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The risk of overlapping the design

Squeezing down the time it takes to deliver projects by overlapping construction with design is fine in principle, and in many cases it works, says Mike Barker.

There are some excellent buildings and pieces of infrastructure on show to recommend it.

But overlapping design with construction is not always a success – too many projects have cost more and taken longer to deliver than expected. On complex projects concertinaing design and construction has to be managed very carefully.

If not, the quality of the delivery process and of the end result suffer.

The temptation to squeeze design begins right at the outset of the project, with project clients understandably wanting to see a return on investment as quickly as possible. Starting on site is a key indicator of progress, and there is often pressure to get a shovel into the ground as early as possible.
Sometimes the eagerness to get going means construction may actually start before the project team is really ready.

Being ‘really ready’ I believe involves taking detailed design further than is currently usual, before construction gets under way. Being given the time and scope to refine and expand details, properly co-ordinate structure, services, cladding and infrastructure and engage in real size mock-ups of key assemblies makes the difference between a project that goes OK, fingers crossed, and one that you know will flow smoothly to completion.

The industry uses mainly standardised components but assembles them to suit the different needs of each project. This gives not only variety but uniqueness in our built environment. But it also means that almost every project is built as though it is a prototype.

This situation demands good preparation. We need to be as ready – to know in detail what will be needed – as possible before getting stuck in. Thorough pre-planning and clarity of design information is essential if construction is to proceed efficiently and in a timely a manner.

Builders need to understand exactly what they must do to avoid mistakes and delays. Investing in developing a well resolved, high quality design promotes good quality construction and materials savings.

It cuts waste – every year the industry throws away 100 million tonnes of materials which are either unused or spoiled. And it greatly increases the probability of punctual completion. All of which equates to reduced overall cost.

None of this is new. Sir John Egan made essentially the same appeal a decade ago in Rethinking Construction. But the old failings – the old barriers to quality – persist.

There is a simple way of ensuring work goes as it should: Allow designers time and scope to develop thoroughly thought through designs and complete them to a stage where they are properly ready to be built.

This will require that more is spent up front. But it seems to be too often forgotten that design accounts for a small fraction of the overall project cost. A well developed design will help ensure that when the real money comes to be spent during construction there won’t be costly mistakes or delays.

Sort out construction details and co-ordination issues on paper, not on site. Experience shows all too clearly that the investment greatly increases certainty and the real quality of the outcome.

Mike Barker is head of buildings and infrastructure at Mott MacDonald.