chairman of the group, Oliver Colvile MP, said: “It is clear to us that there is a quality gap between customer demands and industry delivery. Closing this gap will only come about, we believe, if house builders make a concerted effort to create a more consumer-focused culture.”
Problems with roofs, surface finishes and services are common issues that consumers and house builders have reported.
So what is the cost of poor quality construction? Not only is safety a major issue as well as reputational, but the monetary costs of having to go back and fix defects can cost contractors large amounts.
Research from the Chartered Quality Institute Construction Special Interest Group suggests that better quality management could save the industry between £7bn and £12bn.
Don Ward, chief executive of Constructing Excellence, says: “With the issues of defects, when we spoke to clients last year, they said putting the defects right was costing anywhere between 1% and 5% of the project. The amount of rework having to be done in the sector is quite frightening, it’s a big problem. Contractors should be dealing with these issues from the outset and save themselves some money.”
Another construction body head, who did not want to be named, says: “A pal of mine is currently working on a project where he’s been called in to try and get it finished off and fix some mistakes, and he’s been so horrified with the quality, what he thought was a month or two job looks like a six-month job. And that isn’t unusual.”
A lack of skills is also seen as a concern. Evidence of this was seen in a report in August by public sector procurement organisation Scape, which found that nearly 85% of public sector construction managers and 58% of private sector contractors and suppliers believe that the current skills shortage is negatively impacting the quality of their workmanship.
The Sustainability in the Supply Chain report surveyed more than 150 senior managers at public organisations as well as a range of suppliers and subcontractors delivering built environment services. One in 10 contractors and suppliers said that skills shortages were impeding their ability to meet budgets.
Mark Robinson, chief executive at Scape, says: “There is a skills shortage throughout construction, this has a direct influence on costs, decisions and ultimately influences quality.
“It’s not just about onsite, however, and getting skills on the ground to deliver projects, there is also an issue with getting the right people into management and professional disciplines. If that quality reduces then the end result is a poorer quality job.”
Issues such as the performance gaps between as designed and as delivered energy efficiency of buildings are also well documented, with quality of workmanship an underlying problem.
Tough market conditions
The latest Glenigan key performance indicators (KPIs) survey, released last month, highlighted how tough market conditions have begun to impact the bottom line and employers are reducing their workforce to minimise risk. The 2016 UK Industry Performance Report, produced by Glenigan alongside the CITB, surveyed 1,000 key people on projects completed in 2015.
While overall it revealed a broadly positive picture with most key indicators on the rise, it did find that only 41% of projects came in on time and increasing labour and material costs meant that industry profitability took a hit, dropping from 2.8% to 2.5%.
Certainly, skills shortages are cited across the board as being at the root of the quality issue. Stephen Wielebski FCIOB, who gave evidence to the APPGEBE, is one of those pointing to the lack of a properly trained workforce as one of the key reasons why quality is suffering.
"When we spoke to clients last year they said putting the defects right was costing between 1% and 5% of the project. The amount of rework having to be done in the sector is quite frightening, it’s a big problem."
Don Ward, Constructing Excellence
Wielebski says: “It’s a simple fact there is a skills shortage, there aren’t enough people coming into the industry at all levels, and the standards of training need to be consistent. Due to time and cost restraints, companies often have no choice but to spread out their workforce and the right people are not always working on the right jobs.”
Mark Wakeford, managing director of midlands contractor Stepnell, agrees. “We are seeing a shortage of skills on site, the same companies are still there but just fewer people in those companies,” he says. “Good people are being spread a lot thinner and on every job it is taking longer to achieve the quality needed and expected.
“With your supply chain you have to be more explicit about what you need and want and quality you expect, as if you don’t standards can fall. We’ve got clients who demand certain site managers of us. We expect the same from our supply chain, but it’s proving a challenge to find competent quality people.”
But while skills shortages are clearly beginning to bite, there’s also a more deep-rooted issue. Poor quality could be a result of construction’s low-margin climate or, at a more basic level, quality is seen as secondary to getting the job done, with “snagging” picking up the problems later.
Poor quality is not necessarily a new issue. The problems with PFI schools and hospitals has shone an unwelcome spotlight on quality. For example, 17 PFI schools in Edinburgh built a decade ago were forced to close because of defects. A report from the council’s corporate policy and strategy committee had said early indications pointed to a “construction quality matter” as opposed to a design defect or operating model. The full report is expected in November.
Fire safety and protection and finishes have also come under scrutiny with a number of faults in workmanship and the quality of fire protection being uncovered recently in four high-profile PFI hospitals across the UK.
Problems have been uncovered at University Hospital Coventry, Royal Derby Hospital, Walsall Manor Hospital and King’s Mill Hospital in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire.
The hospitals were found to be not robust enough with breaches in the fire compartmentalisation walls being at the heart of the problem. Contractors are now being brought back to carry out remedial measures in the hospitals.
“We’ve seen what’s happened with the legacy issues of the PFI building investigations and it is clear that the quality just isn’t being done in the first place,” says Wilf Butcher, chief executive of the Association for Specialist Fire Protection.
Butcher says the problems are often technically linked to fire containment walls and says the cause can be linked back to the original workmanship.
“You have the follow-on trades doing these jobs and they’re just not trained for it. They shouldn’t be assigned to it, but subcontractors and other follow-on trades are often the ones finishing off the fire protection work and it then comes back as being unsafe.”
He adds: “Often, as well, even if repairs are done there is the issue of the appropriate material not being used for the job, flame retardant foam to fix a gap in the ceiling, for example, is often used.”
Apart from more training and recruiting more skilled people, what else can the industry do about the quality issue?
Clerk of works
Bringing back a clerk of works on projects is held up as one answer. The clerk of works, once a regular figure on sites, has become rarer and rarer in the last few years, and many believe this has led to faltering standards.
As one industry veteran puts it: “I’ve been in the industry for 30 years starting off on site and up through management, you once always had a clerk of works on site and staff were more closely monitored, it just isn’t as tight these days.”
The Institute of Clerks of Works and Construction Inspectorate of Great Britain (ICWCI), in its submission to the APPGEBE on the quality and workmanship of new housing, acknowledged that contractors are increasingly facing a quality/cost/time dilemma, which is exacerbated by the fall in skills and resource levels, knowledge gaps and general poor standards of workmanship.
The ICWCI recommends that a higher degree of regular quality monitoring via a qualified clerk of works should take place, but as builders continue to have targets and costs are squeezed then the likelihood is the situation will remain the same, or get worse.
Companies are responding to the challenge of upping quality, however. Crossrail, for example, insisted that all construction firms tendering for business on the project have a Chartered Quality Institute-qualified quality professional or equivalent in the ranks.
And house builder Willmott Dixon has introduced a raft of new quality control procedures (see box previous page).
There are also moves to “professionalise” quality by the adoption of systems such as the ISO 9000 quality management standard.
And one area that many feel could be raise quality standards across the industry is greater use of new technology and the engagement of offsite manufacturing.
By using offsite many think that a certain high-quality finish will be maintained throughout.
Ward says: “When you start talking about skills and lack of labour and falling quality in construction, then the use of offsite, digital technology and BIM are the solutions.
“Using new technology and having a highly efficient process in a controlled environment, such as offsite factories, should ensure the end product is of a consistent high quality.”
Wilmott Dixon stops the rot
House builder introduces quality managers
Residential developer and contractor Willmott Dixon has put in place measures to monitor and maintain quality across the group.
According to Martin Adie, operations director, the issue of quality is something that was recognised a few years ago, and since then a crack squad has been put in place to monitor and maintain standards across the whole company.
He explains: “We recognised this was an issue a few years ago and after consulting with clients, the feedback was that the quality of the product wasn’t good.
“So we opted to take a more engineered approach to quality management. Over the last three years this has seen a team of two grow to about 15 today. Each of the company’s nine businesses have appointed a quality delivery manager. Some have two.”
Among the main problems he says they identified were leaking roofs, poor-quality surface finishes, doors not fitting and also various of M&E issues.
Adie says: “The biggest cause of complaints was often M&E related and was because the end users weren’t trained to install and use complex M&E systems and buildings in general haven’t moved on that much in 20 years but M&E systems have.”
To address such issues Willmott Dixon introduced an onsite checklist, along with further training and it also started to engage meaningfully with its manufacturers.
“We took a step beyond our supply chain and started to engage manufacturers,” says Adie. “The typical example would be the flat roofs scenario. We began to say to them, how fed up are you with getting tarnished with this problem? Your product leaves in perfect condition but on site there was the problem.
“So we’ve been working with various companies such as British Gypsum on metal stud partitions, these are the issues that we are looking at as well as what we can do to work together to make sure the supply chain is capable.
“We’re also in communication with our supply chain to get them involved earlier and get them to understand we all want a quality product. Longer term we’re looking at the cost value debate with our consultants, and eventually with our clients.
“Quite frankly you get what you pay for, but you need everyone understanding and working towards the same standard.”