How is it that many beautiful buildings that we admire from the 1960’s had minimal documentation but were built faithfully to the original design, but so many of today’s buildings are a far fetch from the architect’s vision?

Somehow our contemporary designs get changed, details get dumbed down and the overall quality is ordinary at best. Building procurement has changed, and not for the better; not in a single catastrophic moment, more like death by a thousand cuts.

Over the last 40 years three changes have occurred: codes became more complex and approvals more vexatious; the quality of building construction deteriorated; and architects no longer controlled the process.

We’ll examine that last issue today, and the other two over the next weeks.

Traditionally architects would manage the entire design and building process, but as modern buildings became bigger, in size and complexity, architects sometimes failed to coordinate the documentation which, combined with creative but untested ideas, led to construction difficulties.

Builders increasingly raised variations to cover cost overruns, arguments ensued, problems spiralled, increasingly enmeshed in a feedback loop: and failures became a self-fulfilling inevitability. Architects lost the confidence of their clients, forcing the financiers to demand a better way to ‘manage the process’.

Early on this gave rise to the Construction Manager (CM) whose use of the modern word ‘manager’ struck back at the perception of architects as ‘artisans/artists’ from an outdated guild. Encouraged by the possibilities of better control over construction costs, clients now wanted management of the whole building delivery process; the fully blown Project Manager (PM) was born.

An arriviste in the design process, the times suited PM’s given a push for more efficiency and accountability generally in the early eighties. Given that cost control was at the heart of this change, PM’s came not from design, but from the building, engineering and quantity surveying professions. Not that they had more proficiency at cost control than architects, they just said they did.

PM’s asserted that they could better control costs if contractors signed ‘design and construct’ (D+C) contracts, rather than the traditional process of architects, and their independent consultants, fully documenting the building. In so doing they wanted to intervene earlier in the process, and gradually the architect’s control of design was whittled away.

Architects protested that the builders, closely aligned to PM’s, were profit gouging, and that the PM’s did nothing that they couldn’t do. However, once PM’s had their foot in the door, clients were seduced by this new ‘super consultant’ who claimed a unique ability to handle the increasingly complex structures and services, and the consequent increase in consultants. 

Project managers had management speak: linguistic gems such as ‘thinking outside the box’, ‘foregrounding delivery’ and ‘key performance indicators’ KPI’s (costs were always KPI number one, two and three). But ‘value engineering’ was the favourite. Clearly oxymoronic it has nothing to do with the science at the heart of real engineering, and it hardly delivers ‘value’, rather just plain old cost cutting.

Cynics would say that PM’s are the living embodiment of Oscar Wilde’s observation that they know the price of everything but the value of nothing. Or to adapt the saying by Robert Townsend in Up the Organization, PM’s “are people who borrow your watch and tell you what time it is, and then walk off with the watch”.

But by the time the bicentennial projects of 1988 were being rolled out, the battle for control of the design process was lost, and PM’s were the norm. Very little analysis of their comparative effectiveness has been done, except for some extraordinary data that can be found in the long forgotten 2011 Orgill report into the BER school construction program, part of the Rudd government’s GFC response.

Widely expected to highlight government malfeasance, two observations stood out to architects: in the larger states, NSW and Victoria, a surprisingly high proportion of the monies, in some cases up to 40 percent, was spent on administration (read PM’s) and not construction.  And those states had the poorest building quality. 

By contrast the WA Education Department, which still followed the traditional route of using architects to head up the procurement process, had the lowest external costs, the best time management and the best build quality. But sadly, that didn’t get the press airplay that the ‘rorts’ of project management did.

The issues of complexity and untested technology, integral to the rise of the PM, also lie at the heart of green design: chilled beams, natural ventilation, PV’s and batteries etc.  Even though the green agenda is strong, many clients are encouraged by their PM’s to be cautious about such innovation and apply ‘value engineering’.  Simply put, it is easier to say you are going to deliver a brown building, and do it, than to promise an ‘ultra green’ building and fall a few stars short.  

Even if the client can be persuaded to follow a green agenda the process may be fraught.  The number of ‘expert’ sustainability consultants has rapidly increased in the last 10 years: mechanical, hydraulic and electrical consultants offer specialist services, energy and green assessors offer advice and star ratings, and there are some architectural practices that specialise in ‘green’.  All of which can be confusing and conflicting and offers lots of opportunities for the PM’s to divide and rule, and ‘value manage’ out some of the initiatives.

Given that most commercial buildings have traditionally been leased out to tenants who pay the ongoing costs it has not been in the owners’ interest to undertake green innovation. It is not insignificant that the early 5- and 6-star Green Star buildings were almost all developer/owner occupied: think Lend Lease at 30 The Bond and Stockland’s HQ in Sydney, or CH2 and NAB in Melbourne or SA Water in Adelaide. 

Despite the Green Building Council championing projects such as the remarkable 1 Bligh St Sydney, far more ‘brown’ than green buildings are still being built; and we can trace the root cause back to PM’s giving advice to corporate clients making them very nervous about spending too many ‘greenbacks’.

Architects and PM’s now have a fraught relationship: one former describes the latter as “someone who will promise you a baby in one month using 9 women”. Parallel to the four-decade rise of the PM have been two other issues: increasing complexity and confusions in the approvals process; and a decline in build quality.  Both subjects of future columns.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW.

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