Most of the time, the construction of an architect-designed project proceeds according to plan. The construction documentation is clear and free of ambiguity. Construction unfolds on time. The trades perform their work skilfully and conscientiously. There are few surprises, be they physical or financial. The builder, owner and architect maintain a positive working relationship.
Sometimes though, construction does not proceed according to plan. Through negligence, disagreement or accident, a project is derailed. The derailment might last a moment in time, soon forgotten, or it might endure the entire project, poisoning both the process and relationships.
Over the career of an architect, we all experience and survive the occasional derailment. They are stressful, sometimes expensive and always fractious. They test the good intentions of everyone involved.
What follows is the 1st of eight disaster lessons from site, extracted from my own hard-won experience, where I ask what went wrong and review what I changed to prevent it from happening again.
Prior to getting on site, prior even to signing the building contract, the builder started making my life difficult. He provided insufficient explanation of his tender breakdown. He objected to provisions in the standard ABIC building contract that he had known about since the beginning of the tender period. He developed an aggressive attitude towards me. He became hard to reach by phone.
These isolated events came to a head on the evening the builder and owner were due to sign the building contract, where a shouting match erupted over eleventh hour changes the builder wanted to include. The documents were left unsigned when he stormed out in a rage.
What happened next
Despite the warning signals, I met with the builder to smooth things over. He had two important qualities that lulled me into overlooking his confrontational attitude: he had previously worked with the owner’s brother, who regarded him highly; and his tender was substantially less than the only other builder who tendered. I knew that rejecting him would mean re-tendering and was worried I would not find another builder who could match his price.
I felt at the time that I had no other choice but to plough in and hope I could manage him. And so, to my long-lasting regret, I recommended that the owner sign a building contract with him.
The subsequent construction process was a disaster, easily the worst experience on site I have ever endured. The builder bullied and abused me, lied to me incessantly, made me dread each visit to site, and turned what should have been a joyous period into an anxiety-filled one.
Why I think it happened
The builder had an old-school approach to the construction process, right down to his poor paperwork, condescending nature and "She'll be right, mate" responses to tricky questions. He felt his years of experience earned him the right to run the project however he liked, and my youth equaled incompetence. His apprenticeship-based education did not prepare him well for the information age and importance of paper trails, leaving him distrustful of any form of written communication. Whenever I challenged him on any point, he became defensive and unresponsive.
The lesson I learnt
Before the building contract is signed, a builder should still be trying to sell himself to the owner and architect. He has not yet won the job, so it stands to reason that he must still try to woo us. He should be at his most accommodating, personable and enthusiastic. A builder who makes life difficult at first contact will not get any easier, and is only likely to become more difficult, to manage once he has safely won the job.
The lesson I learnt was that a good relationship between owner, architect and builder is essential from the very beginning. If the warning bells start ringing before the contract is signed, we should not be afraid to re-tender.