Chairman’s Letter: “The Question of Quality”

Blog Author: Richard Saxon CBE

When a construction client signs a contract to deliver a project, they usually have three targets in mind: to deliver the required facility on budget, on time and to required quality. Cost and Time have proved relatively manageable, with objective evidence and increasingly clever tools with which to manage. Quality has never been so simple. There is a perceived degree of subjectivity about it and it is quite hard to monitor the progress of work to ensure that all standards are being maintained. The result has been that whenever there is pressure on cost or time, it’s usually quality that suffers. Value Engineering has become an ironic term as it usually means cost reduction by reducing the quality that delivers required value.

For that is what quality is. Qualities are the product characteristics which enable the delivery of the value which the client requires. Value definition is a subtle business, needing the client to state a proposition of why the project is needed and what outcomes it must deliver. What does good look like? That question will have answers in three main areas: functionality, impact and build quality. Functionality will define how the facility should work; impact will embrace what it means to owners, users and the wider public, including image, economic, social, environmental and cultural value. Build quality will set out the technical criteria that should go with all this, to achieve physical comfort and performance requirements and the planned operating and maintenance costs.

You will notice that I have not majored on architectural quality. It’s just one of the several quality strands in the overall mix. Different projects will have varied priorities. As an architect, I worry about my profession’s over-emphasis on aesthetics and under-emphasis on practical qualities. It’s one reason why architects have mostly been moved from the central role of ensuring project quality. When I started in the profession it was normal to use a traditional contract, with the architect standing between the client and contractor to be the arbiter of progress and quality. Clerks of Works watched the daily progress of the job, demanding rework when things were not as they should be. Progressively this independent role has been downgraded, to give contractors a single line of responsibility to clients. Contractors have also argued that quality supervision should be left to them, as it is in manufacturing where quality systems enable very high reliability.

Now we have the recent failure of the PFI schools in Edinburgh and the awful disaster at the Grenfell Tower, both drawing attention to the serious lack of quality control in today’s industry. Reports on both events, by John Cole¹ and Dame Judith Hackitt², draw attention to the reality. The quality of new houses is also under fire from an All-Party Parliamentary Group³. There are many issues to face as a result, but one that has already been looked at is the management of quality in projects.

The presidents of the RIBA, RICS and CIOB signed a memorandum of understanding in March 2018 to work together to tackle the quality issue. The result is an initiative called Building in Quality which is now out for ‘beta testing’. A system has been published for firms to trial and feedback from the trials will lead to a final product later in 2019.

The product is the Quality Tracker4. This spreadsheet-based tool follows the stages in the RIBA Plan of Work, asking questions against a series of headings relatedto risks to quality. Users of the tool, client, project lead, design lead and main contractor, agree to follow the routine of assessing the state of these risks at each RIBA Stage, marking up the chart with green, amber or red colours to denote ‘yes’, ‘partly’ and ‘no’ answers to the risk questions. This RAG ‘traffic light’ approach seemed to the working group to be simple to use but effective in flagging concerns. The Quality Tracker is intended to be shared across the team as each new joiner arrives.

The scheme depends on the integrity of its custodians to be effective and there is much to learn about how actions will lead to quality experienced in use. Occupier actions, beyond the team’s control, are not factored into this approach. Nevertheless, The Quality Tracker seems worth a try, to help ensure what can be called ‘legacy quality’, the long-term asset strength which delivers the original client value proposition.


1 John Cole’s report on Edinburgh Schools:

2 Dame Judith Hackitt’s report after the Grenfell Fire:

3 APPG report on housing quality:

4 Building in Quality tool: