Building a new standard for construction

There is a growing acceptance that the built environment sector needs to get its house in order to improve the safety and quality of building projects.

The pressure for change is coming from many different directions; concern for the health and safety of people who occupy the buildings, the financial viability of construction companies and from the insurance industry which has to pick up the tab when things go wrong.

Also looming on the horizon is the Building Safety Bill which is expected to become law in 2021. Although the Bill specifically relates to high rise residential buildings, most people in the construction industry see logic dictating that, in time it will be extended to all building projects.

This could see building regulations being enforced in law in the same way that health and safety regulations are. If this does happen, construction companies are going to have to take quality and risk management much more seriously.

Compliance and Audit Director for one of the UK’s major construction companies, Jon Adshead, has been close to the issue of quality management in the construction industry for most of his career.

At the moment the built environment sector is the same as any other, in that it relies on ISO 9001 for guidance on quality management. For Jon, the challenge with ISO 9001 is that it can be too generic and open to interpretation in the way that it’s used, especially when it comes to auditing.

“When you ask principal contractors, the big construction companies, if they are getting value out of ISO 9001 the answer is often ‘No’. I think we need a step change in way we use ISO 9001.”

For Jon it boils down to how companies interpret the standard. “We are a project-based industry but too often construction companies only look at ISO 9001 from a corporate perspective. If you use ISO 9001 from a project-based perspective as well, you have a better understanding of risk management and what is required to get a specific outcome.”

The answer for Jon, and many others in the industry, is to use ISO 9001 as a framework and create a standard specifically for the built environment sector. Models for this already exist in the aerospace, nuclear and rail industries where there is far more emphasis on safety and ‘getting it right first time’.

Jon sits on BSI’s technical committee responsible for quality management standards (QS/1) and is currently chair of the sub group (QS/1/4) responsible for drafting a new quality management standard which they hope will fill this gap for the construction industry.

Representation includes individuals from a number of professional institutes and industry bodies including: the Chartered Institute of Building, RIBA, the Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA), Construction Innovation Hub, the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), Construction Products Association, Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), the Institute of Environmental Management (IEMA) and the Institution of Occupational Health and Safety (IOSHH).

“We had a working group meeting in November and we are due to have our first technical committee meeting in the early part of this year. I’m very hopeful this will lead to positive change in the construction industry. We want to make sure it counts so we don’t miss this opportunity,” said Jon.

One factor which could have a major impact on improving the quality within the built environment sector is embedding the concept of ‘getting it right first time’.

Much valuable work in this area is being done by the Get It Right Initiative (GIRI), a group of UK construction industry experts, organizations and businesses actively improving productivity and quality in the sector by eliminating error.

GIRI is a broad church that has done a lot of good work highlighting waste, rework and avoidable errors in the construction industry. “GIRI has estimated that 15-20% of construction projects require rework, that’s horrendous,” said Jon. “With construction making up 8-10% of GDP it’s not good for business and it’s not good for the UK. If you have a look at costs post-contract, they are massive."

In Jon’s view much of this is down to the competitive nature of the industry. “Clients are keen on driving down the price through ‘value engineering’. It’s a big issue. They see a price and want a cheaper solution, so a lot of time and effort is spent substituting materials and this compromises the design solution.”

Jon sees a built environment-specific standard, based on ISO 9001 as a framework, as a possible solution to eliminating or at least reducing the amount of rework. He also believes it would improve the resilience of construction companies, reducing huge post-contracts costs.

“The principal construction companies all operate on a margin of around 2% so it doesn’t take too much going wrong for a business to fail, as has happened to established names like Carillion. Return is predicated on putting mistakes right, which is the wrong approach. We could increase our margins by a couple of percentage points with better risk management that avoids rework.

Outcome is predetermined by inputs, so we need to define the right inputs in a quality management system that gets it right first time instead of going back to put things right after completion.

Clients might not like it initially because there would be more upfront costs and they would have to invest more. However, in the long term it gives all parties more confidence in the finished project.”

Another sector with a vested interest in seeing rework reduced is the insurance industry, which often ends up footing the bill when things go wrong. A built environment-specific standard would give insurance companies some leverage and influence in improving quality management systems.

“I would like to see insurance companies specifying a new standard, otherwise construction companies tendering for the contract wouldn’t get the work – that would be a brilliant result. It would mean insurance companies paying out less and better-quality work being done.”


This article was originally published in BSI's Standards Outlook - Issue Six