Relaying quality in the construction industry: context and process

Don’t drop the quality baton! Achieving built quality depends on the first runner as much as the last, and the way that they work together


Not all buildings have to be capital A Architecture or turn a capital P Profit. After all, sometimes it makes perfect sense to build something imperfectly and at a financial loss, provided your reasons are strong enough.

It’s all about the context: industrial sheds, for example, need not be anything other than safe and functional. While they might hurt an architect’s sensibilities, their users will think they are of decent quality.

At other times, a building that is merely safe and functional absolutely will not pass muster if it’s the corporate headquarters of a multinational brand in the heart of London.

So, quality is undoubtedly a tractable concept, inextricably linked to time, cost and context. More than that, how you define it depends utterly on your point of view.

Why does this matter?

Well, if any team’s agreed aim is to achieve ‘quality’ without defining what this means, they will end up disagreeing and will more likely miss their aim.

Imagine a newly formed football squad composed of people who have never played together before. (This describes some project design teams.)

It’s the last few moments before kick-off. The manager, who barely knows the rules of football (read: client who has rarely built before), incites her players to win (read: achieve quality). With brave hearts and warm feelings of duty and honour, they cheer and jog onto the pitch, ready for battle. The manager congratulates herself: the players are all perfectly unified in a common goal.

All well and good. But if Barry’s idea of winning is to lose a few pounds, and Gary’s is to make new friends, and Harry’s is to save at least one shot, and Larry’s is to nutmeg as many opponents as possible with his silky Latin footwork, and so on, the chances of a win are slim.

On a construction project, and here I’m grossly over-simplifying, the client does not know how to run a construction project: they rely on their team to tell them.

Meanwhile, the architect’s idea of achieving quality – more over-simplification – is to win an architectural award. The contractor’s is to make a profit. The structural engineer’s is successfully making the building stand up. The cost consultant’s is to keep to budget. The project manager’s is to deliver on time. The agent’s is to have something that sells quickly and well.

And it’s not just in their deepest professional wishes that we find a mismatch. Often their contracts set them up with different objectives.

No wonder they argue. No wonder there are occasionally catastrophic building defects.

As any good Listenbacker will know, casting around for blame in these situations is probably pointless and counterproductive. The likelihood is that everyone’s intentions are legal and responsible and backed up by good will. If things go wrong, there are almost certainly external mitigating circumstances and shared blame.

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To be clear, architects don’t just want to win awards: they want to give the client what he or she wants. Same with all the other parties. And of course the client wants to direct the process better; after all, it costs them when things go wrong.

This is clearly a problem, but what’s the solution? Long-term, there is hope in the wholesale transformation of the construction sector with, for example, integrated project insurance, alliancing and design for manufacture and assembly.

But in the meantime, maybe the RIBA’s Client Liaison Group is offering a glimmer of hope. They are currently working with the RICS and CIOB on a chain of custody system for tracking quality through construction projects from inception to handover.

If they succeed, it should transparently draw attention to and record the decisions that have the potential to affect long-term quality. This should help parties joining the project and, eventually, end-user occupiers to understand their buildings better.

The details of how the system will work are not yet known. In fact, this ‘Building-in Quality’ initiative is just about to start a consultation phase.

Nonetheless, the idea of quality having a relay team of custodians is a pretty neat way to give it elbow room on the development agenda and keep it on the cost-benefit radar. And with a quality tracker certificate of some kind that people joining a project, or renting or buying the completed building ask to see, it holds real potential.

It just might help us to avoid a repeat of certain high-profile, catastrophic building failures over the past few years: a worthwhile ambition.

At Listenback, we love the recognition that good built quality is a process-driven team concern. We also love that difficult touchy-feely concepts like ‘successful teamwork’ get a practical framework in this initiative. After all, that’s what we’re all about too. If you interested in quality and the value of design, get involved.

Listenback is currently looking for practices willing to partner with us to test the feedback tool’s functionality.

If you are interested in participating, please get in touch with Matt Thompson at

#savvyarchitect #effortlessness #clientfeedback #clientexperience #racetothetop #clientsatisfaction #keyperformanceindicator #buildtrust #valueofdesign

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