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Project co-ordination – Clerk of works

Listen up
Les Pickford talks to Tony Hickton about co-ordination and co-operation on a construction project from a clerk
of works point of view
Co-ordination and co-operation are so
important because of the complexity and
diversity of the group of people that come
together to make the project/building team,” says
Tony Hickton, Managing Director of clerk of works
(CoW) practice Hickton. He believes these two
issues are the key to any successful project.
As the CoW role sits between the client, design
and contractor teams – and as Tony Hickton is a
board member of the Institute of Clerks of Works –
he’s in a good position to know. I wanted to find out
the CoW take on why projects experience problems.

Les Pickford: From a CoW point of view, what
delivers the best project co-ordination?

TH: Everyone on the team has a vested interest in
the success of a project. But as I mentioned, the
problem is that everyone on the site is under
pressure, both commercially and because of rigorous
end dates. They are rightly concerned with their own
responsibilities. However, a defect going unnoticed
can mushroom to where it becomes a much larger
problem further down the line. For example, fire
dampers in a ceiling void can be inserted badly or
not at all. This will cause major problems later in the
programme when access is needed to install or repair
them. Now everyone has to work around other
finished works, involving revisits by sub-contractors
to put right disturbed or damaged work.
LP: But isn’t that just the contractor’s problem?

Tony Hickton: When each member of the team
has a genuine willingness to listen to the other
professionals on site. All have a role in finding
solutions to maximise the benefit of the whole
project. Projects flounder when each discipline is
too focused on sorting out their own angle and the
end result suffers. All aspects of the build matter: the
budget, the programme, the aesthetics, the services
and the quality of the build, etc. Of course, everyone
on site needs to look out for their bit but they must
also recognise the vital role that other aspects will
play in the production of an end building the client
will love.
LP: The CoW is obviously on site to look at quality
matters, so how can they affect co-operation and
co-ordination?

“Projects
flounder when
each discipline
is too focused
on sorting out
their own ‘angle’
and the end
result suffers”
Tony Hickton

14

Construction Journal

TH: I believe we have become an industry of problem
solvers, but for the wrong reasons. Often, the site
team is too busy solving incorrect specification- or
defect-inflicted problems and how to get over them
rather than concentrating on what they should/want
to be doing. Management time is consumed in the
wrong areas and people are forever having to
compromise – it gets very frustrating and so conflict
arises within the team at all levels. The CoW acts as
the lynchpin between the other professionals and
provides early independent warning of problems
which can affect time, cost and quality. We find that
when specification and defects issues are proactively
considered, less time is wasted and frustration and
conflict are reduced. This means that everyone can
get on with the job they are actually being paid to
do, together as a team.
LP: But what can go wrong when there is a full
design and project team looking at the job in
great detail?

September-October 2010

TH: Yes and no. In the example I’ve just given,
the contractor would probably have to stand the
cost (maybe passing it on to one or another of
his sub-contractors), but any disruption means
reprogramming following trades and fitting the extra
work in around a new sequence. This is frustrating for
everyone, and remember that everyone still wants to
make the original end date for the works. Bringing
a project in on time is one of the crucial success
factors and so this is when the project can be at
serious risk of short cuts, which will become a
problem to everyone later.
LP: So how can this type of problem be avoided?
TH: By having the whole team dedicated to ‘getting
it right first time’. The CoW role in this is to bring
practical experience to the table. It is this, coupled
with the rest of the team’s skills, that will minimise
disruption and therefore frustration.
LP: But how does the client and/or the end user
benefit from this?
TH: The end users are the ones who have to live with
the building. They want the project to be completed
on time and within budget, but it will be the quality
that they will live with, day in day out, for the life of
the building. Unfortunately, it is usually the client who
has to suffer the cost, hassle and disruption if it isn’t
right later on. I oversee many forensic investigations
on ‘problem’ properties built over the last 20 years.
The stress on the client of trying to find out what is
wrong is significant. About 99% of these problem
buildings did not have a CoW on them originally and
interestingly I usually find that going back to practical,
sound building principles is the quickest way to find
where the root of the problem lies.

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LP: Give me an example of a project which illustrates
good co-operation.

LP: So is co-operation breaking down in these times
of budgetary uncertainty?
TH: In my opinion, no. But, of course, I can only
comment on the projects we are involved in. Budgets
are getting tighter and everyone still wants their slice
of the pie. However, we are fortunate to have longstanding relationships with many of the project teams
who have ‘been there and done that’ in the past and
so we know we are all in it together. What is
absolutely vital is that clients still get the mix of
expertise they need on their project. If everyone
works well together, and if it is built right first time,
it will never be built quicker or cheaper. Then clients
will still be able to afford a building that they can be
proud of, even in these lean times.
LP: So what is the most important lesson you’ve
learned when looking at the co-ordination of projects?
TH: The most important thing is that every discipline
is in place and co-ordinated so that the project has
all the aspects of expertise it needs to run smoothly.
These team members must then communicate
effectively so that all the usual problems that occur
during a build – because there are always unforeseen
issues – can be sorted quickly and effectively to
maximise everyone’s input. It is this level of cooperation that, in my opinion, delivers the best result
for the client and end users.

© Lewis & Hickey Architects

TH: One example, and I have many, was the new
student accommodation carried out at Sutton
Bonington Campus of Nottingham University recently.
The client is well known for having a rigorous attitude
to quality, but in these difficult times needed a costeffective solution to providing student bedrooms with
en suite facilities for this rural campus, which is the
home of Nottingham University’s Veterinary College.
A structural timber frame was suggested by the
design team for the first time for this client, with
lightweight bathroom pods installed by a multinational workforce, a variety of cladding formats, and
hard and soft landscaping to complement the rural
nature of the area.
An excellent relationship existed within the team
on what was essentially a design and build contract.
Problems were dealt with – as a team – to avoid
programme disruption, such as the requirement to
provide robust temporary escape routes through
the timber frame during construction. Quality on the
project was not compromised and the buildings
were completed on time, to budget and to a very
high standard. The co-ordination of effort and cooperation by all parties involved was essential in
making this happen.

The Sutton Bonington Campus of Nottingham University – with co-ordination and co-operation
the timber-frame buildings were completed on time, to budget and to a very high standard

Must do better
As is often the case with project-related issues,
saying that we ‘must do better’ at project coordination is easy to say but can be much more
difficult in practice (else why would we continue to
have projects that have time, cost and quality issues).
But while lots of attention is paid to problems with
drawings, schedules and budgets, etc, there is one
real culprit in poor project co-ordination: people. As
Tony Hickton says, “If communication is effective, and
there is willing co-operation on all sides, that’s when
you get a really successful construction project.”

Les Pickford is Editor of the Construction Journal
lpickford@rics.org

Related competencies include: T013, T016

September-October 2010

Construction Journal

15

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